Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Everything happens for a reason

April 14, 2015
Dear Jacqueline Knirnschild:
Thank you for submitting an application for the 2015-16 National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program. The NSLI-Y team sincerely appreciates the time and effort you gave to the application and interview process. Unfortunately, you were not selected for a NSLI-Y scholarship. 

The moment I read that e-mail 2 weeks ago, my heart dropped and I immediately burst out in hysteric sobs. I called my boyfriend and cried uncontrollably to him for a good hour. I was destroyed. I wasn't good enough. I had been rejected. I had lost the opportunity to achieve fluency in a critical language. I had lost the opportunity to take a gap year as an exchange student in South Korea or Morocco. The dreams I'd been imagining since the start of my senior year suddenly vanished. (Or at least that's what I thought..)

Alright, hold on one sec, I'm going to rewind a little bit. So I'm a senior at Brunswick High School but I haven't been living in Ohio my entire life. I was born in Pittsburgh and before 1st grade my family and I had moved multiple times from Michigan to Ohio to Minnesota before finally settling down in Brunswick, Ohio shortly after I turned 7. I finished elementary school in Ohio and then my dad got offered to work on a project in Perth, Western Australia for 2 years and we moved a month later! I then spent 8th and 9th grade living back home in Brunswick. Sophomore year was my next adventure - I spent the school year as an exchange student in Italy with AFS! But I'm not going to tell you any more about my experiences in Italy right now, if you're interested check out my old blog One Blonde Loose In Italy !

After returning from Italy I readjusted to life back in small-town Ohio; I reunited with old friends and saw my family again for the first time in 10 months. It was nice being home but by the end of my junior year I began yearning for another adventure. I spent a lot of my time researching different colleges and universities all over the U.S. and even some in other countries. I discovered that my dad's alma mater, the University of Mississippi, had the best Chinese Language Flagship program in the country along with an excellent Institute for International Studies and Honors College. Encouraged by the director of the Flagship program, I decided to participate in the Chinese StarTalk program over the summer. Basically StarTalk was a month-long program sponsored by the State Department for high school students to live in the Ole Miss dorms, take Chinese classes and get college credit for a month. While there I spoke with one of my classmates about my experiences in Italy with AFS and she told me she was hoping to take a gap year after high school as an exchange student with either AFS, NSLI-Y, YES or CBYX. I was familiar with all those programs and told her that I was pretty sure they were only available to high school students not graduates. She argued that I was wrong and recent graduates who were not older than 18 could apply. I skeptically looked online only to discover that she was right. I stayed up all night poring over the numerous study abroad programs and scholarships offered by the State Department. I had always thought about what I would do differently if I were able to go back in time and re-experience life as an exchange student and now that chance was actually a reality! Once again the country did not matter to me, I simply craved a life-changing experience and to become fluent in another language. I called my parents and told them everything; they said they thought it was a good idea but I would be responsible for paying the tuition and everything else. For that reason, I knew that I had to apply and win one of the full-tuition scholarships. After more research I found out that most of the scholarships required you to be only 18 and a half months old or younger at the start of the program. My birthday is in October so I would be nearly 19 by the time I started my gap year in September 2015 thus prohibiting me from applying to YES and CBYX. The only option left was NSLI-Y.

As soon as I returned from Mississippi, I started filling out the NSLI-Y application. The National Security Language Initiative (NSLI-Y) provides merit-based scholarships for high school students and recent high school graduates to learn less commonly taught languages in overseas immersion programs. Although I want to major in Chinese in college,  I was hoping to achieve fluency in another language during my gap year. I gravitated toward Arabic, Korean and Hindi because those languages and cultures seem so unique and vastly different to western culture. I finished the whole application in a couple of weeks because I was just so excited! I looked up statistics online and found out that the acceptance rate for NSLI-Y was only 15%, but I didn't let that discourage me at all. I was so confident with my essays and application as a whole.

NSLI-Y informs "semi-finalists" in December and then conducts interviews in January and narrows it down to the "finalists" in April. On December 1st, I received an e-mail telling me that I was chosen as a semi-finalist. I was ecstatic, I even cried some tears of joy! Then I had my interview over the phone mid-January and I thought that it went really well! Call me cocky but I was just so optimistic and sure that I would be a finalist.

Okay, I need to tell a quick side story first before I continue! So in the end of January, I went over my boyfriend, Mihai's house and he told me that he had applied to the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) and made it past the first round of eliminations. If you remember, back in the summer I also wanted to apply to CBYX but I was too old to meet the age requirement. CBYX provides full merit scholarships for students to immerse themselves in German culture by living with a host family and attending a local high school. I was so angry at him that he didn't tell me he applied! I kept yelling at him and hitting him with pillows! I had told him all about my decision to apply to NSLI-Y and talked about it constantly and he never felt the need to interject and say that he had also applied for an almost identical exchange program... Mihai said that he didn't want to tell me because he applied on a whim and didn't think he would be accepted at all because he lacked extracurriculars and a 4.0 GPA. He said he would be embarrassed to tell me that he got rejected. I told him that was beyond stupid because I would be there for him regardless of the outcome and I had a good feeling he would be accepted anyway because he's amazing!

