Halfway across the globe, where Texans are as foreign as rainy summers, 17-year-old Layla Adawieh set out to explore the world, unaware that it would land her in Texas for ten life-changing months. Located between Israel and Syria, and bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Layla’s journey from the liberal Arab country of Lebanon to the United States began long before her departure last August.
Interested in participating in a U.S. exchange program, Layla decided to devote six months of her life to the application process. She applied for a scholarship through the private non-profit organization, American-Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc. After a series of tests, Layla went to Beirut where, along with more than 600 15- to 17-year-old hopefuls from Lebanon, she took one final test. Shortly thereafter, Layla learned that she would be one of only forty-two Lebanese students spending the next school year studying in the U.S.
Layla was paired up with the Tueni family. Final destination? Good ‘ol sunshiny Austin, Texas. “I regretted buying a warm coat that same day, before I learned that I was going to be staying in a state that is known for its extremely hot weather,” she said. Layla boarded her flight thinking the Texans she would encounter would be dressed like cowboys, living on ranches and farms, complete with barking dogs, chirping chickens, cows to milk, horses to ride, and bulls to wrangle.
Host mom Stephanie Tueni was eager to welcome another member into their family. “At first Layla was quiet, shy, and a bit guarded,” said Stephanie. “After a few weeks passed, and she became familiar with her surroundings and settled into her new, yet temporary, home, she warmed right up.”
Stephanie said Layla was “a ray of sunshine,” sharing household chores and respecting the Tueni house rules. When Layla first arrived, she spent most of her time on the phone or computer. “These are ways the students can remain in contact with friends and family back home, which slows down the process of acclimating to the new environment,” said Stephanie.
As soon as the Tuenis limited Layla’s computer and phone access, Stephanie said Layla began to adjust more to her home and school environment, becoming more interested in making friends at Stephen F. Austin High School. “I wasn’t shocked with any of the American traditions, but I had a very hard time adapting to my host family’s rules because I was used to having a lot of freedom and privacy back home,” said Layla. Coming from the relaxed lifestyle of Lebanon, Layla wasn’t used to calling home if she planned on being late but said her host mom taught her some serious lessons about punctuality.
Once Layla became increasingly comfortable with the U.S. education system, which is very different from Lebanon’s, she became involved in school and volunteer organizations, including the Texas Gay-Straight Alliance, after she was surprised about the treatment of homosexuals in Texas. Layla also got her first glimpse at the self-proclaimed national sport of the U.S.—football. “I must say that I still cannot understand American football very well, so I never watch it on TV or read about it,” said Layla. “I only liked going to live games.”
Layla wanted to experience the country beyond Texas and set off to visit California, Michigan, New York, and Washington D.C., but said Texas will always have a special place in her heart. From an outsider’s perspective, Layla said Texas is a big state with cities bigger than all of Lebanon, along with small podunk towns that nobody has ever heard of. “Texans are very friendly, and most of them, from what I’ve noticed, have big goals that they work hard to accomplish,” she said. “I left with the impression that Texans are different from all the other states. They are the simplest and kindest, and they smile a lot.”
Layla said that being an exchange student was one of the best experiences of her life, and hopes to return to go to school at Quincy College in Massachusetts next year, stopping to see her Texan friends along the way. As summer break comes to an end, children and parents resort back to the same old routine of school, work, after-school practice, and little time for escapades. But for students like Layla, the adventure is just beginning.