Armands Veksejs, Hager Elserry, Dady Thitisakulwong, and Haewon Hong attend a farewell potluck barbecue in Nikiski on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)

Armands Veksejs, Hager Elserry, Dady Thitisakulwong, and Haewon Hong attend a farewell potluck barbecue in Nikiski on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)

‘A life in a year’

Foreign exchange students receive send-off in Nikiski

Host families and educators gathered Monday on a brisk, sunny afternoon in Nikiski to bid adieu to area foreign exchange students after their yearlong stay on the Kenai Peninsula.

Eileen Bryson, a volunteer co-chair with the local intercultural exchange program on the peninsula, said Monday that the group generally hosts a fundraiser dinner for the students every year, but has done smaller gatherings for the last few years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The exchange students this year have been able to not only go to school, but also travel, recreate and get involved in extracurricular activities.

“They’ve had a wonderful time. They’ve really enjoyed themselves,” Bryson said. “They’ve been very involved with the schools and (have) gotten along really well, so that part has worked great.”

The program — called the American Ambulance Field Service, or AFS, intercultural exchange — started as a wartime humanitarian aid organization in 1915, but has since become an international secondary school exchange, according to the website. Each of the four students stayed with host families on the central peninsula this year. Bryson said there is only one host family so far for next year’s programming, and that the group is looking for more.

The students on the peninsula this year — two at Kenai Central High School and two at Soldotna High School — said some of their favorite memories over their time in the area have taken place out of the classroom.

Hager Elserry, a student from Egypt, said one of the hikes she went on was a highlight.

“It was my first time seeing snow up there,” she said. “It was so fun.”

Armands Veksejs from Latvia and Dady Thitisakulwong from Thailand said they both enjoyed skiing. Veksejs tried downhill for the first time at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood with his host family, and Thitisakulwong went out for the cross-country ski team this year.

“I did it,” Veksejs said. “I fell like 10 times, but I did it and it was awesome.”

For Haewon Hong, also from Thailand, flying to visit her host family’s extended relatives in Indiana was a high point of her study abroad experience.

Heading home soon, the majority in the first week of June, the students said they’re experiencing a lot of different emotions.

“It’s bittersweet. You’re kind of sad that you’re leaving all the people you got to know, but at least you’re coming back to your family and friends,” Veksejs said.

Thitisakulwong said what she’ll miss most about Alaska is the climate.

“We don’t have snow in Thailand, so I love the weather here,” she said. “(There’s) good weather, not that hot, not that cold.”

All four have to finish high school in their home countries once they return. But their plans after that vary.

Veksejs said he wants to go to college somewhere in Europe, and Elserry said she hopes to go to college abroad. Thitisakulwong said she hopes to return to the United States, and maybe live on the East Coast, and Hong said she wants to go to college back in Thailand.

Elserry said she met a lot of nice people in Alaska, and said she wants to encourage other people to enroll in foreign exchange programs.

“It’s a year that would never happen again. It’s the best year I have ever done in my life,” she said. “It’s a life in a year.”

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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