Sixteen-year-old Leni Schilling said she’s been dreaming of traveling to America through an international national program since she was a young girl. The aspiration began when she first learned of school events and activities such as homecoming and cheerleading, which don’t exist in her homeland of Hamburg in northern Germany.
“I’ve been hoping to come to America probably since seventh grade and now I finally get to go to an American high school,” said Schilling, who is part of a group of international students attending Juneau’s high schools. “I’ve always wanted to live somewhere where I can go skiing, so I can do that now. It’s just a great experience meeting new people and making new friends, having a second home.”
On Friday, Schilling and three other students visited the Floyd Dryden Middle School to give presentations and share their experiences with Juneau students. Schilling and her fellow students Wasiq Malik, 17, from Srinagar, India and Goce Dimitriev, 17, from Demir Kapija, north Macedonia have adjusted nicely to becoming Crimson Bears at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé while Ana Scopel, 17, from Gramado, Brazil is happy to be a Falcon at Thunder Mountain High School.
“I am the only one with TMHS because of the Rotary Exchange program, they have a partnership with Thunder Mountain, so that’s why I go there,” Scopel said. “It’s nice, very different than where I’m from.”
With the exception of Scopel, the other three students have come to America through AFS Intercultural Programs, which brings students from all over the world to the U.S. and is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, according to Amelia Jenkins, Juneau support coordinator. The students were among a handful of kids to be selected from their countries out of thousands of applicants, Jenkis said, and must be strong students and active in their communities.
Jenkins has been a Juneau support coordinator for AFS for roughly 20 years and a Juneau resident for 30. In addition to assisting with recruiting families to participate in hosting students, she also assists with arranging visits with other schools for the exchange students to meet local Juneau students and share their experiences. So far, Jenkins said in addition to visiting with Floyd Dryden High School, they’ve also visited with Montessori Borealis.
Jenkins said the program is especially important to her because she sees it as not only good for the town of Juneau but it also affords her the opportunity to “show off” Juneau to the rest of the world.
“Juneau is a part of the world, but it’s really easy to lose track of that,” Jenkins said. “Just within daily life we all get into our own little routines and so this is a great way to bring the world to us. For me personally it means I get to learn about the world, meet the students and be around that kind of energy.”
Additionally, Jenkins said she’s well aware of what a big ask it is of families to take in exchange students for a year, but it’s an important gesture that never goes unappreciated.
“Host families are only responsible for housing and feeding, but it’s still a pretty big ask, to bring another kid into your home and treat them like a family member,” Jenkins said. “Despite that, I think it’s an important program and it’s important for people to know that anyone can get involved. A single adult can even host, we just make sure that their liaison family has kids and they get connected with activities.”
With AFS, students can choose the country they visit but not necessarily where within the country, so while each student said they’ve enjoyed their time in Alaska, the placement still initially came as a bit of a shock to each of them.
Through the Rotary Exchange, Scopel said she was given three options, but because of COVID-19 all of the countries were closed except for the United States. Dimitriev and Malik are on scholarship as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, which Malik explained is specifically a U.S. program.
“We had to go to the U.S. because of the scholarship, it’s specifically for the U.S.,” Malik said. “We don’t get to decide where you live in the states, so it’s just based on applications, they find the perfect fit and then that’s where we live.”
Though each student is from an entirely different country, they said they’ve enjoyed jumping right along with the cross-town rivalries that come with having two high schools in one town. Malik, Dimitriev and Schilling all attend JDHS, whereas Scopel is the only student that attends TMHS.
“I have a host sister who goes to JDHS, Schilling said. “So the decision was easy for me because obviously I would go with her to the same school.”
For Malik, he said his situation was similar in the sense that the decision on where to go to school was already decided for him based on his host family.
“My host mother works at J-D,” Malik said. “So, similar for me, it was easy to decide.”
For Dimitriev, the decision for which school to attend came down to a coin toss as his host family lives right in between both high schools.
Scopel said through the Rotary Program she’s had slightly more time to explore activities than the other three and while the adjustment has been challenging at times, she is grateful for the opportunity.
“It was hard in the beginning but going to a foreign place is kind of like a really great experience,” Scopel said. “I did a lot of different things already from wearing a duck costume for Rotary, to snowboarding, so it’s kind of a crazy life, but it’s really good.”
Malik said above anything else, he has appreciated the chance to see life through the eyes of people living in such different ways than what he is used to.
“It has been a good experience because we get to meet new people, totally different people with different perspectives who are kind of living in a different world, I would say,” Malik said. “It’s really amazing and at the same time it’s fun and quite challenging, too.”
While each student can agree that the time away from friends and family has made them each somewhat homesick in their own ways, they each said they’ve not only loved their time in America, but especially in Juneau specifically.
“People are quite nice in Juneau, I love them,” Malik said.
Dimitriev added: “I really love that I’m in Alaska because it’s way different than the other states. I think it’s way better than some other states, so it’s unique in a way. For me it’s an amazing experience because I love all the people I’ve met and I’ve always wanted to come to the United States, so this is really a dream come true. It’s a good experience overall.”
Next up, the students are set to visit the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 15, where they’ll meet with Gov. Mike Dunleavy to give their presentations and spend time with lawmakers.
Jenkins said organizations interested in meeting with the students for cultural exchange should contact her. Those interested in working with AFS can go to AFSusa.org or call Jenkins at 907-321-2694.
• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at firstname.lastname@example.org.