YES program offers senior Sadaf Naeem an opportunity to share culture

Nicole Becker, business manager

The roller coaster neared the top of the hill and paused for a moment, allowing time for the fear to sink in before it slowly crept over the edge and began its long descent. Four girls, including senior Sadaf Naeem, shrieked in terror as the roller coaster neared the bottom of its crest and returned up. Fearful screams quickly became joyous as four exchange students relished their first experience of a roller coaster.

“Every day is just like an adventure for me, and I am experiencing new things, like I had been on a roller coaster before” Naeem said. “I had never celebrated Halloween before, so this was my first Halloween experience. Halloween will always be one of my favorite American holidays. I sometimes screamed a lot when people scared me, but it was one of the best experiences.”

Naeem resides in Pakistan, but this year, she became a cultural ambassador, living in the United States and studying for a year through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. The YES program was established in 2002 in response to the attacks of 9/11, and it gives scholarships to students from more than 40 different countries with a significant Muslim population to experience the United States for one academic year. Through her opportunities with this program, Naeem hopes to experience America and understand the culture as she simultaneously shares her own culture with America.

“These countries don’t know what we’re really like in the United States, so we bring youth people here,” YES program local coordinator Laurie Jacobsen said. ”It’s for us to know that not everybody is a terrorist and for them to know we’re not all as strange as their newspapers say we are. And that’s the goal — the ultimate goal is world peace.”

On her first day at Southwest, Naeem was asked whether or not Pakistan had electricity, to which she sarcastically replied, “No, we use candles.” Naeem said in the United States, many people think that Pakistanis are backward and terrorist-type people because of 9/11, but she wants to prove that her country is actually full of loving, educated and friendly people.

“Being a student ambassador, I want American students to know Pakistani culture, values and people,” Naeem said. “There are many stereotypes about Pakistan, so I am working to break them and promote a positive image of Pakistan. My greatest challenge living abroad is that everything I do and say doesn’t just represent myself, but also my country.”

Along with teaching Americans about her culture, Naeem is eager to learn from the United States. Jacobsen arranges cultural activities to showcase volunteerism, American citizenship, leadership roles, free-market economy or anything that’s uniquely American. The students attended a Royals baseball game earlier in the year, and their next activity includes visiting the Steamboat Arabia Museum.

“After I take them to this, I sit with them after and ask them, ‘What did we learn from this? Is there anything like this in your country?’” Jacobsen said. “And that will be a question that we always ask,  ‘Do you think you should encourage more museums or more arts in your country?’ And it might be the next person that opens up a program for arts for school children; you just don’t know where the spark is going to come from.”

Although Jacobsen enjoys spending time with the students and learning through different activities, she said that the program is “not always a bed of roses” for the students. The YES program students often struggle at first with making new friends and adjusting to new classes and a new culture.

Naeem said the most difficult thing for her in the United States was making friends. However, students assisted in making her assimilation easier by inviting her to different events and introducing her to new people.

Sophomore Mahrukh Jamal became friends with Naeem because her host mom has known Jamal’s mom since they were kids. Jamal’s family originates in Pakistan, and she’s enjoyed hearing from Naeem about the current state of the country since she last visited in sixth grade.

“I want her to feel welcomed and her to feel that it’s diverse here, and it’s an accepting community,” Jamal said. “Like when I started wearing my hijab, the scarf I wear, last year, I didn’t think that I would be easily accepted, but I’m here now, and I was accepted. A lot of my friends were bullied when they started, so I was really surprised when people started accepting me for who I was and not for what I wore. I want her to feel the same way about her culture; she should be accepted for who she is because she’s a wonderful person, not by what her culture is.”

Sophomore Raaham Sheikh and his family host Naeem in their home, and he said he views Naeem as an older sister. The biggest adjustment for the family was adding another person to the household, but the experience has been positive. Sheikh said he likes that he can ask her questions about her country that he wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to ask.

“[I’ve learned from Naeem] that you shouldn’t take things for granted and people go through hardships, but she told us to believe in luck and destiny,” Sheikh said. “She said that since she was working so hard in the exchange program to make it here, she believes that destiny brought her because she thought she wouldn’t make it, but she did.”

Naeem said she is lucky to have the opportunity to study in America for a year. In order to qualify for the YES program, Naeem had to complete a community project in Pakistan, clear a test, undergo individual and group interviews and fill out countless forms. Naeem said although it was a long process for her to make it to the United States, it’s worth it because she’ll be able to go home with a lifetime of experiences. Naeem said she loves the people in the United States because they’re so friendly, and one of the most important things she’ll take with her when she returns home is the friendships she has created.

“The diversity of this world has always fascinated me and intrigued me to learn more,” Naeem said. “In my view, to remain in one area, culture or among same people is not enough; it seems if you are an inert gas. In my opinion, this is the best way we can learn, stepping outside of our familiar reality into unfamiliar reality. Sharing ideas and thoughts with other people helps to grow and strengthen our own. I discovered the person I want to be, and I will return to Pakistan with greater knowledge and experience, which will assist me in enlightening my fellow citizen.”