Last summer, 17-year-old Jodiana Lombardi set off halfway across the world to spend her junior year of high school in Jordan. After living with a host family in the capital city of Amman and completely immersing herself in the culture, she’s now ready to share what she has learned.
“I go to a high school here and I also study Arabic and Jordanian culture and teach English,” Lombardi tells PEOPLE via Skype. “I’m studying Jordan’s culture and values and how it’s one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East.”
Lombardi, who is from Scituate, Rhode Island, and attends the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, is taking part in the YES Abroad scholarship program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and offers year-long study programs in countries with significant Muslim populations — such as Morocco, Turkey, Ghana, Jordan and Indonesia.
For Lombardi, her interest in the Middle East began long before she packed her bags for Jordan last August.
“When I was in second grade, we had an after-school program called ‘Passports From Around the World,’ ” she says. “We’d pretend were were on an airplane and then we’d be in a different country. The first country we ever learned about was Morocco and I immediately fell in love with the history. I went home and told my mom I wanted to live there one day.
“As I got older, my interest in North Africa spread to the Middle East and I fell in love with the culture. It’s so rich and there’s so much we aren’t really exposed to outside of the war and the issues we have. I wanted the full story.”
So the intrepid student took matters into her own hands, visiting nearby Islamic schools and mosques in Rhode Island. She began to study Arabic and attended cultural events at Brown University. In doing so, she met people from the Middle East, as well as other students who shared her interests.
“It allowed me to dispel any stereotypes I might have had,” she says.
Armed with her newfound knowledge — and a desire for more — Lombardi soaked up her year-long experience in Jordan with the intention to educate others upon her return next month as a teen ambassador.
“There are parts of the Middle East that are extremely modern. I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop with wireless Internet, drinking a caramel frappuccino!” she says. “There are more commonalities than you think.”
From pop culture to politics, Lombardi has taken it all in.
“One of the most popular TV shows here is Arab Idol (an Arabic television show based on American Idol). People get excited about rooting for the underdog.
“And it’s such a big family atmosphere here. The Bedouin hospitality you find here is incredible. I feel really accepted. I live in the capital city, so there is more open-mindedness.”
Spending the U.S. election year in the Middle East was also an eye-opening experience.
“I was able to see the effects of the election upfront. I saw how it impacted the image of America overseas,” she says. “Through the help of exchange programs, students are able to showcase what America is about and combat stereotypes.”
Lombardi says she’s excited to come back and share what she’s learned through presentations she’ll give to political figures within her own community.
“I want to educate others on the differences in the world and how we can all come together,” she says.
And she couldn’t have done it without the support of her friends, family and her school, The Met, an innovative career and technical school in Rhode Island where students pursue their passions through internships and projects that make an impact in the community.
“The Met has maintained a 90+% graduation and college acceptance rate and has helped thousands of low-income students find success in college, career and life,” Arthur Baraf, a principal at The Met High School, tells PEOPLE. “Met students have a knowledge of self, sense of community and a personal purpose.
“It’s important that students who don’t fit the mold have a school like The Met, and our rapidly changing economy needs people who’ve been trained to do real-world, complex problem solving.”
Lombardi’s mother was a member of The Met’s first graduating class in 1996. And as the very first second-generation student, she has a lot of pride for her school.
“It’s life-changing,” she says of The Met. “You come in and you’re immediately welcomed into a family.”
And her school family is behind her 100 percent.
“Jodi is extraordinarily globally minded,” Baraf says. “She’s on a mission. I wouldn’t be surprised if she is on the national stage one day — maybe Secretary of State.”
Lombardi admits that is in fact her eventual goal, but she has a lot she wants to achieve in the meantime.
“Secretary of State is at the top of my dream board!” she says. “I want to major in International Relations or Middle Eastern Studies. My focus is to become a U.S. diplomat with the Middle East and North Africa and hopefully gain ambassadorship in one of the countries. I also want to spend time in the Peace Corps.”
For now, she’s ready to share what she’s learned. And she has some important advice for other teens.
“If you’re interested about another culture or if you don’t understand the aspects of another country, learn about it.” she says. “Don’t stop yourself from exploring the world around you because of things you hear in the news.
“Every country has beauty, every culture has beauty and the more you know about the world, the easier it will be for you to succeed in it.”