Kalisa with his welcome postcard from Columbia University.

Today we are talking to Kalisa Ndamage, a South African AFSer who went on a year programme to the USA in 2014-2015. He will soon be returning to the USA, having been awarded a full scholarship to study Chemical Engineering by Columbia University in New York.

When did you first hear about AFS and what was your first involvement with AFS?

In grade 8 I listened attentively, mesmerised by every word coming out of her mouth as a recent YES Alumni at the time, Caroline Brits, told me all about her experience. She told me what AFS was about, why the organisation has exchange programmes and how important AFS’s mission is. That evening I attended the chapter meeting at my high school and began engaging with the organisation.

What made you apply for the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (KL YES) Programme?

Having attended my AFS chapter meetings for quite some time, I decided to apply for the opportunity to share my culture with the rest of the world while learning about other cultures in the process. I saw it as an opportunity to grow as an individual and become more of a global citizen as I formed life-long relationships across nations.

Please share some of your most lasting memories of being an exchange student in the USA.

I remember riding back from the rather urbanised capital city of Iowa, Des Moines, to the rural American town, Audubon. The contrast between the two places was so dramatic, as all I saw was cornfields with a few small towns scattered on the way to my host town. I didn’t think I would survive; I already planned my escape and the opening chapter of the book based on it. However, within a few hours I realised that my host family was great and I would have a great time.

I had inexplicably amazing experiences with my host family from Nerf Gun wars to travelling across America. I had great times with my friends too like when we had a snowball fight in the school parking lot and would go restaurant hunting to try some of Iowa’s best food.

The lunch table that I sat at in the school cafeteria was always buzzing with some of the funniest conversations I’ve ever had. I laughed myself to a six-pack on multiple occasions because of those guys!

Doing country presentations for the community were always great because everyone was interested in learning about my home country and hearing about my experience which I absolutely loved as it made their welcome warmer.

Kalisa with his American host family.

When you returned to South Africa you continued supporting AFS. What did you do?

I loved the programme so much that I immediately began involving myself in the organisation and promoting it. I shared my experiences with my school which encouraged more students to host and also apply to go on the exchange programmes. I continued integrating myself into AFS by attending facilitation trainings and using those skills learnt to facilitate various orientations like the Pre-Departure, Gateway and Return orientations for participants. I also volunteer at the national office and have recently been working on updating the Alumni database. I was involved in the AFS ISA Transformation workshop in which I assisted in developing the organisations strategic pillars for the 2017-2020 strategy. I still attend the monthly chapter meetings that I first attended in grade 8.

Helping the 2016 cohort of students on their way to the USA.

You are now going to the USA to study at Columbia University, how did that come about?

I really don’t know how to answer this question. There were a number of experiences that moved me in that direction such as seeing a friend in the US, Bradley Nissen, go all the way to the west coast to attend a top university, working at a water treatment company that was taking huge scientific leaps, loving the time I visited New York City etc. There were so many things that led me to that decision. It took quite a bit of work applying during my matric year with writing SATs and college essays which isn’t very common in South Africa. In the end, it was all worth it and I would recommend applying to schools like Columbia to anyone with AFS’s “change the world a step at a time” vision.

Looking back, how would you say that being involved with AFS has affected your life?

Firstly, the exchange programme has had a tremendous impact on my life. Just stepping out of the familiarity of my home country gave me an opportunity to discover who I was already at a young age. Without the usual friends and environment I was forced to open-up to everyone around me and be my true self. This allowed me to develop more confidence and self-awareness.

The programme also offered me an accentuated juxtaposition of South Africa and America. Through that comparison outside the context of South Africa, I became aware of the similarities, differences, pros and cons of both countries which made my need to improve my country by learning from the US’s achievements and mistakes more imperative.

Being away from South Africa for a year taught me more about South Africa than being in South Africa for a year would have. When sharing my culture with others, they’d ask questions which would force me to constantly keep learning and doing research about my country and its history. It eventually got to a point where I was answering questions about South Africa faster than Siri could.

Being involved with AFS showed me how anything in life is achievable and that even the sky isn’t the limit anymore. Through volunteering for AFS I’ve also had the opportunity to gain confidence and improve my communication skills at every AFS event.

What would you say to a young person (or a parent) considering an exchange programme?

Do It! It may seem like the scariest thing you might do in your entire life, which makes sense because you’re leaving everyone and everything you know behind, but the experiences and relationships that you gain from an exchange programme are insurmountable. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn, you’ll fail, you’ll grow and you will become a better version of yourself! While programme durations can vary, the saying goes, “Exchange isn’t just a year in a life; it is a life in a year.” So use this opportunity while you still can.

Thank you very much Kalisa, for sharing your AFS story; and good luck on the next leg of your international education – at Columbia University!