As 17-year-old Malia Obama mulls how to spend her upcoming gap year before entering Harvard, it’s a safe guess what 17-year-old Nariah Haer would suggest to the president’s daughter:

See the world — on your own terms.

“The world is so big,” said Haer, who returns to Makassar, Indonesia, in June after spending her senior year at Minnesota’s 400-student Rush City High School.

While Malia has traveled the globe with her family, Haer sees innumerable benefits to going it alone (aside from a likely Secret Service agent or two if you’re a teen who grew up in the White House).

“I learned to solve my own problems, manage money, be by myself,” Haer said. “It was life-changing.”

Haer was among an elite group of international students picked for the 2015-16 Academic Year in the USA YES program, funded by the U.S. Department of State as a post 9/11 bridge-builder. Her host parents, Brenda and Tim Lundblad of Rush City, call her “the whole package,” a scholar, artist, dancer and volunteer with compassion, humor and an open mind. In fact, Harvard would be lucky to have her, too.

Haer took time away from her studies to talk about hallway “PDAs” (not a fan), dressing up like Catwoman for Halloween, and what it’s like to be the only person at your school who wears a hijab.

Q: How long have you been thinking about an international student exchange?

A: We’ve been thinking about this since I was in the eighth grade. My parents wanted me to get more experience. To prepare, I spent 18 months taking general knowledge tests, writing letters and doing interviews.

 

Q: You’re candid that the United States was not your first, or even second, choice. Those spots were reserved for France and Germany. Why is that?

A: A majority of my friends said I’d waste my time here, going home with nothing but bad habits. Some also said that I would regret my decision because I’d miss one year of high school at home. But it has been an extremely good experience for me. Minnesota stole my heart.

Q: Once you got over the shock of coming here, right?

A: Yes. I had no idea where Minnesota was. When they sent me the information, I thought, “Oh, OK, it’s near Canada.” I asked other YES alumna who had been in Minnesota, and they said, “Don’t bring a coat. You will buy a coat there.” I’m a tropical girl. But [snow] tubing was fun.

 

Q: Favorite season?

A: Fall. I just love the leaves changing colors. There are no maple trees in Indonesia. They bring in fake ones, plastic ones, as decoration.

 

Q: First impressions of an American school?

A: People talk so fast! My teacher talked so fast. I got confused at my first lunch about who to sit with. I did not know what to wear because I wear a school uniform at home.

 

Q: When students first saw your hijab [head covering], how did they respond?

A: They asked me, “Why do you wear that thing on your head?” I said it came from my religion.

 

Q: Did you ever feel afraid wearing it and identifying openly as a Muslim?

A: My life was going very well until the shootings in Paris and San Diego. When one of the presidential candidates said he wanted to bar Muslims from coming into the United States, my dad called. I said, “Don’t worry about that.”

Fortunately, my friends and host family are open-minded people who do not blame a specific group based on what they see in the media. That cheered me up. Not all Muslims are terrorists. The majority of the victims are Muslim, too.

 

Q: So, American politics … your thoughts?

A: They’re mean to each other. In Indonesia, we don’t call people those names.

 

Q: How much did your fellow students know about your home country?

A: Nothing. Sometimes I’d get upset, but sometimes it was really funny. They’d ask me, “Do you have cars in Indonesia?” “Do you wear shoes in Indonesia?” “Do you live in a tree?” But it is my job to answer them, to become a representative of my country. I really enjoy it.

 

Q: But you didn’t enjoy those public displays of affection (PDAs).

A: People kiss in the hallway. It surprised me.

 

Q: Do you have prom in Indonesia?

A: We do. We don’t have to go with a date. We pick a color and everybody wears that color.

 

Q: What was your course load?

A: Advanced algebra, English, art, Spanish and American history. No sports. I don’t like sports, except watching soccer.

 

Q: What’s most unusual about Americans?

A: You say “thank you” and “sorry” a lot. Or, “I like your shirt.” We don’t do that. People also open the door for you, even if they don’t know you.

 

Q: Favorite memories?

A: The Mall of America (three times), the Minnesota State Fair (huge, crowded), a Twins game, the Como Zoo, Duluth, Chicago, the arch in St. Louis. And I dressed up like Catwoman for Halloween and walked door to door with friends.

 

Q: What’s your advice to other young people considering traveling aboard?

A: Go out from your comfort zone. Don’t say “I don’t want to learn a new language, I don’t want to eat strange food.” Try it. You’ll be surprised. Being an exchange student made me more mature.