‘I absolutely love this place’: Bosnian exchange student has perspective on American life

Bosnian Exchange student Irfan Durmic on American high school life

Irfan Durmic is a Bosnian student spending a year at Collinsville High School, and has a unique perspective on American life.
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Irfan Durmic is a Bosnian student spending a year at Collinsville High School, and has a unique perspective on American life.

Irfan Durmić sees the metro-east through the eyes of a visitor, but also of someone who truly feels at home.

Irfan is an exchange student from Bosnia, spending this year at Collinsville High School. At age 16, he would be a sophomore in his home country, but with his transfer credits, American schools place him as a junior. That means he will probably still be a junior when he gets home, but he’s okay with that, because he is having so much fun learning about America.

“I absolutely love this place,” Irfan said. “The teachers are amazing. I have met so many nice teachers here... It makes your day nice to get to school and see so many positive people, so many beautiful girls and so many smart teachers.”

Irfan is visiting the metro-east as part of YES — Youth Exchange and Service — sponsored through the U.S. State Department, which Irfan points out costs each American only 25 cents a year. He is from Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia, and his class has 13 students in the immediate area from nine different countries.

“These are typically the top students in their nations,” said Cyndi Oberle-Dahm, chairwoman of the social students department at Belleville West High School and regional coordinator for the program. “These programs are very competitive, because they’re here under scholarship.”

Oberle-Dahm said the program advocates “citizen diplomacy,” the concept that the best way to learn about other countries is meeting people from those countries. Irfan’s classmates will know more about Bosnia from meeting him, she said. “And he will take with him his experiences, and tell them that Americans are just like everyone else, regardless of stereotypes and myths,” she said.

I can only see the positive things here.

Irfan Durmić, foreign exchange student at Collinsville High

There is no activity Irfan doesn’t want to try. He goes to the football games and Scholar Bowl, math team and the W.Y.S.E. science and engineering competition. Naturally, he did fairly well in Multicultural Kahoks, and as an exchange student, he must perform at least 30 hours of public service. So he’s decided to do 100 volunteer hours, and he’s getting pretty close. If he gets 100 hours, he can receive a letter of congratulations from President Barack Obama, and he “really wants that.”

“I mean, it’s a paper from the president of the U.S., who doesn’t want that?” he said.

Oberle-Dahm and Irfan’s host parent, Catherine Muñoz, agree that he is an exceptional, exuberant young man who has immersed himself in American culture and does presentations teaching people about his country and his culture.

“He’s an amazing young man, very energetic and enthusiastic,” Muñoz said. “He’s enjoying being part of this program and takes school very seriously.”

Irfan has been exploring the metro-east and St. Louis, developing a fondness for toasted ravioli and American fast food. “I’ve got a really bad addiction to chicken McNuggets,” he said. “Pop-Tarts are very, very, very addicting.”

Schools are different in Bosnia. They are more broad-based and “a lot harder,” Irfan said. He explained students take 15 subjects a year, and they don’t get to pick their classes.

“You get used to it real quickly,” he said. American schools are more focused on tests and quizzes with multiple-choice questions, while Bosnia has more oral exams and less testing overall, he said.

But Irfan said he couldn’t say which was the better approach. “Students have the luxury to pick their classes... it gives you the opportunity to focus on the things you like and you want to develop,” he said. “But we can have a really broad spectrum of knowledge. Both school systems have some positive things, some not so positive.”

There is no equivocating on Collinsville, though. “I absolutely love this place,” Irfan said. “The teachers are amazing, I have met so many nice teachers. It’s run so well; I’m amazed at how well things work here.”

In fact, Irfan was so enthusiastic about his fondness for Collinsville that he was invited to speak before the Collinsville City Council a few weeks ago. A self-described “history nerd,” he has been exploring local history and loved the annual Italian Fest celebration. “I can only see the positive things here,” he told the city council.

When I see some things I’m so amazed by them, and you guys don’t see how beautiful they actually are because you just take them for granted.

Irfan Durmić, foreign exchange student at Collinsville High

And what’s America like for someone who is new to the country? “I think you guys have a bit of a problem with appreciating all the stuff you have,” Irfan said. “When I see some things I’m so amazed by them, and you guys don’t see how beautiful they actually are because you just take them for granted.”

He described going into a Barnes & Noble and seeing hundreds of thousands of books. “How can you not be amazed by that?” he said. “Maybe 15 minutes from the place you live at, you’ve got a whole bookstore that has a huge amount of knowledge... I think U.S. citizens should try to appreciate the U.S. a bit more and actually understand how well they have it, compared to the rest of the world. If you are in the U.S. you can achieve so much, and you have to understand that.”

After this year, Irfan must go back to Bosnia — and do a lot of studying to be ready for his next year of high school. But he is strongly considering returning to the United States for college. “The U.S. is the land of opportunity,” he said. “If you want to succeed and you’re passionate about something, you can succeed in the U.S.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

Meet Irfan Durmić

  • Age: 16
  • School: Collinsville High School
  • Grade: 11 (sort of)
  • Parents’ names: Ines Durmić, host parent Catherine Muñoz
  • Sibling: Leda Durmić, host sibling Nick Muñoz
  • Clubs and activities: Scholar Bowl, Math Team, Multiculturak Kahoks, W.Y.S.E., math tutoring and other volunteer work
  • Favorite class: All of them, but especially AP physics, Leadership 101 and AP history, to learn about the United States
  • Future plans: To finish school in Bosnia, but hopefully return to the United States for college