Foreign exchange student Deepanshu Dabas shares his experience from the 2019-2020 school year at Kee High School

Host family ... Kee High School foreign exchange student Deepanshu Dabas is pictured above with his host family, Tom Burke and Michelle Gauer of Lansing. The Lansing couple had seen a flyer in the Lansing Post Office for the Iowa Resource for International Service (IRIS) and applied to host a student, being matched with Dabas. Submitted photo.

Involved ... Kee High School foreign exchange student Deepanshu Dabas is pictured above in his uniform as a member of the Kee boys basketball team. During the 2019-2020 school year at Kee High School, Dabas was involved in a variety of extracurricular activities that ranged from sports to music, speech and drama events. Submitted photo.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

Traveling over 7,000 miles to a foreign land is an adventure not many pursue. Yet, Deepanshu Dabas from Delhi, the capital of India, did just that.

His school in Delhi had hosted many exchange students and he had developed friendships with several of the students, particularly one from Japan. He decided to explore the possibility for himself.

He found out about a program through his school in India. This program, called the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES), was established by the United States Congress in October 2002 in response the events of 9/11. According to the website, “The program is funded through the U.S. Department of State and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to provide scholarships for high school students from 40 countries with significant Muslim populations (mostly from Asia, Africa and the Balkan countries) to spend up to one academic year in the United States and become young ambassadors to enhance people-to-people ties.” In addition, there is a similar program for U.S. high school students to study aboard  (YES Abroad) in select YES countries.

Dabas applied in July 2018 and was placed by July 2019. There were 40 YES finalists from India. The process includes several forms, and various activities, interviews, essay tests and medical tests. It is a highly competitive application process. Every year there are more than 65,000 applications from all around the world but only 2000 are selected.

Students also have to be able to speak English and to have maintained a B or better grade average for the prior three years. This program is run under the AFS (American Field Service) in India. In Iowa, the Iowa Resource for International Students (IRIS) coordinates the placement of students from YES. Currently there are 29 students from the YES program living in Iowa.

After his selection as a YES student, Dabas was placed eight days later in Lansing with his host family, Michelle Gauer and Tom Burke. They initially texted and visited each other by video call before he left his home and participated in two  days of pre-departure orientation in order to take part in the program. Once he was on his way, it took three connecting flights and 20 hours to get  from New Delhi to Washington, DC for another two days of orientation. Dabas stated, “We got to meet YES students from all different countries.”

Next he flew from DC to Des Moines where he met with other IRIS students for another two days. Finally, he met up with his host family and started the four-hour drive from Des Moines to Lansing. He had been on his journey for 10 days.

Gauer and Burke had seen a flyer in the Lansing Post Office about hosting an exchange student. They called the number for IRIS, filled out an application and the process was underway. Gauer said they liked IRIS because  the students selected undergo a rigorous selection process. The program gives the students scholarship funds to cover travel expenses, initial expenses for school supplies and seasonal clothing, as well as a monthly stipend to help with school lunch and expenses. Host families are not paid but health insurance is covered by the organization.

Gauer said, “Deepanshu immediately became one of the family. The ties that develop with someone who lives on the other side of the world are a huge benefit. The experience of meeting someone and bringing them into your home helps us to  realize that we are all the same despite so many cultural differences. This has been a very positive experience.”

Coming to Lansing was quite a contrast to Dabas’  home in India. Delhi is the capital of India, with a population of 30 million. Dabas said, “Lansing, in comparison, is way less populated and more peaceful than Delhi. For the people of Delhi, Lansing would be like a beautiful hill station where people will go for vacation. The climate can get very cold here but the people have really warm hearts. I love how everyone, even strangers, wave and smile at each other. It was a bit awkward for me in the beginning, but now even I do that all the time. Society here is less hierarchical; people here embrace the idea of individualism.

“In India, we have big families where everyone lives together. In India, I live with my parents, older sister and grandma. My dad is a public bus driver. My sister just finished her Elementary Education degree and is going to more school. My mom and sister tutor middle school students at home. My grandma is a spiritual person linked with a Brahma Kumaris Foundation, a UN-recognized religious organization. I have learned a lot living with Michelle and Tom, plus it was great to get to know my host grandpa and grandma, Bill and Derva Burke, because they gave me great insights into the history of the Driftless Area and Lansing.”

In addition to the size and climate, Dabas expanded his experiences in many other ways. He stated, “I am a Hindu. I learned so much about Christianity when I was here. I attended church services in all the Lansing churches. I also attended a funeral. It was always interesting to find differences and similarities between our religious beliefs.

