By Joseph Robertia
The numbers tell it all. According to the U.S. State Department, only a third of Americans have a passport, and that’s a peak in passport numbers since the 2009 implementation of increased regulations requiring passports for travel between the United States, Canada and Mexico.
This lack of travel abroad can lead to fewer firsthand meetings and interactions with people and cultures different from those in America. But as the world grows more interconnected through technology, so, too, does the need to understand these differences.
This is especially true for youth, who may one day be interacting with business associates from foreign countries and cultures. The ability to speak another language, understand a different cultural context and navigate diverse perspectives globally are skills needed to succeed in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world.
That’s where AFS-USA comes in. Formerly the American Field Service, this nonprofit organization has been offering international exchange programs around the world for more than 65 years. Teens being immersed in a foreign culture benefit in myriad ways, not the least of which is dispelling ridiculous stereotypes. Few places is this more true than Alaska.
“Before I came here I didn’t have too much time for researching about Alaska and I was thinking I’ll see igloos and polar bears, but after I came here and saw everything is civilized, it isn’t as bad as I thought,” said Cem Solak, an exchange student from Turkey.
The AFS program works both ways when it comes to dissipating preconceived notions about people and their cultures, according to local AFS organizer Eileen Bryson.
“The YES scholarship program (Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange) builds bridges of international understanding, especially between Americans and people in countries with significant Muslim populations. The Flex scholarship program (Future Leader’s Exchange) builds future U.S. relations with the countries of the former Soviet Union based upon bridges of personal friendship and mutual understanding. The core students are from all the other countries who have AFS programs. In all, there are 90 countries who send students to the United States, including the YES and Flex programs,” she said.
Eman Nabas is from Jordan.
“The thing that best interested me to be part of this exchange program was to bring the true picture of Islam and also Mideast. I wanted to show that if there is one or two terrorists that does not mean that we are all like this. There was another reason, such as adapting with a completely different family, friends and culture. I always heard about America and my dream was to see it and I was lucky to see this dream coming true,” Nabas said.
“My only difficulty was the weather. I came from a desert with all this warmth and in a sudden I am living in Alaska with 10 below zero. But I like it, it’s different and it’s my biggest challenge,” Nabas said. “… I would like to do it over and over, and I won’t change anything, except of eating less so I can’t gain weight like now, but it is also part of the experience.”
In addition to Solak, from Turkey, and Nabas, from Jordan, there are currently students from Egypt, Chili, Russia and Norway living with host families on the central peninsula. Solak said he’s been enjoying the experience, especially since being here was originally only going to be temporary.
“English is the most common language in the world so it is biggest reason I chose the U.S. and I didn’t choose the state. Before I came to Alaska, my exchange program told me, ‘You are going to go to Texas, Houston,’” he said.
However, something fell through with his potential host family in Texas, so AFS asked Solak if he wanted to give Alaska a try. The host family he would be staying with had already sent their daughter to Turkey with the same program. He wasn’t entirely sure about Alaska, not knowing anything about it, but decided to give it a try.
“I talked with her and I decided to come and try my exchange because I didn’t want to feel rude if I don’t come here, and it is the best decision of my life so far,” he said.
The transition wasn’t without growing pains, though. Solak said that he initially missed his family and home, but as is the point of the program, the longer he stayed, the more he found this place and its people to his liking.
“After I moved (with my current family) I stopped to miss my own family in Turkey, because they are so nice to me and they saw me as their own child. I felt they are my second family and I’ll love them forever,” he said.
Outside of the house, Solak also experienced growth due to having experiences different from those he had always known.
“In first days communication is the biggest problem, but as the days passed you get used to understand the language, and after two months you can start to speak fluent,” he said. “Other big difference is a teenager’s life. In Turkey teenagers always go outside — cafes or movie theaters — during day and nights, just for being together. But here, mostly teenagers never go outside during day.”
Still, the activities kids do here have been fun for Solak to learn. He said he has grown particularly fond of snowboarding, although even the exchange students from countries with a similar climate to Alaska have found the state exciting due to its unique differences.
“I have to admit, when I chose to go to the U.S. on exchange, I had a little hope that they would place me in Alaska. I was so lucky that a host family in Alaska wanted to host me, since I have been dreaming of going to Alaska since I was a child,” said Annbjoerg Bakken, of Norway.
She said she has enjoyed visiting the places and attending events she had heard about on the other side of the world.
“In the fall, my host family took me up to Denali National Park and it was so beautiful. I have really enjoyed the beautiful nature in Alaska,” she said “One of the best experiences was when we went up to Anchorage to watch the Iditarod. I have wanted to watch that race since I was a little kid, and I have always been interested in dog mushing, so that was really a great experience for me to see many of the big people in the mushing world and their dogs.”
Even the day-to-day stuff of going to school and coming home to her host family has been rewarding, Bakken said.
“I’ve also had a great time doing sports here so far. I’ve been doing cross-country running, skiing and now I’m trying track for the first time. I really enjoy being on these teams, and hang out with all the awesome people,” she said. “There are so many good parts to be on exchange. To live with my awesome host family for a year is just amazing. They are really amazing people. I have never had sisters before, and now I do.”
Kenai Central High School has been listed by AFS as one of the top 100 schools in the country for hosting students. KCHS earned this distinction from consistently incorporating intercultural and experiential learning opportunities into its curriculum, as well as hosting roughly a half dozen AFS students every year. Including this year’s exchange group, there have been 81 AFS students since getting involved with the program in 1981.
“We are always looking for host families who would like to share their family with someone from a different culture,” Bryson said.
Host families can have teens or young children of their own, no children, or even be single parents. Background checks and references are all part of the procedure to make sure each family is prepared to host, and host families are not paid. Rather, they invite a person from another country to become part of their family.
“Host families don’t have guests stay with them. Instead, they gain a new son or daughter with all the joys and ups and downs of another wonderful teenager in their home. Flexibility helps as the family and the student learn about each other. Everyone in the family needs to be ready and willing to welcome the exchange student into their lives.”
AFS volunteer Mitch Michaud said that he, his wife and their two children have opened their home to be a host family, and it was a very real experience for everyone.
“The family needs to be willing to share their family — good, bad, happy, sad, angry, loud or sulking — with an unknown teenager who doesn’t know them. And if they do this, they end with another daughter, another son, or a friendship that lasts a lifetime,” he said. “I keep in touch with my oldest (hosted) daughter, Carol. She’s at Virginia Tech now, playing Division II tennis under a scholarship. She taught (my son), Fox, more about sports than I ever did.”
Michaud said that another exchange student, a boy from Brazil named Athur, had a zest for life and enjoyed partying. But even so, “I really liked him, he added to our family,” he said.
It is the exchange, in the literal sense of the word, which makes the experiences so great, as the teens were quick to articulate.
“I suggest to everyone being an exchange student because you can see other countries, cultures, lifestyle. (The) most important thing (has been making) good memories about this year, and you will not never forget them in rest of your life,” Solak said.
Bakken shared similar sentiments.
“I would not want anything different about this experience because it’s been absolutely amazing so far. I love Alaska, and I will definitely come back and visit,” she said.
Those interested in meeting some of the exchange students, and tasting some of their native cuisine, can attend the 33rd annual AFS International Dinner this weekend. The event will be held at Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church, at 225 S. Spruce St., in Kenai.
Tickets, available from AFS members and at River City Books, are $25 for adults and $10 for children under 15.
Anyone interested in being a host parent is invited to call Nancy Cranston at 283-9265, Bryson at 283-4428 or Michaud at 262-4977 for more information.