SITKA — They may come from a sunny country, but the six Jamaican university students say in some ways they’ve found more warmth in Sitka.
“People are so friendly,” said Mardio Grandston, a 22-year-old student from the University of the West Indies.
“You guys are very warm and welcoming,” agreed Shawn Hutchinson, 23, a culinary arts major at the University of Technology.
The two men are among six Jamaicans working at the Sitka Hotel during their summer school break, through a cultural, work and travel program.
Outside the hotel, they’re easy to spot, dressed warmly but with flipflops on their feet.
They said they get friendly greetings, an experience they hadn’t expected.
Back home, Grandston said, “people don’t say hi, talking to you, introducing you.”
He described a recent experience here: he was carrying out the garbage and a passing stranger offered to help.
“This place is just awesome,” Grandston said.
Other young people at the hotel participating in the program are from Mongolia.
Hutchinson said the purpose of the program is for them to make friends and exchange ideas with Sitkans and those from Mongolia.
Grandston studies business administration at Jamaica’s top university.
The other Jamaicans in the program are Alistair McFarlane, a tourism major at the University of Technology; Andre McFarlane, who studies civil engineering at the University of Technology; Jason Morris, who studies architecture at the Vocational Training Development Institute. The one woman in their group is Latoya Davis, who studies occupational health and safety at the University of Technology.
Some have jobs that apply closely to their studies and work ambitions.
Hutchinson, a cook at Victoria’s restaurant, hopes to one day own a restaurant. In an effort to introduce a bit of Jamaican culture to Sitka, he has added jerk chicken and escovitch fish to the menu. Hutchinson said he loves to invent recipes on his own, and added a “secret ingredient” to the escovitch fish.
Others have jobs that would be familiar to any American college student here, just trying to earn money for school. They said they have reasonable work hours, and have enjoyed getting to know their bosses.
“Our employers are nice,” Grandston said.
They have been surprised by some aspects of Sitka.
“We thought it would be much colder,” Hutchinson said. “We expected cold, and bears running around.”
They’re eager to make friends and have new adventures in Sitka, they said.
One Sitkan took the group shooting at the rifle range, which was a new experience for them.
Grandston’s passion is cricket, and he would love to get a game going — and introduce the sport to Sitkans — if equipment could be found. Hutchinson enjoys soccer, running and drawing. Alistair McFarlane is another soccer enthusiast. Andre McFarlane enjoys watching animation; and Morris’ hobby is designing houses.
The three who spoke to the Sentinel said they count themselves fortunate to have met Sitkan Mary Todd Andersen, who they affectionately refer to as “Aunt Mary.” Andersen said she also considers herself “blessed” to have made the young men’s acquaintance.
She hopes Sitkans will make an effort to get to know the students, and include them in interesting activities going on in town, such as sports.
Grandston said he and many other Jamaicans dream of coming to the U.S., and he’s happy to have the opportunity. His flight to the U.S. was his first plane ride, and the first time he had left the island.
“My dream came true to visit the U.S.,” he said.
As to his life ahead, Grandston said he has many other dreams and ambitions. He wants to become a lawyer, run a number of businesses and perhaps learn to fly a plane.
“I have big dreams,” he said.
Although the majority of Jamaicans here are men, Grandston said there are far more women than men at his university.
“It’s very difficult to make it to university,” he said. “The males in Jamaica don’t make it to university.” From a single-parent home, Grandston said it was his dream to study at university.
“My ambition and my dream are what motivated me,” he said.
He and the others appreciate the opportunity they’ve been given, Grandston said, and they wanted to thank the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, and U.S. State Department for allowing them to come.
“We want to thank them for this wonderful opportunity,” Grandston said. “This is such a good thing. It’s an amazing experience. It’s a dream come true. If it weren’t for this program I would be heartbroken. I really appreciate this opportunity.”