Local high-schooler shares experiences overseas as way to better understand foreign cultures
A year ago, Harnoor Mann was teaching English to refugee children in Malaysia. It was an experience that changed his life.
“It was unlike anything I’d done,” the Pleasant Valley High School junior said during a recent interview. “Teaching a language to kids where they didn’t speak Malay or English and I didn’t speak Burmese … it was hard. We had to find creative ways to communicate, but once I finally did and hearing about their lives and how they had to flee was very interesting and very eye-opening.”
Mann returned to the States in August after spending 11 months in Malaysia as part of the U.S. State Department’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Abroad program.
As Chico’s first recipient of the scholarship, his goal now is to share his experiences in hopes of drumming up more interest from students in the North State.
Above all else, what Mann came back with was a better understanding of people in another part of the world. His trip also helped to break down certain stereotypes, he told the CN&R.
“People think they know what the U.S. is and what we’re all about, but we’re a very multinational country,” Mann said. “I’m Indian—my parents were born in India—and when they expect an exchange student, they expect like a tall blond dude from somewhere in the Midwest or something. So when they see me, they realize the first thing they thought about the U.S. was not right.”
YES was launched in 2002, a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, by Sens. Ted Kennedy and Richard Lugar, as a way to facilitate cultural exchange between Muslim countries and the U.S. by sending American youths to live with host families, attend host country high schools and interact with other students while there. The idea being if people from different cultures get to know each other, it can help dispel feelings of animosity and bridge cultural gaps.
“If you know each other on a personal level, you’re not likely to go to war and kill someone just because they’re from a foreign country,” explained Carol McCaulley, a retired high school teacher from Yuba City, and a volunteer with the American Field Service, which administers some of the Kennedy-Lugar scholarships for the State Department. “You realize, we have some of the same goals and same outlook on life in terms of being comfortable and peaceful, and having a family. It develops understanding on a very personal level,” McCaulley said.
McCaulley first met Mann and his family after he was awarded the scholarship. She helped him find the right host home in Malaysia, one of the 16 countries YES currently sends exchange students.
The program is extremely competitive, accepting only 65 students from across the United States and covering all expenses to live abroad 11 months in countries with a majority population identifying as Muslim.
Mann, she says, “was the perfect candidate” for the program, and since returning from Malaysia, he has been giving presentations at his high school and others in Chico. With McCaulley’s help, he’s also been to River Valley High School in Yuba City and plans to go as far as Sacramento and Reno, to talk about his time abroad and get the word out about the program.
Mann was selected to serve as a “youth ambassador” in Johor Bahru, a city near Malaysia’s southern border with a population of around 500,000 situated not far from Singapore. He had listed being interested in teaching English overseas as one of his goals, and got the opportunity to do so with a group of Burmese refugee children, one of the more rewarding, but challenging experiences of his life.
“I know I was one of the first kids from Northern California to have gone on this program, and so I want more kids to know about the opportunity,” he said.