KETCHIKAN — Balazs Rostas of Hungary and Clara Gamerdinger of Germany arrived in Ketchikan as Rotary Youth Exchange participants in August, and plunged into local academics, arts, sports and Alaska culture.
“I didn’t really know anything about Alaska except oil, polar bears and eagles.” Gamerdinger said of her expectations prior to landing in Ketchikan.
She had visited Denver for about a week once, but didn’t think that experience prepared her for her Ketchikan stay “because people are really different here,” she said. “I think Alaska is different ... they’re way nicer.”
She said that another way she’s found Alaskans different from either Denver or home is that more people are interested in hunting, fishing and hiking. Gamerdinger described her home town of Bautzen, which is northeast of Dresden, as not much bigger than Ketchikan.
Rostas, from Mariahalom, a town northwest of Budapest, said he had not been to the U.S. before.
“I already knew that the life is way easier here,” he said, comparing Alaska to other U.S states. “Jobs pay more, everything is easier, it seems to me.”
They both said that at first, the language barrier made it tough to fit in, understand teachers and feel confident conversing with people.
“The really surprising thing to me,” Rostas said, was that “when I started to understand English really well was, I was feeling that I was home, and I’d never felt that outside of my country.”
Besides diving into classes soon after arriving in mid-August, both students got involved in activities. Rostas has been taking piano and guitar lessons at school, and Gamerdinger plays on the Ketchikan High School soccer team. Both students have been involved with First City Players.
Rostas played the prince in the play “Cinderella” with First City Players earlier in the year, and Gamerdinger also had a part in that play. Rostas was involved with the more recent play, “Our Town,” as well.
Rostas said that music and acting are his favorite activities, and he would love to pursue an acting career. He has been looking at art universities in California, checking out his options. He also enjoys working with computers, so he said he might work toward a degree in animation, Web design, programming or even marketing, to supplement his pursuit of acting.
He said that he is interested in studying and working in the U.S. because he sees more opportunity here.
Gamerdinger said that she wants to pursue a career in medicine, and plans to stay in Germany for her studies, if she can pass the demanding tests and continue to get the high scores required. She said she might consider studying in Russia, as she has studied that language extensively.
When asked about differences between Ketchikan and their home high schools, both students agreed on the most vivid one: The apparent widespread use of drugs.
Rostas said, “In Hungary, I’ve never heard that somebody used, because ... here, it’s probably easier to get.”
They agreed that the amount of teen alcohol consumption was about the same for Ketchikan teens as in their hometowns, despite the higher drinking age in Alaska.
Speaking of academic differences between their home high schools and Ketchikan, Rostas said that he finds school more fun here than it is at home.
In Hungary, he said, “It’s so stressful, we have tests so much.”
At Ketchikan, with mandatory classes mixed in with electives, he is enjoying his education.
“Here, I learn what I love, and it’s real easy to learn what I love. I can spend a lot of time, if I like it,” he said.
Gamerdinger said that she thinks an interesting aspect of having more choices at Ketchikan than she or Rostas have at their own schools is that students can create their own level of challenge.
Both students have lived with between two and four host families since August. At first, both of them said, they did not think changing host families was a good idea, but now they agree, it is.
“It’s a great experience,” Gamerdinger said. “You have different families with different customs, because, usually they are from different countries, because no one is really ‘American,’ — so they are from Scotland, or Germany ...” She said her last host family was from Denmark.
Rostas said he was a bit nervous about having to represent his country, initially.
“When they told me I was going to be an ambassador, I was a little bit scared at first, because I thought I’d have to show not the ‘bad side’ of Hungary,” he said.
Gamerdinger said that it was difficult to describe how the feeling of being at home in Ketchikan gradually overcame her. She said that she’s starting to feel like she’s been here “a very long time.”
Rostas said, “I feel that I understand people, and I’m at home, and I now have two homes, and it’s a really good feeling.”