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Q&A: A Jordanian foreign exchange student in Peoria talks about her experiences in the American school system

15-year-od Maya Alssayed is greeted by her host family upon arriving at Peoria International Airport.
Courtesy Maya Alssayed
15-year-od Maya Alssayed is greeted by her host family upon arriving at Peoria International Airport.

For 15-year-old Maya Alssayed, attending Peoria High School is fulfilling a dream to attend an American high school like those she saw in the movies growing up.

She is a native of the kingdom of Jordan currently attending school in Peoria as a foreign exchange student. She spoke with Tim Shelley about her experiences in the U.S.

MAYA ALSSAYED: Coming to the United States has been always my childhood dream. And I think like everyone that lives outside the United States, every teenager might have those thoughts to the high school and everything that we see in the movies. It was a big inspiration to come here. And I was, like, I'm very happy that I got the chance to come over to here and experience all those things. I'm very thankful for all of that.

Of course, I had some cultural shock. When I first came here, everything was different. I was away from my family, a very different school system, a very different society, the people that I'm with the people that I'm living with, my friends, everything changed, like I literally transferred lives, you could say, because like I was, I'd had a life and everything, I have a different life back home. And down here, I have another, different life.

TIM SHELLEY: How did you get involved in the exchange program?

MA: So it all started when I was very young. I had on my bucket list, it said to go and spend one year of high school in the United States. But then the idea actually came to my mind, I started researching. I think it was like the third month of quarantine, when all of the COVID started, I was watching a YouTube video. And it was like a day in the life in my high school year, or my seniors, something like that. And I'm just like, I have the chance now to do those things, though, the resources that I have, the internet, and I'm like, I'm free, I don't have anything to do, I'm just sitting at home.

So I was like, I'm gonna search into this, and I searched and everything. And I found like a scholarship that you apply for. And I applied for it. I had the application, handed it in, that I had to do two exams. One of them was online, the other one was in person. And then we had interviews for the program. And yeah, I got accepted at the end, which I'm very thankful for.

TS: What would be some of the things about the United States that maybe surprised you that you didn't expect or alternatively, what would be maybe some of your favorite things about being here?

MA: One of the things that surprised me a lot the school system, because it's very, very different. Um, so like, right here, in the United States, you don't have uniforms, you can take your phones, you do whatever, like kind of whatever you want. In class, you choose your own classes, which is very different than back home in Jordan, because we had uniforms. It's like a fixed schedule for all the students, for example, like, all sophomores take the same classes, it's just different times. We weren't allowed to have our phones with us in school. In the classes, we stay in the same class and the teacher changes, like I see my classmates from September 'til June, in the same class with the same people here. It's different here, like you change the class, and it's just the same teacher.

TS: What would you say to somebody who's either from United States considering to be an exchange student, to go to another country? Or alternatively, I guess, a student from another country who wants to come to the United States, from somebody who's lived that experience? What would you say to them?

MA: Either way, if you're from the United States and wanting to go to another country, or from another country and wanted to go to the United States, it's amazing. I would definitely recommend going for it, especially because right now, it's a lot easier than way before, like, the communications and everything's...like, if I want to call my parents, I can call them. If I want something very urgent, I can text them. So it's a lot easier.

And it's just a very nice experience. And like when you go back when you go into your exchange, and then a couple years later, you remember like, 'Oh, my God, I did that. When I was that age, I did that all by myself.'

You meet new people, you're going to have a... it really affects your personality. And you're gonna have a really big character development, when you go on an exchange here. It really affected me as a person because I wasn't such a social person. And then when I'm here want to talk to people, I want to do this and that, because if I don't do that, then it's just for nothing. Like I'm literally just gonna stay at home. So it really does a lot to you as a person. It really benefits you in many ways.

TS: So it sounds like you would highly recommend the experience to anybody thinking about it.

MA: Yeah, totally. I just like want to say a big thanks for everyone in Peoria, or anyone that is a part of this program. And anyone that has ever talked to me and said anything. Maybe it was just hi, they just said good morning in the hallways or something, because it really affects us in a really big way. Like as exchange students, when we first come here, we don't really feel familiar with everything. So any little small favor that you've ever done to an exchange student, just know that they're very, very thankful for you.

Like, even if you just let me sit with you during lunchtime for once, like for one day I would like I would have been really, really thankful for you and everything, because maybe that day my friends weren't there or maybe I still didn't have friends. So it's really like, whatever you do for an exchange student just know that they're very, very happy that you talk to them or you just did something for them or included them in something.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.