Exchange students give perspective on life as Falcons in Iowa


Vu Tran

From left: Becca Saad (Lebanon), Andjela Ognjanovic (Serbia), Syafira Adani (Indonesia) and Farnaiza Gulam (Philippines) pose to show their Falcon spirit. These foreign exchange students are spending an academic year at Davenport West to experience what American high school life is like. “I would like to say thank you for making me feel welcomed! You guys are the best,” junior Becca Saad said.

Farnaiza Gulam, Reporter

International education has become a crucial part of building bridges for understanding, across cultures and borders. For the past few years, West has welcomed about 30 foreign exchange students with four students every year. West believes that International Education helps introduce people to its global environment since it promotes intercultural learning and global awareness among the students. 

“I think it’s important for our students in Iowa to meet and get to know students from other countries so that they have a broader world view,” guidance counselor Erin Soedt said. 

These foreign exchange students serve as young ambassadors of their respective countries to promote cognizance of cultural diversity. This year, four exchange students from Indonesia, Serbia, Lebanon, and the Philippines attend West for the academic year through a scholarship from the U.S. Department of State.

They went through a lot of selection processes to be an exchange student to the US and after being chosen, they get placed into different states and live with a host family that volunteered to take care of them for the rest of their exchange year. This way, they learn what the american lifestyle is and they also create long-lasting ties with the people around them while sharing their culture as well. Being an exchange student is a great platform to grow and learn a different culture.

Out of thousands of applicants, Junior Becca Saad from Lebanon was one of the exchange students who are lucky enough to spend a year in the US. She arrived in Iowa early in August and lives with a host family. 

“I went through a series of exams, interviews and tests. It was so competitive to get in the program since they only take 30 students among thousands. But in the end, I made it to the list among 29 of the people I love the most,” Saad said.

She likes going into an adventure and thinks that every day will be a new experience for exchange students. Gaining friends and socializing are among her reasons for applying to the exchange program. 

“Iowa is really cold, but the people living in Iowa are warm-hearted. Call it a mid-western thing, but among all the people I met, Iowans are the nicest!” Saad said.

However, Saad is one of those people who had not heard anything about Iowa until she became part of the exchange program. Other than the hot summers and how cold it is in the fall, she noticed how different Iowa is from what she expected of the United States. At some point of her life, she thought that the United States only looks like Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago.

Saad is enjoying her time and loving everything that Iowa can offer. Saad mentioned how different the educational system in her country is when compared to the US. She loves West and especially how friendly the teachers are.

“What I like about West is the freedom it gives its students. Other than that, the teachers are great and they are the friendliest people I’ve ever met,” Saad said. “I don’t like to pick favorites but some teachers like Mr. Wolf, Mrs. Bertelsen, and Mrs. Staber helped me feel welcomed in their classrooms when I first got here.”

Saad took photography classes on her first term and has now moved to Advanced Photography. And what started as just an interest has turned into a hobby. Photography is now something that she is passionate about. One of the pictures she took for the class will be featured in the ‘Be Original’ Art Gallery at the Kwik Star Festival of Trees this year.

“I feel so proud and accomplished. Last year photography wasn’t anything I had an interest in, to be frank. I hated taking pictures but after taking photography class here, I realized that I love this kind of art,” Saad said.

Besides photography, Saad is also making a difference in the community by volunteering and giving her time to help out in every way she can. She’s aiming for a 100 hours of community service during her exchange year. She’d love to meet more people and make friends.

“I would like to say thank you for making me feel welcomed! You guys are the best,” Saad said.

On the other hand, another YES student from Indonesia has expressed her love for Whitey’s Ice Cream. Junior Syafira Adani, or Fifi, is making the most of her exchange year. Building a strong bond with her host family and trying new things is something that she has been working on. Adani’s first haunted housing happened here in Iowa.

“I’ve never been into a haunted house that was so toil,” Adani  said. 

Being an exchange student was not her plan before, although she wanted to travel the world and meet new people. But now, she’s here and has been doing a good job in giving back to the community by volunteering and sharing her culture.

“I want to learn and see the world with my own eyes. I read books and watched shows about other cultures and now I see how diverse cultures are in the world,” Adani said.

Just like the other students, the road to being an exchange student was not easy. Syafira had to compete a couple of times with other exchange students from her country before she became a finalist to go to America.

“I started applying for scholarship when I was a tenth Grader. I failed a couple of times but I didn’t give up until finally I got it. It took me a year to complete all the processes,” Adani said. “It is very competitive however I met amazing students from all over Indonesia.”

And now that she’s here, Adani is exploring new things that she has not tried and seen before she came here. Aside from haunted housing, she also had her first fall and first snow since the weather back in her country is different from Iowa.

“The fall season is very pretty. Unfortunately, it only lasted for two weeks and then the snow came! I heard a hundred times that people say this is not snow, there is still more and more snow to come in the winter,” Adani said.

It has been almost four months since she arrived in Iowa and it is not new for her to miss her family in Indonesia, but her willingness to be a global citizen is what keeps her motivated to do her best and be strong despite being far from home.

“It is difficult to be away from home. The time zone also make it more difficult to keep in touch with my family in Indonesia. But, being away from home made me grow up and able to seek for challenges,” Adani said.

After going through a lot of qualification tests and complying with a lot of requirements, Junior Andjela Ognjanovic, a Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) student from Serbia, is now finally living the American dream of hers! She shared her fascination with the English language and her dream to go to America ever since. 

“I always wanted to go to America and eventually it happened,” Ognjanovic said.

She was one of the 50 students from Serbia who had the chance to be an exchange student. It was a competitive process to be part of the exchange program this year, however Ognjanovic had worked her way into achieving her dream. 

Being a person with a disability, she shared that the students at West have been very helpful and accomodating to her from the start. Ognjanovic likes the West so much and claims that “West is Best!”

“I like the people here. They’re so helpful and kind. I haven’t seen an unkind person here,” Ognjanovic said.

For the past three months, Ognjanovic has been travelling a lot in and outside of Iowa with her host mother. But to travel more, to volunteer and to connect with people are her goals for the rest of the year. And it seems like she’s doing a good job with connecting with people. Her friend describes her as an extremely out-going person with a positive attitude and a great sense of humor. Andjela hopes to enjoy her exchange year as much as possible before she goes back home. 

“I want to enjoy so that I don’t have regrets when I go back home,” Ognjanovic said.

Each of the exchange students are unique in their own way. They come from different places around the globe but they all have one thing in common. They all want to make a difference in the world.  These four girls have been here in Iowa for three months and all of them described their experience as an amazing one. They are doing a great job at helping in the community by volunteering and serving as a bridge into intercultural understanding. 

“International education is a wonderful experience. There’s so much you can take away and there’s so much to learn from you as well,” ESL teacher Myriam Stangherlin said. “You learn from others not just in education. You grow, think and reflect.”

And although the idea of leaving your family behind at a young age to live in a whole new different country for a year may seem terrifying, these girls have braved the dangers of being away from home to be global citizens and share a part of themselves to the world.  

“Being a foreign exchange student is a door to great things in the world. It is so interesting to taste completely different food, to change my routine, and also learn the culture here,” Adani said.