Almost two years ago, Jannat Abdallah packed her bags to make the trip of a lifetime. She said goodbye to all her family and friends in Lamu, Kenya, and embarked on the 19 hour flight to America. She arrived in Pocahontas, Iowa feeling a strange mix of loneliness at having left everything she had ever known and excitement for what might lie ahead.
On the other side, Carol and Leo Hallman waited in their small town for their new daughter to arrive. The Hallmans had a different hosting experience than most. Their biological daughter, Mary, a former IRIS employee, helped guide them through the selection process. She told them that Muslim, hijab-wearing girls were especially hard to place. The Hallmans were more interested in Jannat's future goals than her religion or her gender. Jannat wanted to become a lawyer to help people.
Carol, a practicing attorney, and Leo, a computer professional and self proclaimed "mock trial junkie," jumped at the chance to share their expertise with their new daughter. Leo urged Jannat to join mock trial in her school and they learned much about each other through this experience.
Leo explained, "Jannat was a deep thinker, that was obvious from day one. She was a good listener and I like to talk, so there was no problem there. But I like to listen and learn as well. In fact, that was my main motivation in hosting a student, to learn something new. This was our first time hosting and I had much to learn. We became very close, she would teach me and I would teach her."
Host mother, Carol, also formed a special relationship with Jannat during her time in the states. They bonded over movies, pizza, mock trial, and shopping. Everything a mother and daughter might bond over. As the year went on, Jannat participated in mock trial and chorus, she volunteered constantly, she was selected for a workshop in Washington, D.C. and she attended sporting events with her family. Slowly she found herself changing. Jannat said,
"I grew so much. I became more confident and independent. I felt like I was becoming who I really am. The exchange made me realize that the world is so much bigger than my comfort zone."
After returning to Kenya, Jannat experienced a phenomenon known as reverse culture shock. In this experience, students have a hard time readjusting to life at home. In Jannat's case, she describes it as free-falling or floating aimlessly in water. Home doesn't feel like home anymore. While those original feelings of abnormality have faded, Jannat still feels like her exchange experience has changed her forever.
"I have developed a more sophisticated way of looking at the world as a result of studying abroad. I acquired a unique set of skills that distinguish me as a future leader. A leader who understands the skills needed to navigate effectively, humanely and positively across different cultures. Although living in a foreign culture can be overwhelming at times, it can also change you in the best way possible."
Not only did this exchange have an enormous impact on the exchange student's life, but also the exchange family. This is a common story among host homes. For more information on hosting, reach out to your regional organization.