Peter Segall / Juneau Empire 
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, left, meets with international exchange students at the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. The students, who each come from different countries, have been living with host families in Sitka and Juneau and attending local high schools.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire Gov. Mike Dunleavy, left, meets with international exchange students at the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. The students, who each come from different countries, have been living with host families in Sitka and Juneau and attending local high schools.

Yes it’s cold, but exchange students say they’ll miss Alaska

International students look back on a year in Alaska high schools

Seventeen-year-old Sharon Shabon said she was a little disappointed to find out her international exchange program would be sending her from her home in Malindi, Kenya, to a place she’d never heard of called Sitka, Alaska. But after several months — including winter months — Shabon said it’s going to feel strange to leave.

What will she miss the most?

“I have done so many things in the U.S., I cannot choose,” Shabon said.

Shabon is part of a group of international students who’ve spent the last academic year in Alaskan high schools and on Wednesday, March 26, she and four other students staying in Southeast Alaska visited the Alaska State Capitol. Shabon and her fellow students Ahmed Raza from Bahrain and Mohammed Alnayhoum from Lybia are getting ready to finish the year at Sitka High School. Abira Raza (no relation) from Pakistan is attending Thunder Mountain High School and Arman Mkrtchyan from Armenia is at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé

They’ve come to America through AFS Intercultural Programs which brings students from around the globe and is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, according to Krisanne Rice, a local volunteer. The students were among a handful of students to be selected from their countries out of thousands of applicants, Rice said, and must be strong students and active in their communities.

[Looking at next 50 years of ANCSA, Native corp leaders stress commitment to place]

The students were at the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, where they met with Gov. Mike Dunleavy and spent time with lawmakers. Though all of the students mentioned being taken aback at the weather, and not enjoying the cold, the dark and the rain of Southeast Alaska in the wintertime, they were universally effusive in their praise for the communities they’ve been living in.

“I’m ready to explore more of Alaska,” said Ahmed Raza, who’s about to finish his senior year. “In time I’ll be ready to leave.”

The students said they were surprised at the lack of school uniforms but pleased — mostly — by the wide variety of foods available at school cafeterias. Vegetarians Abira Raza and Mkrtchyan said much of the food on offer was meat-based, but also said cafeteria staff would help them, and Shabon mentioned school egg rolls with a derisive tone.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire 
International exchange students Arman Mkrtchyan from Armenia; Ahmed Raza from Bahrain and Abira Raza (no relation) from Pakistan sit in the governor’s cabinet room at the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, 2022, where they met with the governor and local lawmakers.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire International exchange students Arman Mkrtchyan from Armenia; Ahmed Raza from Bahrain and Abira Raza (no relation) from Pakistan sit in the governor’s cabinet room at the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, 2022, where they met with the governor and local lawmakers.

Before coming to the U.S., the students’ ideas about America were colored by movies and T.V. but said there was less drama in real life than in teenage soap operas.

“I think it’s kinda dramatic,” Alnayhoum quipped.

The fact that Sitka High School doesn’t have an “American football” team was a disappointment to Shabon.

“I have watched so many movies,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

All the students said there was a greater focus in America on school sports and extra-curricular activities. Most youth sports leagues in their home countries were part of the private sector, they said.

In Pakistan, “more people would devote themselves to academics more than sports,” Abira Raza said.

But those extra activities gave them opportunities they wouldn’t have had in their home countries. Both Shabon and Alnayhoum are participating in mock trial, something they said doesn’t exist in their home countries of Kenya and Lybia.

The students said they also appreciated the diversity of American culture and the openness of the society.

“I enjoyed meeting people with different sexualities and religions,” Shabon said. “In my country, you’re either male or female, that’s it.”

Shabon said one of her friends was expelled from her school because she was a lesbian.

There was a wider availability of foods here too, though students said that much American food was over-processed.

“I am from Asia, but I came to the U.S. to discover Asian food,” Mkrtchyan, who’s from Armenia, said.

The students all expressed an appreciation for salmon and halibut but also said American cuisine could use more spice.

The students arrived in August or September last year and will be leaving in early June. All of them complained that it will be hot in their home countries and all of them said they’ll miss their host families and friends they’ve made. New students will be coming in the fall, and Rice said AFS is looking for host families in Juneau.

“For a vibrant international exchange program we need host families,” Rice said. “Juneau is looking for three families who would welcome a student in their home and volunteers for intercultural exchange.”

AFS volunteer Amelia 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 Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire 
Ahmed Raza, an international exchange student from Bahrain, gives a thumbs up during a lunch break at the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Also pictured are Mohammed Alnayhoum of Lybia, Sharon Shabon of Kenya, Abira Raza (no relation) of Pakistan, Arman Mkrtchyan of Armenia and exchange program volunteer Krisanne Rice.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire Ahmed Raza, an international exchange student from Bahrain, gives a thumbs up during a lunch break at the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Also pictured are Mohammed Alnayhoum of Lybia, Sharon Shabon of Kenya, Abira Raza (no relation) of Pakistan, Arman Mkrtchyan of Armenia and exchange program volunteer Krisanne Rice.

More in News

The Aurora Borealis glows over the Mendenhall Glacier in 2014. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Aurora forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Dec. 3

Gavel (Courtesy Photo / Juneau Empire file)
Judicial appointments announced

Three of the four presiding Superior Court judges have been reappointed, outgoing… Continue reading

Male harlequins earn their name with their patchwork colors. (Courtesy Photo / Bob Armstrong)
On the Trails: The colorful world of harlequins

On a cold, windy day in late November, I wandered out to… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Tuesday, Dec. 6

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Mountain reflections are seen from the Mendenhall Wetlands. (Courtesy Photo / Denise Carroll)
Wild Shots: Photos of Mother Nature in Alaska

Superb reader-submitted photos of wildlife, scenery and/or plant life.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
At Wednesday evening’s special Assembly meeting, the Assembly appropriated nearly $4 million toward funding a 5.5% wage increase for all CBJ employees along with a 5% increase to the employer health contribution. According to City Manager Rorie Watt, it doesn’t necessarily fix a nearly two decade-long issue of employee retention concerns for the city.
City funds wage increase amid worker shortage

City Manager says raise doesn’t fix nearly two decade-long issue of employee retainment

People and dogs traverse the frozen surface Mendenhall Lake on Monday afternoon. Officials said going on to any part of Mendenhall Lake can open up serious risks for falling into the freezing waters. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Officials warn residents about the dangers of thin ice on Mendenhall Lake

Experts outline what to do in the situation that someone falls through ice

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Saturday, Dec. 3

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read