Exchange students Raja Aziera Syahfiqah Raja Azlan and Abdul Musalif Mohamad Bukhori enjoying their time with their host families and friends in the United States.

FOR Raja Aziera Syahfiqah Raja Azlan, 18, despite having travelled to different countries, the experience of living with a local family and attending a school in Alaska will always be a memorable part of her life.

The Kolej Yayasan Saad Business School student said: “It was a life-changing experience. Through the programme, I had the chance to know myself better and discover my weaknesses and strengths.”

Raja Aziera Syahfiqah and Abdul Musalif Mohamad Bokhori, also 18, were among the 40 Malaysian students selected for the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study programme 2019 that took place from January to June.

They had the opportunity to live with host families and study in the United States after the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia examination.

Funded by the US State Department, the programme is open to high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations.

In Alaska, Raja Aziera Syahfiqah attended Juneau Douglas High School and lived with two host families.

“My school mates were kind and helpful. Admittedly, it was a bit hard to get used to the surroundings at first. So, I joined the softball team and ended up making a lot of good friends.”

Before joining the team, she had no prior knowledge about the sport.

“The funny thing is, I thought that softball was an easy sport because of its name. I wasn’t a very athletic person to start with. We had practice sessions after school everyday and it was very challenging as most of my team members had trained for years.”

Two months later, Raja Aziera Syahfiqah went for her first competition in Sitka, Alaska.

“I scored a perfect hit in the first game. It was unexpected and it made my coaches and team members really happy.

“In the end, our team won four games in total. Even though it was during Ramadan, I did not feel tired at all.”

For first year Universiti Malaysia Sarawak undergraduate Abdul Musalif, the programme opened up a new world of possibilities.

“Before going to the US, I had never been abroad because my family could not afford the luxury,” said Abdul Musalif, whose mother is a housewife. His father passed away in 2013.

“I joined the programme because I aspire to become a doctor and the future Prime Minister.

“To be a leader, I need to learn about the various cultures in the world. I also wanted to share the Malaysian culture and help curb Islamophobia,”he added.

Upon arriving in Toledo, Iowa, Abdul Musalif experienced snow for the first time.

“I was overwhelmed with excitement. My local coordinator and host mum taught me how to make a snowball. I remember screaming when I touched the snow because it was so cold.”

Needless to say, he had an enriching experience with his host family.

“My host dad is a general attorney at the Tama-Toledo Courthouse while my host mum is a counsellor.

“We share the same interests in basketball and tennis. Usually, we spent our weekend eating out and watching basketball games. I am also best friends with Ozzie, the family dog.”

Having attended South Tama County High School, he said: “My classmates were very friendly and even volunteered to teach me when I couldn’t understand any topics.

“I gained a lot of useful skills from baking and photography classes. I enjoyed learning about laws in the US and I also joined the public speaking class.”

In Iowa, he played tennis for the first time and discovered he had a knack for it.

“I placed third in my school championship. After undergoing training, I was actually ranked first in school and represented my school at district level. I was also selected for the 2019 State Coed Tennis, a mixed double championship. It was a huge achievement.”

Abdul Musalif regarded his time in the US as “a fun adventure”.

“I joined in their celebrations, went to prom and volunteered at a nursing home. My host parents also brought me around the Midwest for an eight-day vacation.

“We visited Minnesota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska. During the trip, we climbed a 3,960m mountain calledPikes Peak in Colorado Springs. It was one of the happiest moments in my life.”

A key objective of the programme was for students to educate Americans about their countries and cultural beliefs.

Raja Aziera Syahfiqah said: “My host parents were open-minded and respectful towards Islam. While they were curious about why I wear the hijab and fast during Ramadan, they never discouraged me.

“During Ramadan, my host family would wait for the sun to set to break fast with me.”

Abdul Musalif said: “My host family and I had a lot of discussions about Christianity and Islam. I explained to them about my dietary restrictions.

“They were also eager to learn about Malaysian culture, especially when I wore a Baju Melayu during a presentation. I shared about the Malay, Chinese and Indian traditions as well as the indigineous tribes in Malaysia.

“At school, I did not have any Muslim friends so when I performed my prayers and fasted during Ramadan, I received many questions. I would explain to them about my religion and I received positive comments.”

Having learnt invaluable lessons, Raja Aziera Syahfiqah said: “From the programme, I learnt not to judge a book by its cover and appreciate what I have.”

Abdul Musalif added: “By venturing out of our comfort zone, we learnt to be more independent. It’s important to expand your mind and not be judgmental. If we think that Islamophobia is widespread, then it’s our responsibility to educate others.