On an overcast Juneau afternoon, eight high school students from around the world took a seat at a table inside the Capital City Weekly to discuss why they’d come to Southeast Alaska, and what they’d experienced here.
In Haines, Sitka, and the capital city, the exchange students are spending an academic year in the U.S. to reap the benefits of being immersed in a foreign language and culture, as well as serve as cultural ambassadors for their homelands. It’s all part of the AFS international exchange program, which was begun more than 70 years ago by American Field Service ambulance driver volunteers from World War I and World War II as a way to help prevent future conflict. Half of the students came through merit scholarships by the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which is a diplomacy initiative to build “bridges of international understanding, especially between Americans and people in countries with significant Muslim populations.” The other four come as part of the AFS’s core program.
The students — Ceren Gokpinar of Turkey, Haifa Alsafadi of Jordan, Omar Ali of Egypt, Shanzila Ahmad of Pakistan, Debby Ching of Hong Kong, Manuel Lopez Balserio of Spain, Katja Steimann of Germany, and Carlos Carbello of Paraguay — had a lot to share, from their experiences with school, food, and English to ignorance and racism they’ve encountered.
The students learned about the exchange program from a variety of sources — family members, teachers and even a Facebook ad. Each of them decided to apply, inspired to experience a new culture through the unique opportunity of living with an American family and getting to practice their English. When asked what state they might like to live in, for some, Alaska hadn’t occurred to them as a possibility.
“When I learned I would go to America and I was looking at (a) map, like where should I go, where can I go? I was looking at states…. I couldn’t imagine Alaska cause I couldn’t see it on the map as it was off with Hawaii…” Gokpinar said.
“(AFS) told me I was going to go close to Seattle,” said Balserio, much to the amusement of his fellow exchange students, one laughing, “Yes, close by two hours by plane.”
Ching said once she learned she would be living in Haines, it took her an hour to find it on Google Maps.
“Then I realized it was Alaska and then I thought, ‘Wait, aren’t I going to the U.S. Isn’t that Canada?’” she said. “I thought I was going to be in an igloo …or that everything would be frozen, but it’s not that bad.”
Turns out it’s not as cold as she or many of them expected, and she’s had the chance to go ice skating, snowboarding, and skiing. “It’s awesome living in Alaska,” she said.
It looked like a sausage
One of the first surprises for Gokpinar arriving in the U.S was a run-in with a buffet. As she filled her plate, she selected what she thought was a sausage.
“It’s sweet, it’s hard, it’s too weird! And, it’s carrots!” she said upon tasting it.
Not everything has been such a surprise. She’s enjoyed the diversity of cuisine.
“I realize here in America they have many foods: we can find Chinese food, we can find Mexican food, we can find American food. We can find so many cultures’ food. In Turkey we cannot find so many places.”
Ahmad found the food lacked spice compared to Pakistan, though she’s gotten used to it, she said, just as she’s grown accustomed to the timing and number of meals. Dinner here is at 6 p.m., when back home it would be 8:30-9 p.m.
Alsafadi said back in Jordan she would have five small meals throughout the day.
“I come from home from school and I’m really hungry. My host sister looks at me ‘What are you doing?’ and I’m like ‘Making food’” she said.
“In high school, I’m not used to eating burgers or pizza all the time,” Carbello said. “Back in Paraguay it’s pretty different what you eat in high school at lunch. We usually have a real meal: pasta, or meat or beef with salad so it’s something healthier.”
Opportunities in school
It’s the general consensus that school is easier here than back home, from how long the school day lasts to the subjects taught.
“There’s a lot less different classes. There’s like six here and there’s like 12 in Spain. I feel like I learn a lot less than in Spain,” Balserio said.
“Studies back home are really hard,” Ahmad said of Pakistan. “In fact coming here has made me hate the education back home even more because you don’t really do anything except sit in the class together. Back home you study the whole day, the whole night, and you still don’t get 100 percent,” Ahmad said.
For many of the exchange students, flexibility on what classes they can take is a new experience. Ali was surprised when his host family told him they’d need to sit down with his counselor to select what classes he’d take.
Gokpinar said while she appreciates the firm grounding in math and science and other core subjects from Turkey, she wishes that the education system back home would incorporate extracurricular activities like the arts and sports. Here she gets to play on a basketball team and play music.
“We can play really different and expensive instruments, saxophone, trumpet, and they already have that and we can borrow it. We can start to play. And sport activities are really good. It’s a school activity, not separated. It’s a great idea. In American school they’re like you should do this if you want. We have opportunities in here, so many. I really like it, arts and sports stuff.”
