Out of rural town into the world

Memorable: Arif Iskandar (centre) with his host family.

GROWING up in a small rural town in Kedah, Arif Iskandar Dzulhazri Jamal had limited opportunities of seeing the world.

However, that did not stop him from broadening his horizons as a student.

He took it upon himself to join competitions, such as debates and creative traditional dances, for his own benefit while at the same time looking to bring honour to his school, SMK Megat Dewa, in Kodiang.His efforts drew notice from his teachers, who recently offered him the opportunity to take part in a two-month exchange programme in Turkiye.

Having returned from his first trip abroad last month, the 17-year-old expressed appreciation for the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.

“I never expected to have the chance to be part of a student exchange programme that would take me all the way to the Middle East. All of this would not have been possible without the endless support I got from my teachers,” he told StarEdu.

According to Arif Iskandar, the opportunity arose when his school took part in the AFS Effect+ for the Classroom programme and won the 2022 Sir Cyril Taylor Young Leaders Award for its proposal on a Smart Aqua-Pronic Project for Sustainable Community Living.

Recalling the occasion, he said AFS Malaysia chairperson Khalilah Datuk Mohd Talha, who visited his school, expressed her pride in seeing a school from a rural area triumph among 300 high schools from 15 countries, while announcing that a student would be fully sponsored to become an exchange student in another country.

“I felt envious of whoever would be given the chance, without expecting that I would be the one – until I was called into the principal’s office one day,” he said.

It was then that principal Noor Anizah Jamal and Science teacher Noorsieah Mohamad gave him the surprise offer, he shared.

Arif Iskandar’s stint in Turkiye, from Dec 23 last year to Feb 3 this year, opened his eyes to new experiences.

He shared that he attended Doğa Koleji, a school located in Adana – a city in southern Turkiye – for two weeks.

“I joined a few classes to experience the differences between the grades and the subjects that were taught, and had the chance to interact with the students over lunch,” he said.

He added that he enjoyed every moment spent with his host family, from having a barbecue session to exploring other cities like Mersin.

“For the remaining time of the two months I was there, my host family brought me to historical places and famous eateries where we spent quality time together,” he recounted.

While he had fun there, Arif Iskandar confessed to struggling with communicating with others in the English language.

“Since English is not my mother tongue, I felt awkward speaking only in English without mixing in Malay. I learnt a bit of Turkish and used body language to communicate with some of the natives who couldn’t speak English,” he said.The experience, he shared, made him realise that survival requires one to step out of one’s comfort zone.

“I plan to improve my English by reading books, watching movies without subtitles, and practising exam questions since this is my Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) year,” he said.

Besides the communication barrier, Arif Iskandar said he struggled with the cold winter weather.

“It was the complete opposite of Malaysia’s humid and hot weather. I had to wear multiple layers, hydrate more than usual, and constantly reapply lip balm to avoid my lips from drying up,” he said.

Now that he is back in his rural town, Arif Iskandar is eager to pay forward what he had learnt, such as sharing with his schoolmates about the experiences and knowledge he had gained in Turkiye.

For one, he has edited video vlogs documenting his journey and shared them on social media in hopes of encouraging his peers and other community members to apply for an exchange programme under AFS Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation that provides intercultural learning opportunities.

He added that he looks forward to volunteering in welfare causes after his SPM exams.

“Aside from having fun and learning to survive on my own, my exchange experience led me to learning about global issues, such as global warming, and ignited a desire in me to change the world for the better,” he said.

“I plan to remind everyone of the climate change that is happening in our world and to encourage planting trees and cleaning the environment. This might take time but one small step can make a big change,” he shared.

Arif Iskandar, who aspires to either be an architect or a fashion designer in the future, also said he hopes to spread awareness of taking care of the earth in whichever field he ventures into.

Having reaped the benefits of being an exchange student, including increased self-confidence, he urged the youth to seek out such opportunities.

“Pursue your big dreams and gain experiences through student exchange programmes that would enable you to help change the world via initiatives such as AFS Malaysia’s global citizenship education,” he said.

Charis, 21, a student in Kuala Lumpur, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. For updates on the BRATs programme, go to facebook.com/niebrats.With the theme of the article in mind, carry out the following English language activities.

1 Would you apply to take part in an exchange programme abroad? Why or why not?

2 Imagine that your family is playing host to an exchange student. What are some Malaysian experiences that you would introduce to him or her?

The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) programme promotes the use of English language in primary and secondary schools nationwide.

For Star-NiE enquiries, email starnie@thestar.com.my.

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