Virginia Stonkus, Youth Exchange Officer for the Juneau Rotary Club, and Dan Dawson, Youth Exchange Officer for the Glacier Rotary Club, pose with students Marcellin Niset, left, of Belgium, Will Blanc, of Juneau, Rifqi Zulfahm, of Indonesia, Rebecka Miller, of Juneau, and Florian Tanzyna, right, of Germany.

Virginia Stonkus, Youth Exchange Officer for the Juneau Rotary Club, and Dan Dawson, Youth Exchange Officer for the Glacier Rotary Club, pose with students Marcellin Niset, left, of Belgium, Will Blanc, of Juneau, Rifqi Zulfahm, of Indonesia, Rebecka Miller, of Juneau, and Florian Tanzyna, right, of Germany.

International exchange students discuss Alaskan experience

The world is a large place with nearly 200 countries and 6,500 spoken languages, filled with diverse peoples and cultures. For five teenage students in the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, it now feels a lot smaller and more intricately woven.

Two Juneau students who traveled abroad last year, and three students from overseas — two 17-year-olds from Belgium and Indonesia and a 15-year-old boy from Germany — recently sat down with the Juneau Empire to talk about the program.

The international exchange students talked about falling in love with the Last Frontier, being immersed in a new place and encountering the unexpected.

The Juneau teenagers encouraged other local students to do the exchange program, which strives to foster peace and understanding “one student at a time,” Rotary Club Youth Exchange Officer Virginia Stonkus said.

But fair warning: It’s not an easy undertaking. Each student had to undergo a rigorous interview process to be accepted and spent a year preparing. That included studying the foreign language to be able to converse and attend school, learning about the U.S. and training to be an “ambassador” of the country. Then, they spent a year on a student visa enrolled in a local high school.

Here are their stories:

 

“Becoming a true Alaskan”

Marcellin Niset of Belgium, 17, sported a jacket covered in pins. He came to the U.S. with a collection of them, and then exchanges them for Alaska or U.S. ones. On the back of his jacket, he had even attached an old Alaskan license plate and a yo-yo.

Niset said he had put the U.S. on his list of preferred countries for the exchange program, but unlike his sister who went to California, he was bound for Alaska.

“I had no idea about Alaska before coming,” he said, adding that after he learned his assigned exchange location, he had to get a map to figure out where it was.

“I did some research on Alaska before coming, and when I discovered there were no roads leaving, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s from Wikipedia, that’s not true.’ But when I arrived, I learned it was true,” he said of Juneau.

Niset, who comes from a village in Belgium of 800 people, said he doesn’t understand people who say there is nothing to do in town. Since being here, he has gone whale watching and dog sledding on the glacier and is now practicing for his role of Gideon in the Juneau-Douglas High School play “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

He said he loved getting involved with the community through the Juneau Rotary Club, which he described as one of the true purposes of the exchange program. Or as he put it, “becoming a true Alaskan.”

“Juneau doesn’t have the spirit of a huge city,” he said. “It’s like the spirit of a village but with more people. Alaska will always be in my heart forever, and I would never want to do war against Alaska, for instance.”

Niset hopes to go on visiting other places around the world, like Russia.

 

“Not what I imagined”

Rifqi Zulfahm, 17, couldn’t help but note the vastly different temperatures of Alaska compared to his home country of Indonesia, which averages at 90 degrees.

“In Indonesia people just think Alaska is ice and polar bears, and it’s very cold. … Actually, it is very cold,” Zulfahm said with a laugh. “Alaska is not what I imagined. It’s beautiful … and (there’s) nice people.”

Some cultural oddities did stand out for him. Everyone seems to own a dog, he said, and youth address adults casually. In Indonesia, he said, young people always call an adult Mr. or Ms, not by a first name.

Traveling to Alaska meant trying new things, he said: Hunting on Admiralty Island, kayaking, and seeing brown bears, moose and other wildlife.

After high school, he said would like to come back and go to school in the U.S., possibly at the University of Alaska Southeast. If he went on exchange again, Europe would be next.

 

Ice fields and sea planes

Florian Tanzyna, a 15-year-old from Germany, said he had always thought of America as either being East coast or West coast. After being selected to come to Alaska, he didn’t quite know what to expect. He said his father told him that all houses were spread out and people did not have neighbors.

“There is the valley and downtown and a stretch of road between,” Tanzyna said of what he found instead in Juneau. “It’s hard if you don’t have a ride or don’t understand when the buses are leaving. In Germany, we would have a train so it would make it kind of easier.”

He was amazed by the ice fields of the Mendenhall Glacier. He and Niset took a seaplane, which he described as his most interesting experience in Juneau.

“Behind those mountains there is so much space that’s not used because it’s all ice,” he said. “That’s really cool.”

He went on a fun trip to Las Vegas, too, during his stay with his host family. In the future, he said he wants to visit the East coast.

 

Schooling in Indonesia

Will Blanc, 16, who currently goes to Thunder Mountain High School, went on exchange to Indonesia. He said his year abroad was one of the best of his life, and he’s already applied to do a federal exchange program this summer. He wants to go to places like Cambodia and India.

In Indonesia, he said he experienced a different education system that here in the states. After middle school, kids go to either an SMA school, which prepares them for college, or an SMK school, which prepares them to enter the work force.

“Rifqi went to an SMA school and I went to an SMK school,” Blanc said, adding that a lot of his classes focused on service and cooking of Indonesian dishes and sauce making.

Rifqi Zulfahm who is also currently going to TMHS with Blanc, added, “It’s kind of different, the school program. … I don’t say it’s easy but it doesn’t really press me. In Indonesia – exam, exam, exam.”

 

Meeting the Finnish prime minister

Juneau’s Rebecka Miller, who went to Finland, also found the school system different abroad.

“There was a lot of testing because every six weeks there would be finals,” she said.

“I took Finnish government and I got to go to parliament and meet the prime minister,” she added. “It’s only a country of 5.5 million people so it wasn’t like, ‘Wow, I met the prime minister.’ It’s kind of like everyone knew the prime minister, like everyone had seen the prime minister at the grocery store.”

Miller described her fellow students as dedicated, and laughed about how some students would ask for help with deciphering Shakespeare in a class she assisted in, but would end up figuring it out faster than she.

“They all spoke really good English because they had been taking it from second grade, so it was really beautiful. They were really shy about it. They would be like, ‘Oh, I don’t speak English,’ and then you’d watch them read Emily Dickinson in English.”

Miller said the experience changed her perception of the world.

“I think it makes listening to the news a lot different because I know people from everywhere now,” Miller said of going on exchange. “People start stereotyping and generalizing. I read the news and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I know someone there.’ It doesn’t even faze you before ‘cause it’s a thousand miles away.”

Now she wishes to major in political science in college and become a diplomat. She had traveled or moved with her family before her exchange, and she said she wants to travel all over the world, particularly the Middle East.

“I think the world would be a much better place if everyone was an exchange student,” she said.

• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at clara.miller@juneauempire.com.

Exchange students Rifqi Zulfahm, right, of Indonesia, and Marcellin Niset, of Belgium, show off their decorated jackets during an interview on Thursday. Both are attending high school in Juneau as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program.

Exchange students Rifqi Zulfahm, right, of Indonesia, and Marcellin Niset, of Belgium, show off their decorated jackets during an interview on Thursday. Both are attending high school in Juneau as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program.

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