The end of the school year last month also meant the end of an American experience for more than 350 teenagers from around the world. As they wrapped up their stay in the U.S., the exchange students dressed in their home countries' traditional attire, sang, danced and signed a petition asking world leaders to support continued cultural exchanges. After spending their senior year living with American families and attending U.S. high schools, these teens are going home with good memories, new friends and the hope that they can change the world.
Arundhati Sridhar, 17, from Baroda, India proudly showed off her traditional dress during her high school graduation ceremony. She says she has felt like a special ambassador from her country to Atlanta, Georgia, where she spent her senior year. She says it was the most exciting school year she has ever had.
"It was amazing, I think, for me to test my limits, to know how far I can go," she says. "I've gotten to reflect on myself this year. I've gotten to know myself better, my strength and my weaknesses."
Arundhati was among more than 350 high school students from around the world who came to the United States through the 2007 Youth Exchange and Study Program. Shrega Parikh, who is also from India, says she discovered the joy of learning in her American school.
"I used always to think that if you want to achieve success, it's just math and science and that's it," she says. "Now I know it's also art, music, drawing, theater ? all that stuff."
That realization motivated Nikhita Naha, from Ahmedabad, India, to study subjects she'd never explored before.
"I took all different kinds of classes like, for example, photography, TV production, drawing and painting," she says. "We got to do a lot of projects. We got to present our research in different ways."
David Baskara, an Indonesian student, says going to school in Maryland gave him a chance to discover new abilities and talents.
"I joined wrestling," he says. "That was something I haven't ever done before. I also joined the choir and went to Florida for a spring concert."
Playing sports was the highlight of this school year for Hussein Qoumy, who left his family home in Bangil, Indonesia, to study in Brockway, Pennsylvania.
"For the whole year I played sports," he says. "In fall, I played football. In winter, I played basketball and in spring baseball and soccer."
Hussein says living with an American family was another learning experience. He admits that in the beginning, he wasn't sure how his host mother, who is a military veteran, would welcome a Muslim kid named Hussein.
"She was in Iraq for one year," he says. "The first time I came down here I thought, 'It's weird. My first name is Hussein. I think something is going to be wrong,' but the first time I came, she talked nicely to me and said she wanted to host me because she was in Iraq and wanted to learn more about my culture and my religion."
Qoumy and his fellow exchange students say that conversations at family dinner tables, in classrooms and at the mall helped build understanding between different cultures.
Qoumy says during the year, he and other exchange students gave presentations at school, wearing traditional costumes. "No matter where you are, no matter what color your skin is or what religion you are, we are the same human being. We have to live together peacefully," he says.
"They got to understand what India was, that it isn't just cows on the streets," says Parikh. "It's good food and good people." She adds that democracy was a topic that came up a lot, and that she discussed with other students "and that we still need good leaders in the future."
"There's a lot of problems in the world: war, famine, drought," says George Thomas, a student from India. "It's a good thing that the leaders of the world know that the kids who are gonna take their place one day want to have peace and unity."
The experiences these students get through Youth Exchange and Study can help them become tomorrow's leaders, according to Nancy Levine, a manager with the program.
"They really are used to interacting with people from different cultures, which has a huge impact on these students," she says. "They go back and are dealing even with cultural groups in their own countries. One student says, 'if I can affect people with students from different countries, why can't I do the same thing with my own countries.'"
Just before returning home, Levine says, the class of 2007 signed Exchange for Peace, a petition to world leaders calling for increased support of international exchange programs.
"It's basically telling world leaders we feel that one of our most important priorities is intercultural understanding among different countries," she says. "We want you to make it a priority and one of the best ways to do that is through these kinds of person-to-person exchanges. This is why these exchanges are so important and that the funding should be in place and should be increased, because they really have such an amazing impact on people all over the world.'"
The goal is to collect one million signatures by October. The petition is available on-line, at http://www.exchanges4peace.org, where people from around the world can read and sign it. Nancy Levine says while this year's graduating students are taking home lots of memories, they are leaving behind this effort to support exchange programs in the future, so more students can take part and help promote peace and mutual understanding worldwide.
**Students interested in the YES Program can go to http://www.yesprograms.org for more information.