Foreign exchange student Ibrahim Dabo shares his experience from the 2019-2020 school year at Waukon High School

Ibrahim Dabo ... A 16-year-old from the Republic of Mali in western Africa, Ibrahim Dabo has been spending the past nine months as a foreign exchange student at Waukon High School. Pictured above, he sports a Waukon High School Homecoming sweatshirt celebrating the annual event this past fall, during which he was voted by classmates as the junior class attendant. Submitted photo.

Host brother ... Waukon High School foreign exchange student Ibrahim Dabo is pictured above with his host brother, Noah McKee. Dabo has been living with the Shana Breasure family of Waukon during the 2019-2020 school year, arriving in August of last year. Submitted photo.

by Brianne Eilers

Foreign exchange student programs offer teenagers across the globe the opportunity to travel to new places, experience new cultures and meet new people. For the 2019-2020 school year, Ibrahim Dabo has taken advantage of that program and traveled to the United States from the Republic of Mali, spending the past nine months as a student at Waukon High School.

The Republic of Mali is located in western Africa and has a population of around 20 million people. The capitol of Mali is Bamako, which is also the country’s largest city and where Ibrahim and his family live. Ibrahim’s older brother was also an exchange student five years ago and traveled to Hawaii.

One big factor in Ibrahim’s decision to be an exchange student was the fact that he has always wanted to visit America and try something different. He and his family also felt that this would be a good way for him to learn to be more responsible.

Ibrahim is 16 years old and has been a junior student at Waukon High during this current school year that was recently brought to an early end by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is his first trip to the U.S. Ibrahim arrived in the U.S. in August of last year and he lives in Waukon with his host mom, Shana Breasure.

Before settling in with his host family, Ibrahim first traveled from his home in Mali to Washington D.C. then to Des Moines for orientation before coming to Allamakee County. He then spent two weeks living in Harpers Ferry before coming to Waukon. He says he wasn’t really sure what to expect when he came here, but one thing he has noticed is the friendliness that Midwesterners are known for.

“The people are so nice here,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting everyone to be so friendly.”

He also noted that the landscape around here is very pretty. He says the climate for the Allamakee County area is very different from Mali, which is hot and dry most of the year.

While in school, Ibrahim was involved in Waukon High School’s Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) chapter and played on the Waukon High School basketball team. The school system here is quite different than what he was used to in Mali.

“We don’t have different grades in our classes,” he said, “and we don’t change classrooms, the teachers come to us.”

He also said that they do not get to pick their own classes back home, instead they are chosen by the school. The school that he attends there is also smaller than the high school in Waukon. They also don’t have a lot of team sports programs, so he really enjoyed being on the basketball team this past season. He noted that part of the reason for the lack of sports program involvement is because most students don’t live close by the school and you have to be 18 years old to get a driver’s license in Mali.

Ibrahim said he really liked all his classes, but physics was probably a favorite. “We get to build things and have fun,” he said.

When not in school, Ibrahim would hang out with his friends at the Waukon Wellness Center and also enjoyed spending time at home with his host family. There really isn’t any event that he is disappointed about missing out on, though he said he was curious to see what Prom is all about since that is something they do not have at his home school.

He enjoyed the Homecoming festivities - another thing they don’t do at his home school, and he was selected to be the junior class attendant for this past fall’s Homecoming. He has really enjoyed the moments and memories he’s had with his friends and host family in Waukon. One of the things Ibrahim misses the most while not being able to go to school since its mid-March closure is the friends he’s made here and the teachers.

With the closure of school due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Ibrahim has been spending his days at home with his host family. He is communicating with his family in Mali on a regular basis. He noted that he has been talking with them more in the past few weeks than he did before the outbreak. He is currently unable to return to Mali, as the borders of that country are closed.

“They are not going to school,” he said of his home country. “People are also not going to the mosques or churches and there is a curfew.”

He noted that Mali is trying to keep people at home as much as possible and that his family is doing well despite the situation, and doing what they can.

Ibrahim came here through the YES (Youth Exchange and Study) program that is part of the Iowa Resource for International Service (IRIS), a non-profit organization based in Ames, with a mission to promote international understanding, development and peace by connecting Iowans to communities worldwide. It works to do this through several international grant programs, the largest of which is the Youth Exchange and Study program. This is a scholarship program for students from Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and other countries around the world. Students go through a rigorous selection process to spend a school year in the U.S.

IRIS facilitates the program throughout the state of Iowa, finding families willing to open their homes to students and helping those host families and the students throughout their time in Iowa. The program is currently looking for host families for 30 incoming students for the 2020-2021 school year. Hosting an international student gives families the unique opportunity to walk a student through American culture while learning first-hand about a new culture.

IRIS, in particular, works with students who would never have had the opportunity to travel or study in another city, let alone in the U.S. Those hosting a YES student through IRIS are providing scholars a chance to change their lives and return home with Midwestern values. Families provide room and board, along with helping with normal transportation and general parental supervision. More importantly, families welcome the students as one of their own, sharing in their experience and guiding them as needed.

For more information or to be put in contact with current host families or students in the foreign exchange community, contact area coordinator Rochelle Heffern Almazan at or 563-329-1556. Rochelle is a 2009 graduate of Waukon High School and the daughter of Jack and Cindy Heffern of Harpers Ferry.

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