My yali fellowship experience in the USA

My YALI Fellowship experience – 2019 YALI MWF [1st part]

Hey, welcome to my blog, this is Sitraka, YALI MWF 2019 alumnus from Madagascar. I am a digital marketing specialist and I followed the civic leadership track at beautiful Indiana University Bloomington. With the YALI fellowship, I spent one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences in my life so far. I would like to share with you what I’ve been through. 

As a digital marketing specialist, I mostly write in English but I have to say English is only my 3rd language after Malagasy and French. Bear with me then if you find expressions or grammar structures that could’ve been expressed in a better way 😉 

In a previous article, I shared how I became a YALI MWF fellowWe were 11 selected fellows from Madagascar alongside with over 700 YALI from all across Africa. As we departed from Madagascar, we first stopped over South Africa, in Johannesburg. We could already see some other fellows from neighboring countries such as Lesotho, Zimbabwe or Botswana. Their YALI tee-shirts were noticeable enough, their traditional dresses and sometimes their hats. 

Yali fellowship - Fellows from Madagascar

Out of my comfort zone with the YALI fellowship

Immediately, I felt uncomfortable. Coming from a Malagasy/French speaking country, I first noticed the sweet South-African accent when we arrived at the airport. To be honest, I started feeling uncomfortable, and in some extent had a complex of inferiority because I knew I’d struggle with the English language. I’ve traveled and lived overseas since 2007. I lived in countries where I used mostly English (China, Germany), but this would be my first time in a pure English-speaking environment. I cannot imagine some of my country mates’ feelings. It was their first time taking a plane but also their first time traveling outside their Island.

We stopped over Munich, Germany. As we boarded to Denver, USA, I not only felt so short (173 cm, 5”6) compared to some teenagers, I still didn’t really get used to the American accent. 

We arrived in Denver, USA at 10:10 pm, I couldn’t help but writing down my feelings at that time. How would you feel if you dreamt about this moment for a long time before? 

As we took a flight correspondence, I saw an American girl rushing to a corner, rubbing her hands with what’s going to be a little ritual to me: the public hand sanitizer. I would see them later in almost every public bathroom. My first thought was: this is really the first economic power in the world. How come they have this in such abundance, just everywhere? You might laugh but if you enter a public bathroom in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, 9 times out of 10, you wouldn’t even find toilet paper in there, let alone a public hand sanitizer!

Hand sanitizer

Would people even understand me?

I have an accent. My big concern was: “would people understand me?”. As we launched the first Toastmasters club in Madagascar, I shouldn’t be that self-conscious anymore. Yet, I just felt that way at the beginning of my YALI Fellowship. With Toastmasters, our mission is to develop self-confidence through public speaking. But that experience turned out to stretch me even more, hence the little discomfort and lack of confidence. 

For example, as I checked my flight ticket to Indiana, a big red stop sign prompted with a terrible beep noise. I had to change my e-ticket and get to a United Airlines desk. My first time getting lost in the US so I had to ask for directions, in English please. Well, that was not bad, they understood me! First positive experience, ouf! I felt released and promised to build up more positive experiences like this. “Maybe overtime it will compound and I’ll feel more confident” I told myself. 

Fair enough, that first positive experience pushed me in a higher level of confidence. I knew I had to consciously create opportunities to ask questions, to practice as much as I can, just to generate this positive feeling. 

People’s smiles and enthusiasm really baffled me. I mean, I had my own problem and wished to feel that confident; When they realize that I have an accent, they no longer held the same face. But as time went by, I just didn’t care that much about what other people might think of me. 

People’s enthusiasms baffled and embarrassed me at first. Actually, I felt so uncomfortable that I struggled to reply back in an enthusiastic manner, that because I still felt so self-conscious. I didn’t really know for instance how to reply to “thank you”. I would usually say: “sure”! But I noticed most of them replied: “You’re welcome”. Or when they ask: “Hey, how are you?”. How to answer? All of those questions held me back and once again, I remained unnatural, sheepish and completely uneasy.

At least, I knew they will forget me after a while. Realizing that people have their own problems helped me to care less about what they think of me. Actually, they might think you are stupid just at that moment, but they will get back to their own problems later on. We all are egotistical, we all have our own problems. And this is good because our self-consciousness exists only in our mind.

What is the comfort zone, learning zone and panic zone?

Yali fellowship Learning zone

Two days before we end the YALI fellowship, I finally understood why we came to the USA. We could’ve stayed in our own country. But getting us out of our country, out of our continent to a brand new environment, that’s where the learning and growth happen. To understand this, let’s delve into 3 concepts: the comfort zone, the learning zone and the panic zone.

We all know the comfort zone. This is where nothing happens. The status quo doesn’t challenge us and we might get comfortable with it. It’s easy and safe. But chances are, you will never grow and never learn anything new: let’s call it stagnation.

In the learning zone, everything can be an opportunity to learn. Whether it be a positive or negative experience, you’ll always learn something new. In this zone, your dominant questions are: “Can I do it or not?”, or “No matter the outcomes, I still learn something out of this. And this is what happened to me. I was not sure if I would be understood. I just kept practicing, realizing that I’ll grow out of this experience. 

The Panic zone however leaves us with anxiety, fear and paralysis! There is no way we can learn something because we’re under strong emotions and we react to them. 

The YALI fellowship kept us within this learning zone, everything was an opportunity to learn, we observe everything, our 6 senses are far more acute. This is why I noticed the woman rushing to the public sanitizer. This is why I asked myself if people would understand me. At some point, I also asked if I could do it or not. And most importantly, this is why I’m so grateful to this incredible learning experience. Thank you YALI MWF program!