DRACUT, Mass. — For the next 11 months, Dracut High senior Breanna Bradley will share a classroom with 135 million people.
On Aug. 20, Bradley, 17, will depart from her lifelong home on Varnum Avenue in Dracut for New York, where she will embark on 30 hours of connecting flights through Hong Kong to the island of Java, Indonesia.
There, on an island the size of New York state, home to the original Java beans, 17 active volcanoes, Komodo dragons, Sumatran tigers, all varieties of monkeys, the world’s largest flower, and 135 million inhabitants who are 90 percent Muslim, Bradley will settle in with a host family in the city of Bandung to begin a yearlong immersion in Indonesian culture.
It means she will completely forgo her senior year at Dracut High.
Bradley, who will be 18 on Sept. 26, was one of 65 high-school juniors nationwide who received 2013 scholarships to participate in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad program, or YES, funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
She will live with a host family that speaks only broken English and will enroll in the local high school in Bandung (pronounced “Bahn-dune,” Bradley learned), where she will take such courses as physics and math, taught in the native Indonesian language.
“My classes won’t be given in English, so I’m really going to have to learn the language, and I am a little worried about the culture shock,” Bradley said in a recent interview at her home. “At our orientation in Washington, D.C., they gave us some advice on dealing with the culture shock. Mainly, you just have to trust yourself to understand it is going to be hard, but you will get through.”
Total immersion means just that, Bradley said. Until next July, there will be no return visits home for any occasion – not her birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas or senior prom, she said.
“They want you to become completely immersed into the society and culture and learn about it – as opposed to treating it like a vacation,” she said. “That’s why it’s so long.”
As for missing out on the fun and memory-making aspects of a traditional high-school senior year, Bradley has made peace with that.
“Obviously, I wish I could do both, but I’m glad with the decision I made,” she said. “There was a lot of (friends asking): ‘Why aren’t you staying here? You’re going to miss prom!’ And I had to explain, ‘This is the chance of a lifetime. It’s not that I don’t like you guys.’ ”
As her departure date draws nearer, Bradley is becoming increasingly excited about her year abroad and living with her Bandung host family that consists of a mom, dad, six host siblings and a nanny. She has exchanged emails with her host mom and dad and host sister closest in age, “who has a very long name I can’t pronounce, but prefers I call her ‘Ata,’ and she already calls me ‘Mba’ meaning ‘older sister’ in her dialect,” Bradley said.
The emails led to an interactive Skype session between Bradley in Dracut and her host family in Indonesia.
“My youngest host sibling is 8, and as we Skyped, when she finally came on camera, she kept ducking away, and finally she shouted, ‘You are beautiful!’ and ducked away from the camera. She’s very cute and shy,” Bradley said.
In awarding the competitive scholarships for the program, put together by Congress in the aftermath of 9/11 to foster better American-Muslims relations worldwide, administrators offered applicants a choice of spending their senior year of high school in either Bosnia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, South Africa, Thailand or Turkey.
Bradley’s first two choices were Bosnia and Turkey, with Indonesia third. However, the more she learned about her third choice – including by speaking at the Washington, D.C., orientation session in early July with Indonesian students and Indonesia’s ambassador to the U.S., Dr. Dino Djalal – the more Bradley viewed Indonesia as best suited to her, she said.
Bradley said Indonesians generally are known for their smiling and sunny dispositions and their penchant for singing aloud, another reason she believes her host nation is a good match. Bradley is a singer, dancer and theatrical performer by nature, having danced since age 3, and attends Nikki Taylor Dance Centre in Dracut. She is also a member of the DHS choir, and performed in the school’s fall play, “The Musical.”
What she hasn’t done much is travel.
“Domestically, I’ve been to Florida a lot, but I’ve never seen the West Coast,” Bradley said. “I’ve left the country once, on a family cruise for two days to the Bahamas.”
With her trip to Indonesia, the tropical crossroads between mainland Asia to the north and Australia to the south, and located below the Equator nearly 10,000 miles from Dracut, Breanna’s personal travelogue is about to transform dramatically. So noted her proud, and recently less apprehensive, mother, SueEllen Bradley.
“At first, I was very unsure and didn’t want to let her go,” SueEllen Bradley said. “But we’ve been through several orientations now, and the more I’ve learned about the people in the country and the program, I’m definitely more comfortable with it.
“Of course, I’m going to miss her, going off a year earlier than she normally would. But it’s definitely a good program,” she added. “I’m very proud of her.”
Bradley’s closest friends in Dracut expressed similar concerns, especially upon learning that she’s headed to an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, she said.
“Once people heard ‘Muslim,’ it can take on a negative connotation, and a lot of my friends were concerned about my safety,” Bradley said. “Once they learned the program is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and safety is their top priority, and that I’d protected, they were OK with that.”
By the time she returns home next summer, Bradley hopes to gain admission to a Washington-based college or university and take courses related to a career in international relations or diplomacy.
In a blog she has begun posting to chronicle her YES Abroad experience, breesindonesia.blogspot.com, she recalled coming up with the idea of studying abroad as a sophomore.
“I have always loved different cultures and people, and I guess something just clicked,” Bradley writes in her blog. “I felt as though living in a different country and becoming fully immersed into another culture very unlike my own was something that I had to do.”
Bradley gained further inspiration to embrace the YES Abroad experience from a video clip of then-President John F. Kennedy speaking to foreign-exchange students in 1963.
“Although his speech was given 50 years ago, JFK’s message is relevant today,” Bradley said. “He explained that by going and living in a foreign country, you decrease hate through understanding and promote a more peaceful world, especially among the younger population.”
According to Lakeview Junior High history teacher Rebecca Duda, who was Bradley’s National Junior Honor Society adviser, the town of Dracut and YES Abroad organizers could not have picked a better student-ambassador to Indonesia.
“Breanna has always displayed the best qualities of a Dracut student – outgoing, studious, dedicated,” Duda said. “It doesn’t surprise me she is participating in the program. She’s an exceptional young lady.”