Since 2003, the U.S. Department of State has invested millions so teenagers from predominantly Muslim countries can experience a year at a United States high school, a public relations tactic of sorts that they hoped would pay off handsomely.
Created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, "legislators felt very strongly that for America, there needed to be more knowledge and exposure by citizens … of other countries," said David Beiser, director of grant programs for Ayusa International, a nonprofit group that connects potential foreign exchange students with host families.
The hope of legislators: That Muslim teens, in turn, would return to their countries aglow about the U.S., in general, and the communities where they had resided.
The Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program was designed to do just that.
In 2003, its first year, about 75 students from Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia attended U.S. high schools.
Next fall, the program will pay $8.2 million for 401 students from 19 countries to spend some time in the U.S., Beiser said. San Antonio, which over the years has hosted a large number of YES students, hosted the program's annual training conference, which ended Saturday night. This year, 45 YES students are in the greater San Antonio area, Beiser said.
"I tend to think it's because of our friendly spirit, but Texas is actually the No. 1 state for exchange students," said Connie Coutu, the southwest regional manager for YES who alone has hosted 29 students. Districts cap the number of foreign exchange students who are accepted. Most attend a school in the East Central, North East, Northside or San Antonio school districts, Coutu said.
Aseel Said, 16, beamed as she walked with others from the conference to visit the Alamo. A Palestinian, Aseel left Gaza this summer to spend a year in San Antonio, where she is attending Alamo Heights High School, driven by her goal to represent her people and her family. "Being a Palestinian is challenging enough in itself. Getting into this program was another challenge," Aseel said. "It's been hard to come here, but I wanted to show people who we really are." Recent violence at home has made her nervous, but she said she is in constant contact with her family. And recently, the experience of being in the U.S. felt worthwhile when one of her teachers asked her to talk to her class.
"I know the situation by heart," she said. "And I was more than thankful to explain my side."
YES scholarships cover all of a foreign exchange student's costs, including airfare, ensuring the legislative mandate of diversity that was set when the program began. Beginning next fall, YES will also award 14 scholarships to U.S. teenagers so they can spend a semester in Mali, Morocco and Oman, Beiser said.
"We're expanding to promote understanding and tolerance," Beiser said.