I love celebrating Christmas. For us in India, it is just a one-day festival but here it’s an entire season. The whole month of December turns Lansing’s beauty to the next level. I am never going to forget those festive vibes.”

He continued, “I am also a vegetarian so I can’t eat any form of meat or seafood, but this did not reduce my fun food experience here. There were so many new things to try. There was always enough for me in school lunch. We don’t bake a lot in India so I learned basic baking skills here. My favorite things to eat here are coconut cream pie, mac and cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pizza. We don’t have peanut butter in India. In Lansing, my favorites were chocolate chip pancakes at Nutmegs, Chai latte at Coffee on the River and Safehouse extra jalapeno pizza. I am going to miss American food a lot and all the fast food joints like Texas Roadhouse, Pizza Ranch, Culvers and Dunkin’ Donuts! Also, I got to make a lot of Indian food for my host parents and cultural presentations. I got to teach my school friends how to make Indian dishes in the Culinary Arts class at school.”

School also brought many new experiences for Dabas. In India, Dabas is a humanities student. While he was at Kee High School, he branched out and experimented with subjects such as Engineering Design and Visual Basics Programming.  He will not receive credit for these classes back in India. When he returns, he will need to complete his senior year.

He explained, “The school atmosphere is very different. U.S. schools are more fun-oriented while Indian schools prioritize discipline, but both have their advantages. In India, students stay in one classroom and teachers change classes. Here there’s a lot of walking to different rooms between periods.

“In the U.S. schools have lockers so no one has to carry a heavy bag. In India we have school uniforms so we have to iron our clothes and polish our shoes every morning. Here students get the freedom to dress in whatever they want. Therefore, students often appear in their night pajamas. In the U.S., students get breakfast and lunch in school and in India, we have to bring our own.

“Also in India, using calculators in class is considered cheating and students are not allowed to carry phones and electronic gadgets. Here people give equal importance to sports and academics. It is not the same in India due to fierce competition in academics.”

Participating in extra-curricular activities has been a big part of Dabas’ experience. He participated in choir, band, cross country, basketball, track, speech, Spanish club and drama. Dabas expanded, “Indeed I have had the best time of my exchange year due to these activities. I was involved in speech and went to State contest. I am always going to remember the Dinner Theater night. I am in love with the sports culture of the U.S. Cross country practices were  tough and challenging, and  gave me incredible memories. My cross county and basketball team were more than friends, we were family. They were happier than I was when I made a basket. Our coach, Mr. Wagner, is a great human being.

“I also did a lot of community service. I got an appreciation certificate from the U.S. State Department for doing more than 100 hours of community service during my stay here. I enjoyed that experience because I got to interact with people and make new friends.”

While in the United States, Dabas took several trips which gave him a broader view of the United States. He was selected to attend the World Food Prize Forum in Des Moines, where he was the only representative from India. He went to Tampa, FL to visit Bill and Derva Burke and was able to go to the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, which was one of his dreams. He spent a week in February in Washington DC, sharing his experience with Iowa’s congressional leaders. One of his favorite local trips is hiking Mt. Hosmer. He had hopes of visiting more places before his return to India, but the COVID-19 virus pandemic curtailed the last part of his adventure.

Dabas elaborated, “Nothing is on schedule anymore. Our organization is trying their best to arrange safe travels for everyone back to their home country as soon as possible but that’s not possible now because of international flight lockdowns. Since the situation is very uncertain, it’s hard to know when I will be going back; there is a nationwide lockdown in India until May 3. Police are everywhere and no one is allowed to step outside of their house without a valid excuse.”

Staying in contact with his family while he has been in the United States has been important. Dabas said, “The internet is easily available in India and is cheap so I can video chat with my family a lot. Now I am attending my Indian senior classes on Zoom so I get to see my Indian friends almost every day.”

Overall, both Dabas and his host family describe the past school year as a very positive experience, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic. Dabas explained, “The biggest drawback of being gone for a year is living away from family and friends, which can be very challenging, but this is an experience that I would highly recommend. I will stay in contact with the friends I’ve made in Lansing and Kee High. They are like my very own family now. I’d like to say thank you to all the teachers and friends for accepting me wholeheartedly. Only one year in Kee High has left me with zillions of profound memories. I am going to miss everyone a lot.

“Being an exchange student has made me  a more confident, flexible person; I am more independent and am not afraid of living outside of my comfort zone. Students get more globally aware and become able to understand the issue from different perspectives. And best of all, we have friends from all around the word. It’s important to not compare your exchange year with others. Every exchange year is like a blank book waiting for a nice story and you should work on writing the bestseller. Remember that you are having this exchange for a reason, and trust me, everything will be above your expectations. All you need is an optimistic attitude, curious mind and kind heart.”

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