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Two Watertown High School students embark on exchange years as youth ambassadors

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WATERTOWN — A two-week trip to Tanzania last summer may have forever altered Watertown High School student Kennedy E. Quigg’s path — setting her on a journey to an island country more than 8,000 miles from here.

“It changed my life — seeing the poverty, it really affected me,” the rising junior said. “It made me realize how much we take for granted. It made me interested in the world as a whole.”

Searching for ways to give back and explore other cultures, she found an opportunity here in Watertown sooner than she expected when her family took in an exchange student in the Watertown City School District in October. Now, she’s embarking on her own exchange year, serving as a youth ambassador in the Philippines through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program.

Miss Quigg, 16, departed June 24 for a four-day predeparture orientation program in Washington, D.C., before leaving for Dumaguete, a port city of about 120,000 people where she will spend an academic year of about 10 months.

The exchange program, funded by the Department of State, was launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks with the goal of improving understanding of Muslim cultures. About 65 U.S. students are selected annually for the full merit scholarships, geared at “promoting mutual understanding by forming lasting relationships with their host families and communities,” the program’s website says.

Miss Quigg said taking in Lilia Mamikonyan, 17, from Armenia, whose first host family could no longer house her because of an illness, was an “amazing, incredible experience.”

Kennedy’s mother, Maxine M., said that as a close family originally from Canada — Kennedy has a brother, Connor J., 17 — accepting a fifth family member equally was an adjustment. But she called the experience rewarding and also helpful in preparing Kennedy to be a guest in another host family.

“To watch Lilia embrace our community and school was very inspiring,” Ms. Quigg said.

Ms. Quigg said that when her daughter came back from interviews in Washington, D.C., in March after being named one of about 120 semifinalists for the scholarship, “there was a light in her eyes.” She stressed that “anyone” can apply for the program, regardless of income, ability or location.

“If it wasn’t for the students I met, I wouldn’t have been half as inspired,” Kennedy said.

Originally, her first choice country was Ghana, but Miss Quigg said when told that the Philippines was an added option, it sparked her interest and she rated it among her top choices. Not only did she make the selective program’s cut, but she is one of two accepted from Watertown High School.

Brandi M. Dupere, 17, whose family is moving back to Buffalo after a year in the district, will spend her senior year in Muscat, Oman, after learning of the exchange from Miss Kennedy and Miss Mamikonyan only six days before the application was due in January.

Miss Dupere said the only other country she has traveled to is Canada, but, already in the process of teaching herself Arabic, she said she’s ready to embrace the change. Among her concerns, she said, is that she keeps a vegetarian diet, not the cultural norm in Oman. Depending on her host family, she also may have to wear the hijab worn by Muslim women.

“I’m totally open to new things,” she said. “I would be honored to participate in their culture and their religion.”

She described the mission of the program as trying to break down stereotypes.

“The best way to do that is have kids from each culture come together and figure that out,” she said.

Miss Quigg, who will be staying with a Roman Catholic family and will arrive to observe part of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, said her goal is to learn about other religions. Through various presentations, she hopes “to communicate to them that we’re not against all Muslim people. We’re not afraid of them; we don’t hate them or anything like that.”

Miss Quigg said education in the Philippines is mandatory for kindergarten through fourth grade, after which it depends on location and the family. High school ends at age 16, so 10th grade, considered a high level of achievement, is the equivalent of 12th grade here. Miss Quigg will attend a private Catholic school, and while her host family will speak English, she expects to study the local dialect.

Despite the challenges of a year away from the familiar comforts of family and friends, Miss Quigg has fully prepared herself for the experience, said Suzanne M. Wood, an English teacher at Watertown High School who taught Miss Quigg English 10 Enriched and a women’s studies elective.

“She’s not someone who’s ever unprepared,” said Ms. Wood, one of Miss Quigg’s references for the program.

Ms. Wood described Miss Quigg as exceptionally “grounded,” possessing a “maturity beyond her years.” Miss Quigg also is a “phenomenal writer,” Ms. Wood said, and she’s told the teen she has the obligation “to let the world see what sees, what she feels” through her writing and other efforts.

“She takes her responsibility as a human being on this Earth very seriously,” Ms. Wood said. “She carries with her a feeling of responsibility to make the world a better place.”

Nancy E. Sanderson, local coordinator of exchange programs through the Center for Cultural Interchange Greenheart, said Miss Quigg and Miss Dupere are open-minded and driven.

“Both are going to have rich experiences this year, but I suspect that both Ken and Brandi will have very rich, full, exciting lives,” she said.

CHART THE YEAR ABROAD

Two Watertown High School students are embarking on years abroad through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program. Both will be keeping travel blogs while away on their academic years. Here is information to track their journeys:

Kennedy E. Quigg will study in Dumaguete, Philippines. Her travel blog can be viewed at: http://kqkaranasan.wordpress.com/

Brandi M. Dupere will study in Muscat, Oman. Her travel blog can be viewed at: http://omanimebrandi.wordpress.com/

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