A home away from home: Exchanging cultures, changing minds

Photo courtesy of Melanie Pierce: Melanie Pierce (left) is acting as host mom to exchange student Sally Akhdar (right), who is spending her junior year at Moorestown High School. Akhdar is from Lebanon and participating in activities she can’t find at home such as cheerleading.

Since arriving in Moorestown about a month ago, Sally Akhdar has already encountered a few misconceptions about her life in Lebanon. She lets out a good-natured laugh as she recounts when one of her new classmates asked her if she travels to school by camel. (For the record, she doesn’t.)

“That’s what I’m here for – to prove we’re not that; we’re the same,” Akhdar said.

Akhdar is spending the entirety of her junior year at Moorestown High School through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program. Established by Congress in 2002, the program provides scholarships for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend up to one academic year in the United States.

The YES program also sends students abroad as well. In 2009, the YES Abroad program was created to provide American students with an opportunity to study in YES countries. The program is funded through the United States Department of State and is sponsored by the Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs.

Moorestown resident Melanie Pierce is serving as Akhdar’s host mom for the year. Despite only having known each other for a few short weeks, the two have already settled into an easy rapport with one another. Both see the exchange as an opportunity to grow and learn in the year to come.

For Akhdar, visiting America is the fulfillment of a dream. She said she’s grown up watching American YouTubers and bloggers, and so naturally, her hope was to one day visit these places herself. When she learned about the YES Program, she knew it was her opportunity.

She said life is easy in Lebanon. She lives close to a beach, the weather never gets too cold and there are restaurants and shops nearby. But when her English teacher described the YES program to the class, she was completely taken with the prospect of meeting new people and learning about a different culture. She applied last December, was chosen in January and spent the months leading up to her visit learning about the American lifestyle in preparation for her trip.

Nevertheless, when she arrived in Moorestown, it wasn’t what she was expecting. She’d envisioned buildings and a cityscape but was instantly struck by how much greenery there was. She hadn’t imagined there’d be trees and deer when she pictured America.

Akhdar is ready to fully immerse herself in the American high school experience. Her course load at MHS will include chemistry, biology, pre-calculus and United States history. She said she’s eager to try out clubs and activities that she doesn’t have in Lebanon. So, photography club, human right clubs and the Interact club are all on the docket.

This fall, Akhdar will also give cheerleading a go. She spent two years in ballet courses, so cheerleading felt like a natural fit. But her only concept of cheerleading came from the movies where cheerleaders are typically popular and often somewhat mean. She quickly had that notion dispelled when she was signing up. She said overall, she’s quickly learning that American high schools aren’t quite as dramatic as the movies make them out to be.

Akhdar’s placement with Pierce is facilitated through AFS-USA, a nonprofit organization that provides international learning experiences to individuals, families, schools and communities through a global volunteer partnership. As an AFS student, Akhdar is required to complete around 100 hours of volunteer work throughout the school year and to give around five presentations in school or civic organizations in which she shares about her country and culture. She said volunteering isn’t taken as seriously in Lebanon, so she’s looking forward to the opportunities to give back that will come in the school year ahead.

For Pierce, a second-time host parent with AFS, her hope is that they develop a mutual understanding of each other’s culture and a respect for their differences. She said in the few weeks they’ve known each other, they’ve already had some heavy discussions.

“She comes from a different world with different ideas, and [she] deals with different problems on a day-to-day basis than we do, so learning about that piece and her perspective has already been enlightening,” Pierce said.

On a more personal level, Pierce said she hopes she walks away having found a sense of family with her. Pierce, who is single and without children, said hosting a teenager is a lot like being thrown into the deep end, but she said hosting an exchange student is – without a doubt – an honor. She said there’s nothing quite like watching these young people grow up before your eyes.

“I hope she – as a woman – learns her independence and learns how to find her voice,” Pierce said.

Akhdar said she’s hoping to return home to Lebanon next June as a new version of herself. She said the upcoming year is all about discovery and pushing herself out of her comfort zone.

“I just want to be like a brand new me, discover stuff, get out of the things they tell us in our country,” Akhdar said. “Maybe they’re wrong? Maybe they’re right? I’m trying to discover [that] by myself.”

Any organization interested in hearing about Akhdar’s life in a presentation on Lebanon is encouraged to contact her host mom at Melanie Pierce at melaniep0123@gmail.com.