At age 16, Diana Abysheva has already changed her life dramatically. A shy girl when she came to America last September from Kazakhstan, she said when she goes back at the end of the school year, she will be a whole different person, someone who had seen a world that her peers in her home county have not seen and made new friends with whom she will remain in contact.
“When you live somewhere without your parents, you really have to understand what you are doing and deal with your problems, you have to do everything by yourself, know what you’re doing and take care of your thing. When I first got here, I was so shy. I was afraid to talk to anyone. Now I’m trying to make more friends. No one will make them for me unless I do it.”
She said she will keep in contact with them even when she goes back to her home country.
“Now I have friends in another part of the world,” she said. “Before, I felt isolated in my country. When I got here, it was more than I expected. I felt like I had lived in a box. And here is another box, another culture, another people with another way of thinking.”
A World Heritage International exchange student, Diana is staying with a host family in Jersey City Heights. She has been attending Dickenson High School since September and visiting sites throughout the area in an attempt to learn about America’s way of life, culture, politics and other aspects different from her own.
A lesson in culture and government
In early March, Diana came to visit State Senator Sandra Cunningham, both in her district office near the Bayonne-Jersey City border and her offices in Trenton.
“I’m the chairperson of the Higher Education Committee,” Cunningham said, when greeting Diana. “So they sat in for a little bit.”
One of the requirements of the exchange program is to study government as well as its culture. “Diana is also here to have the experience of an American high school student and to learn about it,” said Joanna Metelitsa, area representative for the program.
A junior in high school, she will continue to attend Dickenson until June when she will return home.
“When I first got here it was like cultural shock,” she said. “There were so many different nationalities and everybody was so different from everybody else. They had their own style and their own kind of language. But I got used to it and I have friends now.”
What was her impression of Trenton?
“It is very different in this country than in my country, here you can visit there, but in my country everything is private and closed,” she said. “I liked it because they discussed problems.”
Visiting the state capital is one of the three required visits as part of the World Heritage program
She is from Kazakhstan – one of the nations that reestablished after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, one of a group of nations that is located to the north of Afghanistan in Asia.
She is staying with an American family that has what she called a foster father and mother, as well as their daughter. The family also has a dog.
“It is a very American arrangement,” she said.
The family she is staying with is very culturally diverse and this is one of the things the program is designed to stress. “They are very much like my family and I didn’t expect to love them the way I do now,” Diana said. “We became very close, like family.”
She said she studies what other American kids study in high school, and is taking English classes with the aim of eventually going to college.
When asked what career she has in mind, she said, “I would like to be a plastic surgeon. I thinking it is an interesting field and I can help people and make them more beautiful.”
She has not been back to her home country since coming here, but she speaks with her family often. “It is hard to be away from my sister,” she said.
“This is like a new world to me, new people and culture.” -- Diana Abysheva
At 16, she realized that she is seeing the world from a different side, one that her friends back home do not see. She is very reflective on the kind of experiences she is getting from this trip and the kind of opportunity she has that many students do not have.
She is a member of the track team at school and she was involved in some of the programs offered at one of the local churches, a youth group that allows kids to gather and offers them a place where they can do their homework.
“I volunteered at the church,” she said.
One of the requirements of the exchange program is that she perform at least 50 hours of volunteer work, but she has done almost three times that already.
So what will she miss when she goes back to her home country?
“A lot of things,” she said. “The first thing I’ll miss are how open people are here. They are always willing to help if I need something.”
“Everything surprised me,” she said. “This is like a new world to me, new people and culture. Here there are so many nationalities. With everyone here, you can hear people speaking Russian or Spanish. I like that in America there are a lot of things you can do. There is something always happening. And we’re close to New York.”
She even went to Times Square with a friend from high school for New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop.
“Before, I watched it on TV. I called my mom and said, ‘Did you see me? I wore a blue hat.’ She said, ‘Sure, I saw you.’”
She didn’t stay only in the New York metropolitan area, but visited a number of places around the country, collecting souvenirs to bring home from each place she visited.
She traveled to Philadelphia and went with her host family to Washington, D.C. She will be traveling to California on an elective program, going to Los Angeles, and will be visiting historical sites as well.