Life in the Oklahoma Room (PDO)

Здравейте! Hello! I leave for Bulgaria in 62 days! What is happening!

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and excited at the moment. Not only because never before have two months seemed simultaneously so long and so short, but because I have just returned from the YES Abroad National Pre-Departure Orientation (PDO) in Washington, D.C. Over the past three days I had the chance to meet YES Abroaders from all over the country — including the three wonderful girls who are headed to Bulgaria with me — as we participated in discussion sessions and activities, got advice from YES Abroad alumni, and were given the honor of visiting several government institutions. It was a wonderful experience and I wish everyone the best of luck as they embark on their adventures.

One of my goals in starting this blog was to provide an informative and reassuring resource for future exchange students. As such, I’m going to take you all through each day of PDO and give what advice I can for making the most of the experience.

First piece of advice: Don’t have to fly from vacation in Hawaii straight to D.C. because you will be exhausted and deeply confused about what time zone you’re in. This is unlikely to apply to anyone besides me, but I thought I’d throw it in for good measure. This unusual set of circumstances made day 1 a bit of a mental challenge, but enjoyable all the same. After arriving in D.C., meeting the YES Abroad staff and other participants at the airport, and heading to the National 4-H Center (a facility designed for events like this) in nearby Maryland, we jumped right into the learning portion of the weekend.

This is where the title of this entry comes into play: The room we used for the majority of PDO was called the Oklahoma Room and it became our home base (or holding facility, depending on what hour it was) for the entire weekend. Allow me to paint a picture: Low ceilings, fluorescent lighting only slightly softened by the cream walls and floor, no windows. At one end, a projector, screen, podium, and flip chart faced the 12 round tables covered in white tablecloths, each with a small sign featuring a country name and flag. As time progressed, the relative dreariness was brightened by enthusiastic posters based around each session’s theme, made by the AFS representatives Allen and Parker. These, however, were not yet hanging when we entered for the Opening Session at 6:30 pm on Saturday night.

The first of many, this session consisted of introductions to the staff of the various implementing organizations  (AFS, American Councils, and AMIDEAST), an overview of the program’s history and policies, rules for the weekend, and our first encounter with the YES Abroad “Toolbox”, a collection of skills and qualities which we are to use to ensure the most successful exchange possible. There was then a brief Alumni Panel in which Parker from AFS asked the alums, who were there to serve as group leaders for their respective countries, what YES Abroad means to them. The answers were as heartfelt and lovely as you would expect and definitely started the weekend off on the right foot. The final portion of the evening was a session called “Mind the (Culture) Gap!” in which we learned about the program’s expectations regarding our role as citizen diplomats, both in our host countries and online, and a review of the Department of State’s expectations for us. So, you know, super low-pressure stuff. By this point it was 10:30 pm and I was about to fall asleep at my table, so, after introducing myself to my roommates, I climbed into bed intent on waking up as well-rested and ready to go as possible.

Day 2 was the hard one. From 8 am to 6:15 pm (excepting a short lunch break) we were in the Oklahoma Room doing our best to absorb the gallons of information the remarkably resilient staff was pouring into our heads. We had sessions on everything from values and culture to LGBTQ issues abroad to resolving conflicts with our host families to basic health and safety questions. It was a long, long day but also deeply valuable. Though I was already familiar with many of the activities and concepts covered thanks to my work as an AFS volunteer I nevertheless appreciated the reminder, especially since I’m now on the other side of it. My advice for this day of PDO is two-fold: Take notes because otherwise you will forget the details, and bring snacks. I feel like that actually applies to most things in life.

After dinner, we broke up into organization-specific sessions — I got to move to a new room! The America Room. I’m sensing a theme. Though sponsored by the U.S. State Department and managed by American Councils, the actual implementation of YES and YES Abroad is divided between several exchange organizations based on countries where they already have programs in place. For the Balkan YES countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, and Macedonia) as well as Senegal, our implementing organization is American Councils itself. During this session, we discussed the structure of the American Councils chain of communication and who we should contact about what once we’re in-country, rules regarding travel, family visits, etc., and then the Bulgaria group split off to fill out some visa paperwork in preparation for our visit to the embassy the next day. Here’s where my next piece of advice comes in: If you’re supposed to bring your passport, do. I forgot mine and while it was an easily solved problem (my dad shipped it overnight and Adam from American Councils gave it to the embassy today), it wasn’t exactly the impression I wanted to make.

