ISLAMABAD: After spending a year at a US high school and living with an American family as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Programme, 25 students from different parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan recently returned home.
Sharing their experiences at the YES Re-entry Seminar held in Islamabad on June 28, these young alumni said it was a life-changing year for them.
Zaheerullah, who hails from Gilgit, is the youngest of nine children and his father owns a fabric store. He says his year in the US has taught him to speak up against the ills of society. “I gave 21 presentations about Pakistan during my studies; most of these were in a local church my host mother worked at. And somehow, I now find myself strong enough to fight against sectarian violence which prevails in Gilgit and Hunza,” said Zaheer.
Ibsan Mall, a student of Peshawar Model High School, said in his year abroad he managed to change the perception people had of his background. “In one year I made my American family and friends cry over my departure - the very same people who seemed sceptical of my background when we first met.”
A major part of the students’ experience is to take upon the role of youth ambassadors as they give presentations about their country to school peers and at youth conferences.
Many students also find the academic experience exciting as American high schools offer a range of subjects which usually are not a part of the Pakistani syllabus.
Umme Habiba, who belongs to Hangu but is currently living in Peshawar, discovered some hidden talents in the US as she became part of her school’s dance team, swimming league and art club. “I did not have any restrictions in Pakistan as well, but in the US I got so many more opportunities in all fields,” said Habiba.
The challenge of the whole experience is to make friends in the face of existing stereotypes in both countries. Zaighum Abbas, a resident of Abbottabad, said he loved reaching out to people. “I met people who thought I was a terrorist, but I took the initiative and became friends with them and showed them real Pakistanis are completely different,” he said.
These students are now part of the YES alumi network comprising over 700 people from all over Pakistan. They are geared up to join their seniors in existing community service projects and to come up with new ideas to contribute to society as was emphasised throughout their year abroad.
The YES scholarship programme is being run in Pakistan by the Society for International Education since 2003. It aims to send students aged between 15 and 17 belonging to middle and lower-middle class families to various states in the US for cultural exchange.
Alumni weigh in
The alumni network’s Youth Programme Coordinator for the southern region, Bilal Zubair Khan said, “I know from experience that it is not easy to spend a year abroad with total strangers. The students have to strike a balance between their lives and the people they live with and in the process they become more mature people.”
“During the exchange year, students get the opportunity to engage in various extracurricular activities and volunteer services which helps them get a better understanding of American norms and values,” said Hassan Saeed, the Youth Programme’s Coordinator for the northern region. “It builds their confidence and they become more independent, open minded and ready to take on challenges.”
On to an adventure
Savita Noreen from Gilgit will be heading to the US for the next YES academic year. “I read an advertisement on Facebook and downloaded the application form. I was very excited to be selected for the programme. It was hard to convince my family at first but they caved in in the end.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2013.