And I was right! In March, Mihai got a phone call that he was chosen as a finalist for the CBYX program!! He was so shocked; he really did not expect being accepted at all! It was such a wonderful surprise for him. I'm so happy for Mihai because he really deserves it. He's going to do a fantastic job learning the language, culture, making life-long friends and representing the U.S. in Germany! :)

In the months leading up to April, Mihai and I had gotten more serious in our relationship and had begun thinking about our future together. When we first started dating at the beginning of our senior year we both assumed that would we just break up once it came time to go off to college (or other countries in our case). We both had such ambitious plans to travel in our futures and felt that it would be unrealistic and impossible to try and stay together through it all. However, then as time went on Mihai began looking into going to college at Ole Miss with me. We still had always accepted the fact that we would be apart for one year. He would either be in Germany or if he wasn't accepted to CBYX, he would do his freshman year at Cleveland State and I would either be in abroad with NSLI-Y or at Ole Miss. Either way we were going to be separated. We decided that we could handle a long distance relationship because neither of us could imagine breaking up. The thought of being apart for so long definitely dispirited us; it was going to be really hard. We would miss each like crazy but we knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel; if we could get through this year, we could get through anything and we'd have 4 years together at Ole Miss.

Anyway, I've finally gotten up-to-date. So back to April 14th, 2015, they day I got the rejection e-mail from NSLI-Y. I was crushed. I have never wanted anything so bad in my entire life. My year abroad in Italy with AFS had left me eager for more. At times I even questioned my decision to go to Italy because I desired to be somewhere even more exotic to me. I longed for a remote Asian village, a desert in the Middle East or an overcrowded city in India. When I applied to NSLI-Y, I knew the country options would quench my thirst for an uncomfortable amount of extreme culture shock. I wanted to be an alien challenged to integrate into the absolute unknown. I wanted to reflect on my own beliefs and lifestyle from a completely different perspective. I wanted to meet remarkable people that would impact my life. I wanted to greet my host family with open arms and eventually become their American daughter. I wanted to share my enthusiasm, optimism and love for adventure with future friends. I wanted to learn a challenging critical language such as Korean or Arabic. I wanted to read books, understand college lectures and haggle with storekeepers in a language that was once completely foreign to me. I wanted to be chosen as a NSLI-Y finalist in order to accomplish all of these goals. But stuff happens and you don't always get what you want.

Mihai, my parents and friends were all perplexed as to why I didn't get accepted. Everyone asked me what reasons NSLI-Y gave to reject me. I was the ideal candidate, they all said. One friend encouraged me to e-mail NSLI-Y back demanding an explanation for their decision. Mihai was so upset that he looked up NSLI-Y's phone number and almost called to yell at them! I too, was livid and baffled by my rejection. If I didn't get chosen as a finalist, then who did? However, when it boils down to it, none of that matters. Why I didn't get accepted is beside the point. I'm not going to dwell on the fact that I simply did not meet the criteria NSLI-Y was looking for. Obsessing over what could've been is pointless.

After the initial shock, panic and devastation of not being accepted wore off I began thinking more logically and reasonably. Although I had committed to Ole Miss, the directors already knew of my intentions to defer and begin college a year later in 2016. Was there any way that I could still take a gap year and travel? Were there any other study abroad programs out there still accepting applicants? Any volunteer programs? Anything that would allow me to accomplish the same goals I aspired to with NSLI-Y? I wouldn't let one failure hold me back from achieving all of my ambitious dreams that I was aiming for. In the words of my wonderful boyfriend, "You can't let failure break your motivation and bring you down because then there really is no good that will come from it and that's all it will be - a failure, but if you take this failure and turn it into opportunity and adventure then  you'll never linger over what could've been". Just because NSLI-Y didn't accept me didn't mean there weren't other opportunities out there waiting for me. The rejection made me more determined than ever to succeed. After sobbing to my parents over the phone I calmed down and proposed my idea to still take a 9 month gap year from August 2015-May 2016. They encouraged me to go online and research all the different possibilities.

