Minnesota Sun Newspaper; Friday, January 9, 2009
When 16-year-old Komal Ali stepped off the plane from Karachi, Pakistan, last summer, she found few surprises.
"Everything was white and glamorous like all those movies we watch," Komal said. "It was modern and advanced. There were a lot of white people with blonde hair," she added.
Why does a high-achieving, outgoing teen that is close to her family and friends decide to live in another country halfway around the world?
"I wanted to be on my own for awhile, explore my talents, and see what I am without my parents," Komal said. "In Pakistan, you live very dependent on your parents. No high school kid has a job in Pakistan. Their parents pay for all their stuff. I wanted to experience a different culture, and see the contrast between a third world country and a super power."
Not that she didn't have a few concerns, or wasn't sad to leave Pakistan. "Will people be friendly? Will they be nice to me because I'm Muslim?" she wondered.
Some Pakistani parents don't want their daughters or sons going to America, Komal said, because "they might get corrupted or change their attitude." Her parents didn't feel that way, she said.
Komal competed with nearly 6,000 Pakistani students for one of 61 scholarships to live and attend school in the U.S. Students receive a one-year, fully funded scholarship plus a monthly stipend of $125 to cover expenses. They stay with host families.
The YES program is a high school exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The goal is to build understanding between Americans and people from predominantly Muslim countries.
The selection process involved an initial application, a test, a 15-minute panel discussion and an individual interview.
"During the interview, the judges see if you are capable, adaptive, friendly, and have a good sense of humor," Komal explained. "We all need to have these qualities to go to a new school and adjust to the culture."
Then there was a 24-page application form, including documentation of straight A grades in English from sixth to 10th grade.
It was three or four months before Komal learned she had been accepted.
Komal attends Sage Academy in Brooklyn Park. When she first came to Minnesota, she stayed with her YES community representative.
Komal became friends with Kysa Swedberg at school. "I asked her if she could host me, and she asked her parents, and they agreed," she said. Anne and Darwin Swedberg are Komal's host parents.
(Pakistani exchange student Komal Ali, right, enjoys life in America with her Brooklyn Park host family, Anne Swedberg, left, and her daughter, Kysa, center. Not pictured is Darwin Swedberg, Anne's husband.)
Komal said her American classmates assume exchange students are smarter than they are. "They say, 'You don't look 16, you look 18 because you act so mature,' " Komal said.
She has other perceptions of teenagers in the U.S. "A lot of American teens are immature," Komal said. "They are more into what the media say. They think everybody is superior. I think a lot of American kids are suffering from an inferiority complex."
That's not the only thing. "I've noticed that all my American friends talk about is boys and sex. They don't in Pakistan. We usually talk more about academics and stuff going on at school," Komal said.
Friendships are different here as well. "In Pakistan, you would give your life for your friends. But that's not really the case in America," Komal said. "They talk and hang out, but are not emotionally attached."
She also thinks American teens should show more respect for their parents. "They are the ones who conceived you and took care of you as a child," she admonished.
Apart from that, Komal thinks her American friends are really cool, and she enjoys their company.
Komal has noticed a number of stereotypes about Pakistanis that are prevalent in our culture.
"All the media show bearded men carrying guns. Pakistanis are really likable, hospitable and caring," Komal said. "If you ignore the pictures the media give you and come and live with them, you will see they are friendly."
She says the neighborhoods and schools are nice, and most people like Americans. "It's not all about killings and stuff," Komal said.
She mentioned a few other stereotypes that she feels are perpetuated by the American media. "Every Muslim man wears a turban. Not true! And every Muslim man is not a terrorist," Komal said.
She does not wear a veil, and neither does her mother. Komal said her family follows Islam on a regular basis, but are moderates, not extremists.
Of the 61 students selected for the YES program, 40 are girls, and 35 don't wear veils, Komal said.
She was expecting U.S. schools to be harder than those in Pakistan. But instead, "It's a piece of cake. I got a 105% on my Algebra 2 test. That was a shock. I would never get that in Pakistan," Komal said.
She was placed in the senior class at Sage Academy. When she returns to Pakistan, Komal will have to repeat her junior year, because they do not accept the American grading system.
Besides hanging out with her American friends, Komal likes to cook, draw body art called henna (on hands, like a temporary tattoo), salsa dance and write.
Saying she has "completely morphed" into American culture, Komal has enjoyed a number of firsts, like meeting people of other faiths, such as Jews and Christians.
"I learned more about these religions than I knew before," she said.
She found her first Christmas "captivating" - from the beautiful Christmas tree to the mountain of gifts, to the excitement of giving and receiving gifts.
"In my religion, we celebrate Eid where instead of presents the elders give money to their kids," Komal explained. "Christmas Day reminded me of Eid. I personally think that Christmas helps the bonding between family members."
She missed being with her family during Ramadan, the Muslim holiday, but she attended a mosque for Eid prayers, describing it as enchanting. "I never felt that close to my religion like I felt that day."
She doesn't often get to Friday prayers, Komal said, "but I have started believing in my religion more than ever after coming to the U.S.!"
Komal plans to get into A Levels for her last two years of high school in Pakistan, and then pursue a Chartered Accountancy program in college.
She highly recommends the exchange student program. "It's a great learning experience. You learn more about yourself and others. You get outside of your world," Komal said.