From Afghanistan to Interlochen: Meena’s story

Cello major Meena describes how she overcame her fears about studying abroad, dove into clubs and activities at Interlochen, and found the courage to share her country’s culture with fellow students.

Meena Karimi wears black attire while she performs in the woods.

When Meena first heard about Interlochen Arts Academy while in her home country of Afghanistan, she was excited about the chance to pursue her passion for cello abroad, but she also had some serious reservations. The school was six thousand miles from home, after all. Plus, she anticipated a major culture shock.

“I worried about my language—how I spoke differently, I thought differently, and I had a different worldview because I did not grow up in the United States. I thought that would be a very big problem,” she says.

Today, it’s been three years since her decision to attend school at Interlochen, and Meena is embarking on her senior year. During her time at the school, she’s done more than just survive as an international student: she’s excelled in her classes, made friends, developed her musical ability, and even taken on the role of student body president. How did Meena find her stride at Interlochen? Here’s her inspiring story, in Meena’s own words. 

Ice cream and international perspectives: an atmosphere of friendly curiosity

Upon arriving at Interlochen, Meena was immediately swept up into the lively conversations about art and culture happening all around campus. She found a warm welcome from her fellow students, as well as plenty of opportunities to hear diverse points of view.

“Being an art school everyone thinks all you will talk about is art,” she says. “While that is true—you will talk about art at your lunch and your breakfast and your dinner—you will also talk about different topics. Like, for example, how does the concept of ice cream differ from one country to another? Or how do people talk to each other in different cultures? How do they talk to an older person or a younger person? Being at Interlochen has taught me so many wonderful things about other human beings.”

When Meena looks back on her Interlochen experience, she’s struck by the kindness and support she received from other students who wanted to better understand her background.

“When I came here, everyone was always willing to talk to me,” she says. “The students at Interlochen are very friendly, and they're willing to listen. They're actually very curious about listening. And the most amazing part that really helped me was that I was not the only international student. What makes Interlochen special is the diversity. There are many international students at Interlochen from Syria, Turkey, and all over the world.”

Over time, Meena grew more and more comfortable sharing her story in conversations with friends. Her language and worldview weren’t just things that made her “different”; they were some of her greatest strengths.

“My culture is one of my strengths, because in every conversation you go into, you're bringing your own perspectives, which broadens the conversation that you're having with your friends,” she says.  


Meena (center, seated) performs with a quartet.

Sharing her story with the student body

Meena dove headfirst into her Arts Academy experience. She joined clubs like the Asian Affinity Group and Youth in Government. She played in chamber music and orchestra. She showcased her country’s top dishes to the entire Interlochen community at the International Food Fair. And she’s now the president of the student body—a role that’s allowed her to share her heritage with others.  

“In most of the Community Meetings when I talk with the student body, I share poetry in my language and I give the translation, which is the best because I'm sharing with them something that I really love,” she says.

When asked how she thinks about her home country, Meena responds thoughtfully.

“When I think about Afghanistan, I think about the nature of it, the environment, my friends, my family, and the connections,” she says. “There are many things that I think about Afghanistan, due to the situation there right now. I think about Afghanistan every second of my day.”

Meena’s next steps—and her advice for international students who aren’t sure yet about Interlochen

Where’s Meena headed next year? The cello major is getting ready to attend her dream school, Harvard University.

“I'm planning on dual majoring in social justice and government and cello,” she says. “That’s my goal.”

She advises international students to take the plunge and apply to Interlochen.

“I would tell a student who’s hesitating to just do it,” she says. “Yes, it will be hard at the beginning, because nothing is easy, but if you overcome it and do it, that’s what makes you different and what makes you closer to your goal. The most important thing is going through the process and learning from it.”

Her time at Interlochen will come to an end this spring, but Meena’s looking forward to seeing some of her Arts Academy friends again.

“The network of people that you build here is very important,” she says. “If you come to Interlochen, you’ll meet people from different places. And because you're an artist, in the future these people will be playing in the same orchestra that you're playing in. You'll see them in the future.”

Find out what it’s like to study music at Interlochen Arts Academy, learn more about how the school supports international students, or explore activities and clubs within Residential Life.