I was babysitting when I got the e-mail from NSLI-Y so right after I went over to Mihai's house and we googled volunteer and study abroad programs. To our dismay many of the programs were extremely expensive and not something I would be able to afford. I knew a girl who took a gap year so I decided to message her and ask for advice. Claire had deferred from the University of Denver for a year to backpack around Europe and volunteer in Guatemala.  She was extremely helpful and provided me with websites like Workaway, Student Universe and International Volunteer HQ. Workaway is a website that sets up travelers and people who are looking for help with a wide range of work and activities. For example, a family in Belgium may post that they are looking for someone strong in gardening to help them work on their local farm. In exchange for farm work, the traveler would be given a place to stay and food. Student Universe is a website that allows you to put in flexible dates for flights and then it lists the cheapest flights available. International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) is an affordable volunteer program that has opportunities in numerous countries for up to 6 months. I was amazed by all of these options available to me for my gap year! I stayed up all night and decided that I really wanted to volunteer in Madagascar, Ghana or the Philippines! I couldn't wait to tell Mihai about all the information I had found. The next afternoon we spent a couple hours researching flight prices, analyzing all the countries offered by IVHQ and reading about backpacking in Europe. Mihai was just as excited as I was to see where my upcoming year would take me! The thought never even occurred to us that we might end up being in the same country..

I also asked my friends around the world if I could stay with them. I contacted everyone: my childhood friend Bek in Perth, Western Australia, Arda, my previous host brother in Istanbul, Federica and Silvia, both close friends from northern Italy, Sabrina and Gabriela, my host sister and mom from southern Italy, Paula, my close friend in Germany and Victoria, my close friend in Denmark. All answered yes, they would love for me to come stay with them! However, most people said they could only host me for about a month maximum due to school and work obligations. I was surprised by the overwhelmingly welcoming attitudes! It made me realize how lucky I am to have met so many sincerely warm-hearted, wonderful people in my life.

Out of everyone, Paula was the most enthusiastic for me to come and stay with her and her family in Germany. Paula was also an exchange student in Turin, Italy with AFS from 2012-2013 so that is how we became friends. She lives in a small city in central-western Germany and told me that I could use their house as a "home-base" from which I could travel and backpack around Europe as much as I wanted! Her parents were happy to host me and her dad even said he thought he could find me a position as an English teaching assistant at her school! Paula and I were both beyond thrilled by the idea of living together for a year!

I actually became overwhelmed by all of the possibilities available to me. Did I want to volunteer in Ghana or did I want to stay in Germany with Paula? I could also stay with friends in Italy, Denmark, Istanbul and Australia? I could stay with people seeking work through Workaway? Ahhhh there was so many different options; I couldn't make up my mind! I decided that I wanted to volunteer in Ghana for half the time and then spend the other half in Europe staying mainly with Paula but visiting other friends as well. I got out the calculator and made sure all of this would be possible financially. I had about $5000 saved up and aimed to make another thousand over the summer. Adding together the price of the volunteer program, flights and spending money I realized I would be living on an extremely tight budget if I went to both Ghana and Europe in one year. Although taking trains in Europe is relatively cheap, I worried that I wouldn't have enough money to backpack around much if I had to pay for the volunteer program in Ghana as well. Also, more and more opportunities in Europe kept popping up. Victoria, my friend in Denmark said I could stay with her for a month, my parents and brother were thinking about coming and picking me up for a 3 week vacation around Europe, my friends in Italy begged me to come stay with them all year and Paula's family offered to take me on trips to major German cities. Only half a year in Europe didn't seem like enough time anymore. And only half a year in Ghana didn't seem like much either; I would rather just do the Peace Corps. later in life and spend 2 years volunteering instead of just 4 months. For all these reasons I ultimately decided to cut Ghana out and just spend the entire 9 months in Europe!

I'm not sure if you remember but Mihai is also going to Germany next year with CBYX. When I told him about my final decision to stay with Paula and backpack around Europe he was elated. Granted Mihai hasn't gotten his host family information yet so we could be living on complete opposite sides of Germany but it doesn't matter; just the fact that we'll be living in the same country is surreal. No longer will we have to live across the world from each other for an entire year; we will most likely be able to see each other at least every couple months. It is the most unexpected and amazing coincidence ever. Neither of us can get over how perfectly everything worked out.

It really is true that when one door closes so many more open with even more opportunities. I never imagined that next year I would be reuniting with all my old friends or backpacking around Europe or living in Germany or spending time with the guy I love. If I had been selected as a NSLI-Y finalist, I would've missed out on all these amazing opportunities that will surely impact my life greatly. Everything really does happen for a reason.

Well that's pretty much the digested version of my entire life story! This blog is going to serve as my outlet for the next year to share my adventures, thoughts, pictures and give travel advice to anyone hoping to also take a gap year! I really hope you'll enjoy reading about my experiences as much as I'm going to enjoy writing about them :) Oh and also be sure to check out Mihai's blog about his upcoming year in Germany with the CBYX program!

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