A Life Changing EducationUSA Academy Experience in Colorado

An Interview with Yousra Boulal
By EducationUSA Adviser Elisabeth Bloxam

Belgian student Yousra Boulal had never been to the United States before she traveled to Boulder, Colorado, as a 2019 EducationUSA Academy Scholar. “I had so many expectations … but at the same time I didn’t really know what to expect!”

Yousra’s month in Colorado wound up being better than she could have expected — what she called “a life-changing, once in a lifetime experience.” Over the course of just four weeks, she explained, “I got the opportunity to learn so much about the typical American college life [and] got to learn even more about different cultures alongside my new friends from all over the world. I visited Colorado, going from the cities and universities to the breathtaking landscapes during numerous hikes.”

For Yousra, one of the highlights of the EducationUSA Academy was getting to know the American education system and visiting campuses like Colorado College where she could envision herself one day studying. “Before the program I never thought I would ever study in the U.S. — not because I didn’t want to but rather because I thought it was out of my reach. After visiting different campuses and after learning so much about the American college life, it feels like an almost natural choice to decide to study in the U.S. at some point. Now I’m thinking about doing my undergraduate studies here in Belgium and then pursuing my academic career path as a graduate student in the USA.”

On campus at CU Boulder, students at the EducationUSA Academy took a number of challenging courses. Yousra’s favorite was a course on entrepreneurship. “In that class we learned problem-solving, leadership and even got to make our own company! Alongside our wonderful teacher Tim O’Shea, who is an entrepreneur himself, we managed to all create our companies in groups with the main idea of making a significant change in the world by solving an important problem. On the last day we presented our companies to some of his friends who were fictional investors. They each invested in the companies that they thought were worth it. I’m proud to say mine got $175,000!”

Learning doesn’t just happen inside the classroom, and spending a month in Colorado provided Yousra the opportunity to test her theories about the United States … from American culture and food to the furniture inside her new classroom.

“All I knew about the USA came from entertainment or from the news. I was really excited about the food especially (…) and as odd as it might sound, I was impatient to see if we would have those typical American school desks. (We had them and I had a tiny fangirl moment!) I was [also] curious to find out if American people were really as nice as they’re often portrayed and YES they are, at least in Boulder. I got stopped a couple of times in the middle of the street by people who complimented my outfit or that were curious to know if we were from a different country. Everyone is so positive and supportive. It was also way easier to make friends at the ice cream social with American students than it is here in Belgium, for example.”

Her time in the USA was also an opportunity to educate. “Talking about Belgium happened in a much more informal way than I expected,” Yousra said. “We were never asked to give some kind of presentation about our country whatsoever. It all happened in a very chill way between regular students who discussed their countries’ politics [and current events].”

And what did her fellow students find most interesting about Yousra’s home country? “They were all amazed to know that Belgium is one of the only six countries in the world that paid men and women equally. I told them about Brussels and how wonderful it is to live in a country with three national languages but how it could be a struggle sometimes. They were all quick to make fun of how small Belgium was but I defended my country by reminding them that it was easy and cheap for me to visit my entire country in a matter of hours. At the end of the program I was voted ‘most loving of her own country’ so I believe I did a relatively good job at promoting Belgium to the rest of the students!”

“As the only European student in the program, I had the privilege to not only give my fellow students an insight of what life in Belgium is like but also about what life in Europe is like,” Yousra reflected.

Many students worry about experiencing feelings of homesickness and culture shock upon arrival in a new country, but reverse culture shock is an equally common phenomenon … and after returning to Belgium to start her final year of secondary school, Yousra can’t help but feel a little homesick for Colorado. What are the three things she misses most?

First, her fellow Academy participants. “Whenever I think about the United States, I think about the wonderful friends I made. I’m not an outsider or a misfit in general but I’ve never felt so understood in my life than with my fellow students of the program. The people I’ve lived with in Colorado are truly like a second family to me! I miss them a lot. Even though we kept contact, I miss living with them and seeing them pretty much all the time.”

Second, she misses the locals in Boulder. “I miss the positivity! People always made sure to make you feel as good as possible and it was not only the staff or people from the program it could also be a cashier with whom I talked for almost 10 minutes about random things in life or a bus driver that offered me Goldfish cookies or the friend I made at the Planetarium.”

Finally, Yousra has found herself missing Colorado itself. “I also miss the magnitude of pretty much anything: the stores are gigantic and don’t even get me started about the the food. The recreation center was so big I got lost a couple of times. And I obviously can’t speak about greatness in Colorado without mentioning the mountains … I miss the beautiful views I had from my room or my classroom or after a long hike!”

In our interview, Yousra described her time in the USA as an EducationUSA Academy Scholar as “a life-changing, once in a lifetime experience”. When pressed further, she explained: “When I say life-changing I obviously think about the many things I’ve learned academically that will undoubtedly help me in the future, but I’m also thinking about how much I’ve grown as a human being. Spending so much time, so far away from home, in a new environment and with new people really gives anyone the chance to discover who they really are and most importantly who they want to be.”

The EducationUSA Advising Team in Belgium would like to thank the EducationUSA Academy at the University of Colorado – Boulder, the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and particularly the U.S. Embassy to Belgium for their support of the EducationUSA Academy Scholarship Program.

The EducationUSA Academy is a pre-college academic enrichment program for international high school students offering specialized college preparatory content, college-level writing workshops, campus visits, and cultural activities. Students gain an insider’s perspective on higher education in the United States while getting the chance to experience and enjoy campus life. To learn more about the EducationUSA Academy Program and scholarships available for Belgian students, please visit www.educationusa.be/edusaacademy.

The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the EducationUSA Advising Center or of the U.S. Department of State.