AFS exchange students head to Sitka for Alaska Day

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2008

Hirotaka Goto is an old pro when it comes to world traveling, even though he's just a teenager. The 15-year-old from Japan has visited Las Vegas, California, Arizona and Florida during trips with his father before coming to Juneau in August. Goto can now add one more location to his list: Sitka.

Charles L. Westmoreland / Capital City Weekly
Charles L. Westmoreland / Capital City Weekly

Goto, an exchange student attending Juneau's Thunder Mountain High School, is one of four youths in the American Field Service exchange program onboard the M/V Chenega Thursday morning as it heads to Sitka for a weekend of Alaska Day festivities. Alaska Days commemorates the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the U.S.

AFS is the largest international youth exchange program of its kind, said AFS chaperone Cachet Garrett, who will supervise the students during their weekend excursion.

Along with his fellow exchange students, Goto will attend an orientation this weekend while experiencing a different flavor of Southeast Alaska life.

"Alaska is very unique and I like it so far," Goto said. "It's very rich in nature. When I call home, I tell my family about things like seeing the (Mendenhall) Glacier."

The exchange students, totaling nine altogether from Southeast Alaska, will stay with a host family in Sitka. They also will attend school with their Sitkan counterparts on Friday. But the weekend should be more about fun than work, with school letting out early so students can partake in all the Alaska Day events.

Each student said they had a mental picture of what Alaska would be like, and each was partially right but also pleasantly surprised.

Sure, it's cold and rainy most the time. But you can't find black bears, bald eagles and humpback whales in Bangkok, said Kantarin Leelahuta, a 16-year-old exchange student attending Haines High School.

"I've seen and been able to do so many new things," she said.

Leelahuta was accompanied by friend and fellow exchange student Jeani Porkka, 17, of Finland.

Leelahuta said some of her friends expected Haines to be similar to the barren tundra found in Alaska's Interior. Leelahuta had visited the U.S. once before but at first was unsure what to expect herself.

"I've sent my friends back home lots of pictures," she said. "They thought it would be all covered in ice."

Added Porkka, who is more accustomed to cold weather: "It's beautiful here. I love seeing all the mountains."

The girls arrived in Juneau a few days ago and took advantage of everything the capital had to offer, which for Leelahuta entailed shopping for shoes. Now she'll have something to wear to one of Southeast's most widely celebrated events.

Garrett will play tour guide to the teens along with fellow chaperone Douglas Fanyak. Garrett said explaining the significance of Alaska Days and the state's upcoming 50th anniversary will be an important part of the trip.

"I'm hoping to make sure they see as much of Sitka as possible and understand what a cool thing it is to be in Alaska for its 50th anniversary," she said.

For Rebeca Mier, a 17-year-old from Bolivia attending Juneau-Douglas High School, attending a weekend of dances, parades and live music will help ward off homesickness for a few more days.

"I even miss my old school and a lot of small things I didn't even think I'd miss," she said. "Once we get to Sitka we'll listen to music and there will be a dance. I think it will be a lot of fun."

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