A dream realized: An exchange student’s arrival in America opens eyes, hearts

Ninis Widyaningrum (middle) shows off her homemade gold pants for Homecoming at Lakeville South. “Because I’m an exchange student, I wanted to make them memorable,” she said.
Photo By: Submitted

Sitting on the school bus that first time was like being sucked into a movie. I was in a real, yellow American school bus! Looking out to the neighborhood and people on the bus, I reminded myself that I was really here, living my dream.

I grew up in Indonesia, a developing country that became independent from Japan less than 70 years ago. Poverty and corruption are major problems. Because of our conditions, a movement has started so the younger generation can work and study hard to get Indonesia out of its black hole.

This generation is the nation’s hope to make Indonesia a better place to live: No collusion and nepotism, better education, truthful government and less poverty. Our movement includes programs to study abroad so teenagers can go to developed countries, learn, come back, share and be the future leaders at home.

I was in seventh grade when I heard about Youth Exchange and Study (YES), a scholarship from the U.S. Department of State meant to bridge understanding between Muslims and Americans—especially after the 9/11 tragedy.

It was always my dream to go to the United States. The best part? It’s a full scholarship.

I started the YES selection in 10th Grade. The year-and-a-half process was full of waiting and uncertainty, and I competed with 8,000 young scholars from all over Indonesia. Then the news came: I was selected as one of 85 scholarship winners. The process of my departure seemed so fast—and in the next blink, I arrived in the United States, the land of my teenage dream.


Coming to a whole new world is exciting, yet scary. I was seeing things that only used to be on TV. I began speaking a whole new language and staying with a new family.

I landed in Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in August. It was a warm, sunny day. For my host family, it was hot, but for someone who grew up with nothing but scorching sun and humidity, it was a pleasant Friday morning. A good day to start a new chapter in my teenage life, right?

On my first day, they showed me downtown Lakeville, the school I would be attending and their favorite pizza place. At night, after unpacking my luggage and getting ready to sleep, I cried. I cried because I knew I would love my host family like my own family, and I didn’t want to mess up. I cried because it was all so new and strange, and I was so scared. I spent most of my summer with my new family—they taught me how to play golf and brought me boating on the lake. Then school started and I experienced more challenges.

Sitting on the school bus that first time was like being sucked into a movie. I was in a real, yellow American school bus! Looking out to the neighborhood and people on the bus, I reminded myself that I was really here, living my dream.

At school, I expected to see lots of drama and supermodels because I watch a lot of American movies and TV shows. Instead, the students were just the same as in Indonesia. There were people who tend to study more than others, and people who were noticeably popular.


Another thing that I knew from movies, but was still strange to experience, was when the bell rang. The second the bell went off, everybody got up and left even though the teacher was still talking in front of the class. The first time I saw that, it felt … wrong.

Back home, sometimes teachers don’t hear the bell and will continue to talk in front of class. Even then, we would wait for our teacher to stop talking and remind them politely, or just wait until they realized it’s time for us to go.

The second thing that I noticed is how American girls present themselves. The fact that they wear makeup every day to school isn’t surprising. I’m a fan of “Pretty Little Liars” and I pay attention to how Aria Montgomery goes to school with a bunch of makeup. Some girls wake up very early to put on eyelashes and curl their hair. Even at school, there’s always some girl with her hair-straightener in the school bathroom every morning!

In Indonesia, rules for girls have been in place forever: We can’t wear makeup, color our nails or wear extreme accessories. Heck, we wear uniforms! We are only allowed to wear watches, simple bracelets or earrings, rings and necklaces made of noble materials (such as gold, silver or platinum). The concept of uniforms is to make all students equal and diminish the social gap.

Since I have been exposed to both cultures, it’s opened my eyes to how Indonesian girls show their true selves. It’s not that American girls are fake—they are just really dependent on makeup to cover their insecurities. When I asked one of my friends why some girls spend an hour every morning to put on makeup, she said they wanted to cover up any unwanted things on their faces. Once, when I told my friend that in Indonesia we couldn’t use makeup at school, she said, “I won’t go to school if that’s the rule.” It’s just … different.


Overall, there’s a lot I’ve learned from my exchange experience. It’s not only about living like you’re in a movie, having a year holiday or being a new person in a whole new place. Instead, it has opened my mind about how unique we all are.

We’re the same, yet different. We all want people to understand and love us. We need them to. It’s just that our countries take very different approaches to this.

I am learning that the universal language—smiling and laughing—is really effective and heartwarming. Having my friends greet me with my name—which is hard for them to pronounce and remember—or even smile at me in a hall full of crowded people is a wonderful feeling.

I have the door of opportunity wide open in front of me. All of these gifts make me realize that my dream to explore the world is important. To create new places to call “home,” but still have my own home in Indonesia, where I know my family and friends are waiting for me.

These opportunities and relationships keep me going through this once-in-a-lifetime exchange student experience.


Culture shock is inevitable for students who travel overseas during the school year. Whether coming to America or heading to Spain and Sweden, the challenges are often unexpected, yet perhaps pleasantly surprising. Read Ellie Colbert and Hannah Gordon’s story.