YES Programs



Student delivers look at world way beyond the Northwoods

Ahmed  Abdalla 0

by Stephanie Daniels

This article was originally published on

A new international student is infusing the classrooms of Chequamegon High School and the surrounding communities with a fresh global perspective this school year.

Ahmed Abdalla comes to Park Falls from Kuwait, though he is originally from Egypt. The 16-year-old is the seventh international student hosted by Park Falls resident John Smart through the Kennedy-Lugar YES (Youth Exchange and Study) program.

The fact that the program is sponsored by the U.S. State Department means that in effect citizens are the ones funding the students’ time in American schools, which sets the program apart from others of its kind, as Smart explained. Students participating in the foreign study opportunity tend to be from countries not normally represented in traditional privately-funded programs, according to Smart. A friend of Smart’s who works with the U.S. State Department first made him aware of the program and its need for host parents.

Ahmed explained what drew him to the chance to study in America, saying that folks in the Middle East tend to think of the country as “something amazing or cool.” He saw the program as an opportunity to be independent and do something new that not a lot of others close to home get to experience.

Out of the thousand or so Kuwaiti students applying to enter the program, only nine were chosen.

Ahmed said that the first two weeks or so of the experience were a bit rough going, between the homesickness and initial culture shock. The fact that his mother teaches English gave him a head start on learning the language. Even so, hearing exclusively English everywhere, including in television ads, took some adjustment for Ahmed.

“Now, I’m getting used to it,” Ahmed said.

At first, he was also concerned about whether or not he’d be able to make friends. That worry quickly washed away once Ahmed entered classes at Chequamegon High School (CHS).

“American students are really welcoming,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed sees that same close connection between people carrying over into the community in general, noting that a trip to town usually means bumping into someone a person knows.

“Everybody knows everybody,” Ahmed said.

He’s found the structure of the American classroom to be a little different than what he’s used to in Kuwait, where big exams given in the end and middle of each year are priority number one and the same subjects aren’t taught every single day as they are at CHS. In short, the new learning style translates to more homework than Ahmed saw in Kuwait. The intermingling of different grade levels in classes is also something new to him.

Along with the classroom discoveries, Ahmed has gotten an introduction to high school sports, American-style. His first exposure to cross country got off to a bit of rough start. Other members of the cross country team had the benefit of weeks of training to build up to four-mile runs they put in during a typical workout; Ahmed did not. On a recent run, he got separated from the pack in the school forest trail system and decided to sit and wait for someone to come along so he wouldn’t get lost.

Smart joked that he guesses the young man thought if he kept running he’d end up in Canada or something.

The high school junior, who only really got the chance to play soccer back home, is looking forward to starting basketball soon.

When there’s no risk of getting lost in them, forests and their natural beauty as well as the signs of the changing seasons – features not found in the desert landscape of Kuwait – are something Ahmed has come to appreciate about the Northwoods.

One seemingly counter intuitive thing Ahmed has noticed in the region is that there seem to be less “American” features than in Kuwait, a nation made prosperous by its wealth of oil. He noted that there are McDonalds restaurants everywhere a person turns in Kuwait, whereas here, there’s only one. A trek to find conveniences typically associated with American living can span two-hours or more in the rural setting, something that Ahmed wasn’t expecting.

Another other small challenge going in – the food situation – has been lessened with the help of his host father and the ladies in the cafeteria. As a Muslim, Ahmed only eats meat if it’s halal, butchered and prepared according to specific cultural practices, and pork products are excluded entirely from his diet.

Cafeteria staff members have been good at accommodating his special meal considerations, for example, by providing him with a turkey variation of the hotdogs served during a recent lunch, Ahmed said. “So that was really great. I really appreciate it.”

There is one little quirk about Ahmed’s tastes in food that’s not so quirky when it comes to the international students Smart has hosted; like the young guests before him, Ahmed can’t get enough ketchup and also enjoys dousing his meals in hot sauce.

“If you don’t have ketchup, something wrong will happen,” Ahmed joked.

Of course, the decision to come to the U.S. with the foreign study program was about so much more than exploring condiments.

Ahmed sees his year attending a U.S. high school as a chance to take on the role of ambassador and dispel negative stereotypes people may have about Muslims.

“Which of course makes me very proud that he considers this his responsibility,” Smart said.

As with people of any other religion, it’s impossible to apply the same characteristics to everyone with a Muslim background, Ahmed explained.

“Not all Muslims are terrorists. We’re not all the same. We’re different,” he said.

Ahmed is preparing a slideshow presentation to give before different community groups in order to help people learn more about him and where he’s from. He’s also been invited to deliver the presentation at a meeting of the United Nations Association of Wisconsin in Madison, which will likely take place in November or December.

Along with the presentations, Ahmed is looking at different things he can do on the weekends to help fulfill the 30-hour community service requirement of the Kennedy-Lugar YES program.

Once his year in Park Falls comes to a close, he’ll be heading back to Kuwait to finish up high school. After that, Ahmed said he hopes to be able to continue his studies in Egypt, adding that if the chance to attend college in the U.S. would arise, he would take it. His plan at this point is to go into medicine.

Smart pointed to the current political situation in Egypt, experimenting with democracy like they never have before. He sees the potential for young people with the kind of global educational experience Ahmed is getting to benefit from all of the new openings they should find when returning to Egypt, with the country in turn benefit from what the young people have to contribute through their experiences.

Smart said, “So, I think it’s a very exciting time for him.”