Most high school seniors-to-be eagerly await their last year in school. They have generally met their school requirements, reached varsity level in sports and can coast a bit this year.
Senior Katie Gallagher is taking a different approach to her senior year. She is spending the year in Rabat, the capital of Morocco on the northwestern coast of Africa – 3,587 miles away from the halls of Scotia-Glenville High School.
She is going to Morocco as part of the YES Abroad program. The Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Abroad program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, offers American high school students and recent graduates full scholarships to study for one academic year in countries with significant Muslim populations.
She is one of six American students who will be studying in Morocco in the next school year. She leaves on August 9. Another 60 students from across the US will travel to other countries, such as India, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Senegal and Thailand through the YES Abroad program.
“I’m really excited to go,” says Katie, 17, reflecting on her future trip. Asked what concerns her at this point, she said “I don’t really know what to be scared of right now, maybe it’s the language barrier.”
She’s not going into this adventure blind, however. Morocco, which was governed by France for 44 years until 1956, has a strong presence of French-speakers as well as Arabic speakers. She spent years taking French at Scotia-Glenville and spent the past year studying Arabic at Hudson Valley Community College.
Won’t hug her every night
“My biggest concern is that I don’t get to hug her every night or see her sleeping,” said Katie’s mom, Jeanne. “But after talking to some of the alumni parents, they said that with technology today, you are Facetiming and texting and in communication with them a lot.”
She was recently told about her host family in Rabat. Members of the family speak both French and Arabic. She said she and one of her fellow American students will be living with the same family for the first four months of the trip.
When Katie found out about her host family, it mentions that Wi-Fi is available in the home, added her mom.
While in Morocco, she will follow a rite of passage for seniors across the country this fall – applying to college. Her top two choices are George Washington University and American University, both in Washington, DC. She plans to study international relations.
She doubled up on classes this past year so her only requirement to graduate from Scotia-Glenville in June is one quarter credit (1 year) of physical education. She will take that at a French school in Morocco, along with the usual subjects like math and science. Her SG guidance counselor is Denise Caruso.
Surprised to be chosen for YES Abroad
She was surprised to be chosen for the YES Abroad program, she said. “My dad texted me in 9th period math class and told me to check my email,” she said. “I was super surprised when I saw ‘Finalist YES Abroad Program’ in my email. I was speechless and was crying when I walked through the hallways. Everybody kept asking me if I was OK.”
Morocco was her first choice. India was second and Jordan was third.
She’s been getting her palate ready for Moroccan food at Tara Kitchen in Schenectady, which serves Moroccan food. She said the most popular food in Morocco is couscous, a grain like rice and tajine, a stew-like dish mixed with a meat such as chicken or red meat along with vegetables.
A worldly family
Exploring other parts of the world has been a Gallagher way of doing business for years.
Katie and her family – sisters Sarah (gr. 10) and Ellie (grade 7), mom Jeanne and dad Paul – have spent time in Ireland, England, France and China.
Jeanne and Paul lived in Los Angeles for 15 years and returned to Scotia-Glenville when Katie was 4. “After being in LA for 15 years, we wanted to be sure our kids realized the world is bigger than Scotia, there are people of different religions and cultures out there, but as long as they have good in their hearts, that is what matters,” said Jeanne.
Katie wanted to explore a Muslim country, she said in her essay to YES Abroad, because “the people there are constantly mislabeled and stereotyped, and deserve to be seen as people with an amazingly different culture, rather than people we in America should fear and automatically turn away from, on account of where they live.”
Her mom has been working to help local refugee families for the past two years, making them Thanksgiving meals and helping them in many ways. Katie’s family has become close with two refugee families from both Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Women are treated differently in Muslim culture
She admitted that, for example, the way women are treated in Muslim countries is different than in the US. For example, while the capital city of Morocco is more liberal, she was told to be careful about what she wears, like shorts. She does not think she’ll need to wear a hijab covering her head unless perhaps she is in a church or outside the city in more conservative areas.
“I don’t think it’s my place to judge, there is always good and bad about other cultures,” said Katie. “I will be respectful of everything while there instead of trying to impose American values on them.”
She said Americans have a view of Muslims based on the actions of some people (such as terrorists). “They do not represent everybody who is Muslim; they happen to be Muslim and do these bad things, but that doesn’t make everybody who is Muslim bad,” said Katie.
She has noted culture differences when she spent time with the three daughters in the family from Syria that her family knows in Albany. When she has been with them by herself, they are relaxed and act much like American girls; when her dad went to visit the family, the girls became more cautious being around a man.
According to the “Muslim Culture” website (https://muslimculturebybsu.weebly.com/gender-roles.html), the roles of men and women in most Muslim cultures are similar to what gender roles were in the US in the 1950s. The site says “The Muslim culture is historically male dominated. In the past it was considered normal for there to be male supremacy within the culture. A major issue with in the culture has been woman’s rights. In the Quran, it says that a man is to be the keeper of a woman.”