One of the biggest challenges the students encountered was the language barrier. All of them knew English before coming to the U.S. but there were still bumps along the way.
“Back home we’re surrounded by our family all the time. They’re people we’re used to. If you’re talking and you don’t necessarily use the right words to express yourself they still understand you, but it’s not the same here,” Alsafadi said.
“You understand what they say, and you want to say what you think, but you can’t,” Steimann said.
Gokpinar said when she first came, she struggled to communicate with those around her. She kept at it, though. People around her continued to make an effort to speak with her, and her English improved.
Ching could relate. “I could understand what people said but I can’t express myself fully. I know what they’re talking about and I really want to give them my opinion but sometimes I couldn’t think of the way how to fully express what I want to say. It made me feel really bad at first but I’ve gotten much better because my friends helped me out because they’re really nice.”
Breaking harmful stereotypes
Exchange has been a positive experience for the students, many of them getting to travel to other places with their host families, and experience the Alaska wilderness and all the activities it offers. One has even gotten to go sky diving. But several students have also run into people either simply ignorant of their cultures and homelands, or explicitly racist.
“Sometimes people get a little bit racist. Sometimes it just shocks me. Sometimes you think they’re doing this just to hurt you, but then you realize they don’t know. They actually think this way. It’s disturbing,” Ahmad said.
“When I met new friends at school, the first thing they ask me is, ‘Are you in a cartel in South America? Are you a drug dealer?’ No, just because I’m from South America does not mean I am involved in that kind of stuff,” Carbello said.
Students from the YES program were surprised with some the questions lobbed at them, from whether they have phones and cars to whether they ride camels. Ali said at first he thought some of the people might be only kidding when asking these questions, but looking at their faces, he’d realize they were serious.
Ahmad recalled conversing with someone who was asking her a series of the standard questions, like how she likes Sitka, etc.
“They asked me “Is it different from where I came from and I was like ‘Yeah, it’s pretty different,’ and then they were like ‘Oh yeah, girls go to school here.’ I was like, really? I mean, I never went to school and they just picked me up from the street and told me go and represent your country though you’ve never been to school. Later on I found out that they actually think this way. They think we don’t go to school in Pakistan.”
Ali’s experience really stuck with him. In Sitka, he was volunteering for the Salvation Army, serving food for Christmas. He and another guy volunteered to help a woman carry her bags to her apartment nearby. As they rode the elevator together, she asked for their names. When he said he was called Omar, she leapt backward and said “You are a terrorist!” and then laughed and said “I’m only joking.”
“It is not funny joke at all. My reaction was just like on my face. I didn’t say any words,” Ali said. He could not understand how this woman’s first impulse upon hearing his name — while he was in the middle of trying to help her — would be to assume he was a terrorist. Later, when he was relaying the story to his AFS coordinator, he found that it propelled him to push himself further in his exchange to be a cultural ambassador.
“If I’m doing really good in my year, she could probably know about it, that I’m doing really well and many people in the community are saying Omar is a good person in the community and he was a really great exchange student. So if she heard that from any place or she saw my photo in the newspaper or my name…she could think about that again: if he is a really good person and doing all this, how could he be a terrorist?”
It’s Ali’s hope that through his exchange that he can break the stereotypes surrounding him and those like him, as a Muslim, as an Arabic speaking person, as a Middle Easterner, as an Egyptian.
It was a sentiment echoed by Gokpinar. She too is viewing her exchange as a great opportunity to break stereotypes and have people better understand her culture, just as she is trying to understand American culture. Being an exchange student, they all agreed, makes for more open-minded people. They encouraged others to take part if they can.
“Even people here, they’re pretty open-minded, but it’s really good to go on exchange and see how the world really is. It is not what you see on news or hear on news…you should go and actually see with your eyes. What you see and what you hear is not necessarily true,” Ahmad said.
Go to http://www.yes-abroad.org to learn how to send a U.S. student on exchange. Go to https://www.afsusa.org/about-afs/public-diplomacy-initiatives/yes/ to learn about the YES program and hosting a student from a country with a significant Muslim population, and go to https://www.afsusa.org/about-afs/ to learn about the AFS program overall.
“It creates a new generation of the way of thinking,” Ali said of cross-cultural exchange. “This age is the most effective age…We could do much more work and we could affect more, creating a new generation, a new open-minded way of thinking. This age could make this world a peaceful world, could change 180 degrees. No way of thinking of doing any wars, not seeing the differences, only that we are one people.”
• Clara Miller is the Capital City Weekly staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.