Long Way from Home: CFHS welcomes exchange student from Kosovo

Rhydian Talbot/Staff Writer

Some students think it’s a big deal to study at a college out of state. Alma Jashari set her bar a little higher and, for a year, is studying out of country.

Jashari, a native of Prishtinë, Kosovo, packed her bags and made her move to America mid August to become our high school’s one and only foreign exchange student for the year, a rarity compared to the higher number of exchange students in years past. During her stay, she plans on playing a part in the Cedar Falls community by volunteering at Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army, along with enjoying some good ol’ American traditions like camping, Thanksgiving dinner and cheering on the Panthers at UNI sporting events.

The opportunity to study abroad came through the Youth Exchange and Study program (YES), an international foreign relations program that was established after Sept. 11 in efforts to create mutual respect and understanding between the United States and students from predominantly Muslim countries.

In efforts to select the most qualified candidates, exchange hopefuls from a host of countries undergo a rigorous selection process that lasts several weeks. “I went through many group activities, interviews and three rounds of tests. There were about 700 students just from Kosovo in the process, and they narrowed it down to six finalists. It started in October, and in March I got a call that said I was finalist,” Jashari said.

Students can be placed with YES host families throughout the United States, and Jashari had a few areas in mind that she hoped — and hoped not — to be placed. “I wanted to live either in California or Iowa. I have a cousin who lives in Des Moines, so I would’ve been OK living there. When I found out I was placed in Iowa, I just thought, ‘Not a farm, please, not a farm,’” she laughed.

While some might not feel comfortable sharing their home and their life with a new student, senior Megan Hahn, a member of Jashari’s host family, couldn’t be happier. After hearing about the need for a host family in the community, she and her parents discussed the possibility of welcoming a new “family member” into their lives. “My mom wasn’t sure at first because she was like, ‘No, it’s your senior year — shouldn’t we be focusing on you?’ But I really wanted this to happen.”

Along with assimilating to a new family and new culture, students must also adjust to their host country’s educational systems. Jashari noted the difference in standards between American and Kosovar school systems regarding foreign language. “In Kosovo, everyone can speak English because it is an international language. People should study foreign language earlier than they do here because it’s so much easier to learn when you are a child.” Kosovar law also requires students to attend nine years of elementary school, and from there, they must take admittance exams to be selected for high school.

New lessons will be learned both in and out of school as Jashari becomes accustomed to the American way of life, but the most important things Cedar Falls and high school students can teach her are rooted in the nation’s moral values and core beliefs. America strives to accept other cultures and embrace the flavor they bring to the melting pot, and this call for unity among citizens serves as one of the principle purposes of YES.

“It’s important for people in other countries to see our diversity and know that it is possible to live in harmony,” Hahn said. “Hopefully they see that America is an amazing place full of good people, so when they go home they can say, ‘No, those bad stereotypes [about Americans] aren’t right.’ It’s a life-changing experience for both the student and the families.”

Class of 2014

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