URBANA – Cody Bralts, who recently turned 18, can't remember a time when the Mideast didn't dominate U.S. politics.
So when he applied for a scholarship from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, he designated Egypt as his first choice.
And that's what he got.
Bralts, a midyear graduate of Urbana High School, recently returned from a five-month visit in Egypt, where he stayed with a host family in the Mohandessin section of Cairo.
Bralts now has what he calls a "taxi" knowledge of Arabic. Another result of his time in Egypt: He's been transformed into a more serious person.
The things that impressed Bralts most about Egypt was the dominance of religion, Islam, in Egyptian life and how Egyptians seem to be either rich or poor.
"I saw two different worlds," he said. "There's really no middle class in Egypt. You're either very rich or very poor, but I think a new middle class is starting to develop."
He also picked up, from many of the Egyptians he met, a strong anti-Israel sentiment. That didn't prevent Bralts, when asked, from identifying himself as atheist and from a Jewish background.
Bralts said he did not experience any anti-Americanism while there. Bralts said the Egyptians, including taxi drivers that he met, view President Barack Obama favorably, giving a thumbs-up whenever his name was mentioned.
Bralts, who used public transportation and taxis to get around, also saw on a regular basis protests and sit-ins in favor of democracy, worker rights and free enterprise and against Egypt's totalitarian regime.
The U.S. State Department, which administers the Language Initiative for Youth, forbade its participants from participating in protests while overseas. And Egyptian police wouldn't allow foreigners or tourists near the demonstrators.
"They basically control and restrict access to where tourists can go," said Bralts, who would see the protests, along with police brutality, reported on Egyptian television.
As part of the Security Language Initiative, Bralts took Arabic language classes and attended an American high school where classes are taught in English. On his own, he did volunteer work twice a week in an orphanage.
Most of the orphans had been born out of wedlock; their mothers were forced to give them up, he said.
"These children are owned by the state," Bralts said. "To make matters worse, they're not given a proper education. There's no safety net."
Bralts also took in famous sites, among them Alexandria, Luxor and the pyramids, which he could see in the distance from his host family's neighborhood.
Overall, the time in Egypt left Bralts feeling fortunate to be an American, he said. He met many young Egyptians who are desperate to travel to Europe or America and who want to be artists, photographers or musicians.
Their parents, though, are pushing them to pursue technical degrees.
"I heard multiple times how lucky I was to be American and to have the freedom to do what I wanted," said Bralts, an aspiring photojournalist who was co-editor in-chief of The Echo, the UHS student newspaper.
Still, Bralts called Egypt a wonderful place; he hopes to return to visit his host family and other friends he made there.
Before attending a university or art school, Bralts is taking a "gap year" during which he will live with his father in Wicker Park in Chicago and work for Ragstock, a company that sells recycled clothing as well as new clothes and accessories.
Bralts father is a Ragstock employee. His mother, Lisa Bralts Kelly, works for the city of Urbana as an economic development specialist and director of the Market at the Square farmers' market.
While in Egypt, Bralts heard the good news that a music video he had shot in Urbana last fall won a National PTA Reflections award, worth $800.
The video is set to music by Gold Panda, a London-based electronic musician.
Gold Panda has made Bralts' video one of its official ones, and the video was featured on the music page of the BBC website and at http://www.pitchfork.com.