In the southeastern Asian nation of Malaysia, teenage girls are expected to wear long skirts or pants any time they go out in public.
Their shirt sleeves should extend past their elbows, and revealing clothing is heavily discouraged. Offering the left hand as a greeting is considered the greatest insult imaginable.
Courtlyn Heaberlin has done her research on Malaysian customs. The 16-year-old Greenwood resident is preparing to live in Malaysia for the next 10 months and understands that she’s going to a conservative country with its own customs.
Leaving home for such a culture can be intimidating. But the chance to learn a new language, eat exotic dishes such as ketupat and rendang, and celebrate Hari Raya, the “Sugar Feast,” in one of Asia’s emerging cities is exhilarating as well.
At a glance
The Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad Program
What: A study-abroad program pairing students from the U.S. with host families in predominantly Muslim countries around the world. Students from those countries are accepted to study in the U.S.
Purpose: Formed after the Sept. 11 attacks in an effort to increase understanding between the U.S. and countries with significant Muslim populations. It was created as a program for international high school students to live and study in the United States and was expanded in 2007 to include American high school students studying abroad.
Participating countries: Students are placed in countries including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey.
What do they do? Students undergo a full immersion experience through living with a host family, attending a local high school and helping develop the skills necessary to be a leader in the global community.
Number chosen: 65 students participate each year.
The Heaberlin File
Who: Courtlyn Heaberlin
School: Junior at Whiteland Community High School
Interests: Musical theater, show choir, photography and travel
Where she will live: Kuantan, the capital of the state of Pahang, 170 miles north of Singapore
What she will do: Live with a host family, attend a Malaysian high school and help develop the skills necessary to be a leader in the global community.
Through a prestigious national exchange program to improve relations between the U.S. and Muslim countries, Heaberlin will spend much of the next year immersed in the culture of urban Malaysia.
She’ll assimilate the dress, manners and customs of her temporary home country. While she hopes to gain insight into the way of life in Malaysia, Heaberlin also hopes to be a good representative for the U.S.
“I’ll be trying to be a good ambassador for America. I want to break down some of the negative stereotypes they might have about us and understand Islam and their culture in general,” she said.
As a student at Whiteland Community High School, Heaberlin has never been afraid to try a new activity. She has performed in musicals and tried to capture the world around her through photography.
One of her favorite activities has been the travel club at the school. It was through it that she discovered a hunger for cultural experience.
Heaberlin had her first taste of international travel last summer when she traveled to Europe as part of a trip through the travel club with Whiteland Community High School. She and her classmates visited Switzerland, France, Germany and Austria.
“It sparked an interest in travel and culture,” she said. “Whiteland and Greenwood aren’t exactly a small town, but it’s definitely not a big, memorable town. Still, even it has its own culture, and I never realized how many cultures there are in America and all around the world. It showed me there was so much to see outside of Greenwood, Indiana.”
From that point on, Heaberlin was focused on seeing the world.
“When she came back from that trip, she talked a lot about traveling. So I knew there would be something coming again soon. I just didn’t know it would be this soon,” said Ashley East, Heaberlin’s mother.
The trip is being arranged and funded through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad program. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the idea was to increase understanding between countries in the Muslim world and the U.S.
Every year, American students travel to countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, India, Oman and Turkey. At the same time, teenagers from those countries come to the U.S. to study for a school year.
“It’s a matter of making sure everyone comes with a fuller understanding of the different cultures, different outlooks and different values people have. It’s a chance to learn that everyone has a lot of similarities,” said Susan Pittman, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs within the U.S. State Department.
Heaberlin learned about the program from a friend who completed a Youth Exchange and Study Abroad trip to Ghana. The opportunity to not just take a trip but to live for an extended time as the people in a foreign country do was intoxicating, she said.
Heaberlin sent in her initial application to the U.S. State Department. On it, she had to answer short questions and write an essay for her host family.
‘A global citizen’
Her essay focused on the qualities that would make her a good exchange student, including her interest in connecting with the Muslim culture.
“I never really thought about researching Islam,” she said. “It occurred to me that I felt really uneducated about it, and after realizing that, as a global citizen it’s really important to be educated on as many religions as we can, especially with Americans having such negative stereotypes of that faith.”
After Heaberlin was chosen as a semifinalist, she traveled to Washington and went through a rigorous screening and group activities. She was picked in May as one of 65 finalists placed in countries around the world.
Though applicants are given the chance to rank the countries they want to visit most, Heaberlin chose to take whatever assignment came her way. The selection coming from the U.S. State Department was Malaysia, a peninsular country in Southeast Asia.
East understood that this was an extraordinary opportunity for her daughter and has supported her since the idea was brought forth. But when it became clear that Heaberlin could be leaving her home to live halfway around the world, trepidation set in.
“There were a few days after she was named a semifinalist when I was very unsure about this. I went to her and asked her if she understands the circumstances that come with this decision,” East said. “She looked at me and said, ‘I’m more scared of regret.’ That is when my nervousness ceased.”
Since learning that she would be leaving for Malaysia on July 15, Heaberlin and her parents have been besieged by mounds of legal forms and releases that need to completed in order to travel.
She needed to complete a work-up of vaccinations for diseases such as typhoid, Japanese encephalitis and yellow fever.
She also has been meeting with representatives from the State Department and AFS-USA, the student exchange program responsible for the details of her trip.
Heaberlin will be a youth ambassador to Malaysia. She’ll attend school with the children in her host family and make friends with the Malaysian teens in her community. She’ll attend musical events and performances and try new foods and drinks.
The family hosting Heaberlin lives in the coastal city of Kuantan. They speak only Malay in the home and don’t understand English, so Heaberlin said she is preparing for an ongoing game of charades to communicate.
But she’s confident that they’ll have more in common than it at first seems.
“The town where they lived used to be more of a farm-based economy, but as the years have gone on they’ve become more technological. I think I can talk to them about how my community is rural and farm-based and connect that way,” she said.
She has tried to learn as much as she can about her future home. She has studied the language, trying to piece together basic phrases and greetings to be able to communicate.
“It’s difficult, because there are many, many dialects there. I spoke with someone who just returned from Malaysia, and she said that the best way to do it is true immersion in the language,” she said.
Heaberlin also has studied cultural differences between Malaysia and the U.S., simple actions or phrases that could be misconstrued as offensive. She learned that in Malaysia, people use their left hand for hygiene. So taking a gift or shaking hands with the left hand is extremely rude.
“They look at it as bad as spitting in someone’s face,” she said.
The prospect of traveling around the world to someplace as exotic as Malaysia is exhilarating to Heaberlin. But at the same time, she’ll essentially be on her own for about year.
Though she will have contact information for State Department handlers in case she has problems, no one will be checking in on her all the time. She’s also determined not to call her parents constantly, to take full advantage of the experience of being on her own.
“They suggest not communicating with your parents too much, because that can disrupt the immersion. It’s like you’d have one foot in American and one foot in Malaysia,” she said. “But we’ll probably Skype monthly.”