Whether staying in their host countries or traveling home, high school students in a pair of area foreign exchange programs have made memories that will easily last a lifetime due to the threat of the new coronavirus.
“I’ll be talking to people and they’ll tell me, ‘Think about it. You can tell your kids the story that you were in Austria for a global pandemic,’” Grace Morrow, a junior at Kenai Central, said Thursday via FaceTime from Austria.
Morrow is in Austria with the Alaska Rotary Youth Exchange Program. That program and the AFS International Exchange Program took different strategies in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 16, Tara Hoffman, AFS-USA president, sent out an email saying AFS was planning to bring home participants where it is possible and safe. Hoffman wrote that it was in the best interest of participants to be back in their home countries.
Boyd Walker, the Kenai Peninsula coordinator for Alaska Rotary Youth Exchange program, said Rotary left the power with the parents.
“Obviously, the No. 1 concern is the safety of the students,” Walker said. “We pretty much left it up to the parents to decide. It’s not up to Rotary to decide what’s in the best interest of the family.”
If a family decided the student should come home, Rotary would do everything it could to make it happen, Walker said.
Eileen Bryson coordinates the central peninsula program for AFS with Nancy Cranston and Laura Sievert. Bryson said AFS sent four central peninsula students to Hungary, Argentina, Spain and Australia and all have returned.
Getting students from the Kenai Peninsula back to their countries has been more tricky. AFS placed students from Mexico, Chile, Finland and Paraguay on the peninsula. Early this week, Bryson said only the student from Finland had been able to return home.
“I know our families would like to keep them, but they don’t have that choice,” Bryson said. “The families expressed a desire to keep the students as long as they could.”
AFS student Amelia Mueller, a Kenai Central sophomore and the daughter of Meg and Marcus Mueller, returned from San Juan, Argentina, on March 25. She had arrived at the end of August and was originally scheduled to return in mid-July.
“I was having a great time and I was pretty bummed I had to go home,” Mueller said. “Once you get past that, what can you do when there’s a global pandemic?”
According to The New York Times, as of Thursday afternoon, Argentina had 2,571 cases, or 5.8 per 100,000 people, while the United States had 659,674, or 201.6 per 100,000.
Mueller said that when she was leaving Argentina, that whole country was on lockdown. AFS had coordinated with the U.S. Embassy to get a flight out of Buenos Aires.
“It was 15 hours to the airport,” Mueller said. “We were told that tomorrow night, there’s a flight out of Buenos Aires. We had to get there before tomorrow night.”
Mueller said all the buses and regional airports were shut down, so the only option for her and another student was to take a taxi. Mueller said even that taxi was stopped by police for four hours, because police wanted to know if the travel they were doing was essential.
After getting to the airport, Mueller learned that two or three of her connecting flights had been canceled.
“It’s cool I got to go back so I can tell people I was traveling internationally and had to make a safe trip before the borders closed,” Mueller said.
She ended up flying Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile; Santiago to Mexico City; Mexico City to Miami; Miami to Atlanta; Atlanta to Seattle; and Seattle to Anchorage.
“They weren’t completely empty,” Mueller said of the flights. “There were some people. They spread us out pretty well.”
Once Mueller got home, her parents and brother, Tucker, were nearing the end of their 14-day quarantine after returning from Spain, so the family had to begin another 14-day quarantine.
Amelia had to leave before the end of the Argentine school year, and was still trying to sort out how she would continue with her schooling. She added memories she made in Argentina, such as jumping off cliffs from the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls, more than made the whole ordeal worthwhile.
Downtime in Austria
Walker, who has been involved in Rotary youth exchange for 30 years, said Rotary sent two peninsula students abroad this year. Morrow is still in Austria, while a Seward student in South Africa returned before the COVID-19 pandemic became factor.
Since the Homer area did not have a student abroad, an Anchorage student was sponsored by Homer. That student returned from Chile due to the pandemic.
Statewide in the Rotary program, Walker said about half of the 22 students from Alaska returned home. Of the foreign students living in Alaska, just two of 22 decided to return to their home countries.
“It’s a reasonable thing to stay there if the host family is taking good care of them,” Walker said. “Most would take at least two connecting flights, and there’s the risk they would be stuck in the airport if those flights were to be canceled.”
Rotary left the decision to the parents, so Will and Kristin Morrow of Kenai left the decision up to Grace as to whether she would stay in Austria. Grace decided to stick it out, especially after hearing from a friend who was stuck in an airport.
Morrow arrived in Austria in early August and will leave in mid-July. Austria has 14,462 cases, or 163.5 per 100,000 people.
“I feel really lucky Rotary on both sides feels it’s safer for me to stay here,” Morrow said. “I’m really happy I get to stay longer.”
Morrow had been traveling a lot in Europe and had plans to go to Germany, Switzerland and Hungary until travel restrictions were announced. Now she says she hasn’t left her house since March 13, except for a few walks.
“It’s hard here,” said Morrow, who lives 40 minutes from Vienna. “My only neighbors are sheep and the two families next to me.”
Based on talking to friends in Alaska, Morrow said things in Austria are similar to the situation in Alaska, with schools and pretty much everything being closed except for essential services.
“We definitely couldn’t buy toilet paper for a week and a half,” Morrow said.
Like many friends back home, Morrow also is adjusting to remote learning. She said she accidentally slept through a Google Classroom session Wednesday, but has been emailing with her teachers every day.
Heavily fortified by Austrian chocolate and coffee, Morrow hopes that some shops beginning to open in Austria means she’ll be able to get back to her European travels soon, and then some Alaska travels when she returns in July.
Sticking it out in Alaska
Jesper Strom, 17, of Sweden is another Rotary student using the same plan as Morrow. Strom arrived in Alaska on Aug. 2. The plan for right now is to stay until July 11. He lives with Tobin and Angie Brennan of Soldotna.
“It’s almost the same everywhere,” Strom said. “I feel like if I go home, I’d still be stuck in the house. I’d rather be here where I can still be outside and be in nature.
“Back home, I’d be stuck in the city and it would be a little harsher.”
Sweden has 12,540 cases, or 123.1 per 100,000 people. Strom is from Gothenburg, which has a metropolitan area population of about a million people.
Rather than return to city life, Strom would like to keep having Alaska experiences. He said he has enjoyed being a part of the Soldotna High School musical, going to state for the Stars in cross-country skiing, flying across Cook Inlet to get in some bear viewing, and moose hunting with Marcus Mueller.
Strom said with the outdoors calling, he is having a little trouble focusing on remote learning.
“I’m procrastinating a lot,” he said. “Honestly, there’s not that much of a penalty if I don’t turn something in. Grades won’t change if I don’t turn something in. If I’m doing schoolwork, it’s because I think that schoolwork is fun.”
Angie Brennan is a personal trainer and coach at Soldotna High School. Strom said Brennan is helping him train 12 hours per week and would like to bump that up to 20 hours by the summer.
“As long as there’s snow, I’m out skiing,” he said. “Today, I went out for a run. Now, after dinner, there’s a gym in the house so I’ll be lifting weights. I’m keeping active.”
Strom said his big goal is to run 5 kilometers in under 18 minutes.
“Not seeing my parents is tough, but I’m not really homesick,” Strom said. “I still think it will be really cool to take all these experiences back and share stories with my family.”