Dawn and Edward Bohls were nervous about hosting an exchange student.
“We had no idea what to expect. We’d never been parents before,” said Edward, who shares a large suburban home with Dawn in Hyattsville, Maryland.
They certainly didn’t know how much hovering to do with a teenage girl, much less one from a traditional home in predominantly Muslim Indonesia.
Not much, it turned out. The Bohls were amazed to watch Silvia Dewi, an initially shy 17-year-old, quickly transform into a bold explorer, attending girls’ sleepovers and riding public transportation to get there.
“We asked her if she wanted to be picked, and she said no. She walked and took the bus and the metro,” said Dawn.
She’s bringing that same sense of adventure to her many educational and community outreach projects as a participant of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The program brings nearly 900 high school students from 40 countries with significant Muslim populations to the United States for semester and yearlong exchanges.
Northwestern High School recently made her student of the month for earning straight A’s, and she’s acing the program’s community service component. By December she had already surpassed the minimum number of volunteer hours required by World Learning and she hopes to rise to a U.S. Department of State challenge by surpassing 100 hours by the end of the school year.
“Coming here was always a dream of mine. I still can’t believe I’m here. I am doing and learning a lot, and I am happy about that.”
Silvia has read to children and helped to decorate and plan events at the Hyattsville Library, distributed food and colored eggs for an Easter Egg hunt at Magruder Park, and assisted with stage set up and trash collection at the Hyattsville Parade. She has also made arts and crafts for the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health, organized donations for the St. Jerome’s Catholic Church Food Bank, served dinner to the homeless at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and at a shelter in New York City, and participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery.
It’s hard to imagine where Silvia finds the time, but she also participates in three sports. She was an avid swimmer and volleyball player when she arrived, but she wanted to join the tennis team, a challenge for someone who had never gotten on the court.
“It looked fun. I also wanted to make more friends and have a new experience, so I thought tennis would be great,” she said.
“We took her down to a local court because she couldn’t hit the ball over the net. We thought there was no way she was going to make team,” recalled Dawn as Silvia sat giggling next to her.
She made the team and a lot of friends. Those achievements combined with so many other American experiences are more than she ever imagined.
“Coming here was always a dream of mine. I still can’t believe I’m here. I am doing and learning a lot, and I am happy about that,” she said.
Her enthusiasm and dedication to international diplomacy has certainly gained the attention of the staff at World Learning. They recently nominated her for the U.S. State Department’s own Student of the Month award.
But she’s also inspired by the adventures of day-to-day life with Dawn, Edward, their three cats and two dogs.
“I thought I would be lonely because I was the only teenager, well, besides their cat Gram,” she said. “But no. We walk the dogs, go grocery shopping, go to church, and go bicycling.”
The Bohls are also grateful that hosting Silvia could counter a trend in xenophobia and religious intolerance in America. They brought her into their home after reading that her temporary host family was too full to keep her for the rest of the school year.
That act of hospitality led to an important family and community dialogue. Dawn, a Sunday school teacher, gave her students a lesson on the basic pillars of Islam and then invited Silvia to answer questions about the Muslim faith and traditions. This helped both Silvia and the other students to recognize shared human values within their respective faiths and traditions, to better understand foreign customs like food preparations and dress patterns, and to look at people as people, not as religions.
“In the end, we see that she is just a normal teenager,” said Dawn.
At the same time, the homestay has helped Silvia to confide in people outside of her own religious and cultural traditions. She tells her host parents everything, and every day they look forward to hearing whatever she wants to share about school, her social and sporting life and her volunteer activities.
The Bohls might not be regular parents, but they certainly remember the challenges of being a teen. As such, they’re so proud of the way she has learned to lean on them and still assert her independence.
“She deals with the trials and tribulations of everyday life so well,” Dawn said. “We let her deal with her own problems unless she comes to us, and she’s been doing a good job so far.”
As her time comes to an end, Silvia and the Bohls are savoring every last experience they share like movie nights or doing homework on the used laptop that Edward brought from home from the office.
“We feel like a family, we have our routine, and she fits in so nicely,” said Dawn.
“The YES program did a great job in giving us Silvia,” said Edward. “I refuse to believe she is leaving.”
“I get sad when I think about that. My friends bring it up, and I try not to think about it because I love America so much,” said Silvia.
It doesn’t sound like the Bohls and Silvia will lose touch, and there may be more American experiences to come. Silvia plans to finish high school in Indonesia, then apply for colleges to come back to the U.S.