At the American Councils session, I also found out what school I’ll be attending next year! It’s called 18th School Sofia “William Gladstone”. It’s a public school on a language track, meaning it has a strong focus on international learning and offers courses in English, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, French, and Japanese! I don’t yet know what my schedule will look like, but I’m very excited that I might have the chance to learn a little bit of several new languages. In addition to Bulgarian, of course. The school has students in grades 1-12 and about 2300 students in total, making it one of the largest schools in Bulgaria. Hopefully I’ll learn more specifics about what I’ll be doing there soon!

The last full day of PDO was definitely the most exciting. It began with me getting to sleep in an extra half-hour (if you know me, you know that I value sleep more than pretty much everything) and only got better from there. After breakfast, the Bulgaria group, accompanied by Adam, set off for the Bulgarian embassy to submit our visa paperwork and do our visa interviews. Everything went completely smoothly (the interview consisted entirely of the guy working the desk asking us if we had any questions about Bulgaria) and then we ended up getting to go inside the embassy itself to speak with the country’s congressional liaison! This was a truly incredible experience. He listened to our questions carefully and was very candid with his answers. We spent probably 45 minutes talking about the relationship between Bulgaria and the other Balkans as well as its relationship with the U.S. and his perspective on how recent political events such as the U.S. election and Brexit will affect the world going forward. It was a fascinating and surreal conversation. From there we made a brief visit to the American Councils office before walking to meet the other country groups for lunch at some food trucks near our next stop — the U.S. Department of State!

I imagine there are few things more nerve-wracking than being in a U.S. federal building knowing that you are being watched by both high-level security and people who told the American government that they should spend 1000s of dollars to send you to a foreign country for a year. Despite the immense pressure, I still managed to enjoy the visit ;) We got to hear from and ask questions to Acting Assistant Secretary of State Mark Taplin, who was wonderfully welcoming and kind, and then broke into groups to talk with public diplomacy officers who specialize in our region. I learned quite a bit about how the State Department sees YES Abroad’s role in its diplomatic efforts and about the relationships between the Balkan countries, as well as about other issues of the region. For instance, I hadn’t previously realized that Bulgaria is in a slightly different position than Bosnia and Herzegovina or Macedonia because it is already an EU Member State and a member of NATO. Because of this and other political and societal progress, the U.S. government, according to the diplomat we spoke with, sees Bulgaria as a “model Balkan” and hopes that the two countries can work together to help the other Balkans follow Bulgaria’s example. I was in complete culture and politics nerd heaven during the entire discussion.

Following our visit to the State Department, we said goodbye to the YES Abroad India students who were heading to the airport to begin their year! Their nervous anticipation was contagious and made me all the more excited for my own departure at the end of August. The rest of us walked to the Lincoln Memorial where we had about 40 minutes of free time before driving back to the 4-H Center for dinner. The evening consisted of a session about the Capstone Project (which I will surely discuss in a later post) and a final Alumni Panel. For this one, as opposed to the first, we were able to submit our own questions. This made it feel much more personal and interactive — it was actually one of my favorite PDO events! Afterwards, I went back to my room — now much more empty as two of my three roommates were India students — to pack my things and go to bed.

The final day was brief: We brought our luggage down to the Oklahoma Room before breakfast and then had one final session. It was essentially just the staff reminding us of the most important lessons we had learned and saying goodbye. Then the first bus to the airport loaded up and those of us on the second hung around for a few hours before we too began our journeys home.

The motivation I feel to think all Bulgaria, all the time after PDO will probably fade, but for now it’s a lot of fun! I’m beginning to realize just how huge of a thing this really is. I will never be able to express my full gratitude to the U.S. State Department, the YES Abroad team at American Councils, and my parents for allowing me to have this incredible opportunity. Thank you also to all of you, my amazing friends, family, and readers, for joining me on this adventure! There will be many updates coming your way as departure day draws near. Until next time, Довиждане!

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