Angelina Freeman has the travel bug. A junior at Menaul School, a private day and boarding school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Angelina is spending this year in Indonesia on a full Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Abroad scholarship, funded by the U.S. State Department. The YES Abroad scholarship was instituted in 2009 to help American students develop a perspective of a Muslim culture firsthand and to create cross-cultural youth ambassadors.
YES Abroad is actually an offshoot, a reciprocal extension, of the YES scholarship. Congress established YES after 9/11 to increase mutual understanding between the United States and Muslim countries. The U.S. State Department offers YES scholarships for Muslim students to come to an American school for one year, with the goal of learning about American society and values and accumulating experiences that they can take home and share with their communities.
YES Abroad shares similar goals. Both little-known yet groundbreaking scholarships extend the hand of peace by encouraging intercultural understanding through world youth. With both scholarships, students live with host families and attend local schools, in hopes of forming lasting relationships with the local community and becoming “global ambassadors.”
The application and selection process is rigorous, with essays, tests, and interviews among the requirements. Each year, approximately 65 American students are selected to participate in YES Abroad; 900 students from predominantly Muslim populations participate in YES annually.
Through YES Abroad, Angelina is attending SMA 1 Negeri Malang, a public senior high school in Malang, Indonesia. In many ways, she is a typical 16-year-old. She likes gymnastics, reading, cooking, and dogs. But, she is atypical in her commitment to international experiences.
“Even though I have only been in Indonesia ten weeks, my time here just reinforces my desire to travel,” she states. “I want to attend college abroad and study political science and international relations. My ultimate goal is to live in another country as a professor or researcher, focusing on diplomacy.”
In Indonesia, Angelina’s typical day starts at 4 am. She explains: “The majority of Indonesia is Muslim, therefore they have to pray five times a day. The call to prayer is played from all the mosques in the city.” There is usually one in every neighborhood.
School starts at 6:30 am, and her host sister drives her there on a motorcycle. She takes 14 classes spread throughout the week, and she and her classmates move as a unit for all classes. Classes at SMA 1 Negeri Malang are much larger than at Menaul School, which has a 7:1 student-teacher ratio.
After school means dancing or language class or simply hanging out with friends. Both YES and YES Abroad programs expect participants to engage in activities to learn about the society, culture, and values of the host country.
Coincidentally, an Indonesian student – Angga Pangestu – is attending Menaul School on a YES scholarship this year. Angelina and Angga are truly “exchange” students.
Angga is a junior in high school and, like Angelina, lives with a local host family. His hobbies include archery, music, and football. He is from the small island city of Batam, about 30 miles south of Singapore. Angga applied for the YES scholarship because he wanted to “discover a new world.” His goals include experiencing American culture, making new friends from around the world, and preparing for college and a career as a software developer.
In terms of school, he agrees with Angelina about the differences. “This is a very small school. Everybody knows everybody else because it’s such a small community. I like that. At home, I go to a very large school and don’t know everyone.”
He continues: “People here are very friendly, and there are a lot of international students.” Menaul School’s students represent more than 16 countries. “They are not separated from everyone. It helps me be not so shy because there are other students going through the same thing.”
Both Angelina and Angga are embracing the opportunities that YES and YES Abroad provide. The programs have encouraged them to immerse themselves in their new environments and, not surprisingly, have also increased their desire to explore more foreign countries.
“The students are incredibly kind and welcoming, and are very patient in helping me learn Indonesian,” states Angelina. “Through YES Abroad, I’ve come to understand that even if you are thousands of miles from home, there will always be people who are open to you, supporting you.”
This year, the YES program is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Since inception, it has made connections across more than 40 countries. There are over 10,000 YES alumni worldwide. Notable alumni projects, intended to empower youth of the future, include peace-building and leadership training in Kenya, defending student rights in Macedonia, and organizing art and expression programs for children with disabilities in Gaza.