Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 11:50 AM on Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Foreign students exchange home for Homer

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Lertkiat "Neung" Kuanmongkonlert of Nakhonphanom, Thaiiland


Vegard Unhjem of isfjorden, Norway


Akane Fujimura of Toyko, Japan


Lennert Von Schlichting of Berlin, Germany

None of them asked to come to Homer, but Homer's where they are.

Now that they're here, the four foreign exchange students enrolled at Homer High School are happy this is where they are.

"I thought all of America was like one big city. Like New York or Los Angeles. When I arrived, it was nothing like I thought, but that's good," said Lertkiat "Neung" Kuanmongkonlert of Nakhonphanom, Thailand, who is living with the Dave Schneider and Bonnie Jason family.

Here through AFS, an intercultural exchange program, Neung said his home community is "bigger than Homer, but not too much."

Vegard Unhjem of Isfjorden, Norway, also is here through AFS. His host family is Cynthia Morelli and Taro Safakura. Vegard had hoped for some place in the United States that offered skiing opportunities.

"I was thinking maybe Colorado," he said, adding that he's "glad to be here. It's cool."

Akane Fujimura, also an AFS student, finds few similarities between Homer and her hometown of Tokyo, Japan.

There are 13 million people in Tokyo," said Akane, who is staying with Tim and Tara Schmidt. "This is a big difference."

On his application to become an exchange student through Rotary International, Lennart Von Schlichting of Berlin, Germany, listed three countries as his destination of choice: the United States, France and Australia. He was saddened to learn several friends were going to California, while he would be going to Alaska. Then a family friend surprised him by saying he'd visited Homer.

"He said it was the most beautiful place he'd seen," said Lennart, who is staying in the home of Doug and Jocelyn Westphal. "Now, I'm glad I'm here."

After arriving in August, each of the four students enrolled as juniors at Homer High, said HHS adviser Lin Hampson. That means an extra year of study for each of them except Lennart. His area of Germany requires 13 years of high school.

Being an exchange student was an opportunity Lennart welcomed.

"My sister did an exchange program in France and all my friends are exchange students, too," he said.

It also is giving Lennert an opportunity to practice speaking English, a language he learned in school, along with French.

Experience in foreign countries is something Vegard's family is familiar with, his brother having done an exchange-type program teaching English in China.

A seasoned traveler, this is Akane's first time in Alaska. Whether it's her broad travel experience or a sign of how comfortable she's become with her new surroundings, Akane laughed about a recent experience with Vegard's host-father, Safakura.

"He is Japanese so I tried to speak Japanese to him, but I couldn't speak it fluently. It was awkward," she said laughing. "So I decided to speak in English to him and he spoke in Japanese to me."

Two months into their stay, the four students are discovering differences between here and their home countries. For Lennart, it's a lack of independence that comes from not being able to drive and not having access to public transportation.

Vegard, whose language know-how includes German and Spanish, said classes were "hard at the beginning because everything is in English."

Akane misses friends and family. However, in response to having written on her AFS application that she had no siblings and would like to be where she could have some, Akane's host family comes with three host sisters: Emily, Kate and Marie.

For Neung, 55 degrees Fahrenheit is considered cold in his hometown and he's never seen snow, but it isn't weather that he listed as the biggest difference he's experiencing.

"We always eat rice in Thailand, but not here," said Neung

Each of the students is taking advantage of the many activities available. Neung is swimming, playing basketball and loves to dance, especially hip hop. Vegard is playing soccer and eager for enough snow to start skiing. Lennart also is playing soccer, as well as tennis. In fact, he's preparing for a tennis tournament in Anchorage. Akane ran in the five-mile Breast Cancer Awareness Run in August, participated in the Mariner "Ironman" Triathlon in September and is "really into music." Not only does she play the trumpet, she also enjoys singing.

"They have a good choir teacher here," she said, referring to Mark Robinson. "That's very good for me. It's perfect."

For at least one of the students, this trip to Homer is the first of others to come.

"My family already told me they'd visit Homer a year after I've been here," said Lennart. "My dad's jealous after seeing his friend's pictures."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.