One Petersburg high school student spent part of her summer in Germany this year. Then, she brought a few German students back to Alaska. The girls explored each others cultures and took a chance on traveling through a Rotary short term exchange program.
Vilja and Svea Zahnke knew they wanted to come to Alaska for years.
“On TV they saw a documentary about Alaska,” says Gillian Wittstock, who’s family hosted the 15-year-old German twins in Petersburg this summer.
The two did research and talked with their local Rotary director in Germany.
“So they put it out there and nobody was taking it,” says Wittstock. “Nobody was going to get them there.”
That’s where Petersburg Rotarian Dave Berg comes in.
“She talked to him and he was like ‘well I’ll put it out there in Petersburg,’” says Wittstock.
Wittstock says Berg approached her mom to see if her daughter would be interested in the exchange. When she thought it would be a year-long commitment, she wasn’t interested.
“I don’t really feel comfortable leaving home for that long yet,” says Wittstock. “But then he said it was just for the month, just in the summer and I wouldn’t be missing any school, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Rotary International offers youth exchange programs for teens ages fifteen to nineteen. They vary in length, from a few weeks to a full year.
The short-term exchange program, or STEP, is relatively new to the organization and allows participants to choose where they want to go.
In late June, Wittstock traveled to Soltau, a city in Northern Germany between Hamburg and Hanover where she met the Zahnke sisters and spent the next month living with their family.
“They took me to a couple different cities,” says Wittstock. “I got to go to Berlin and Rostock and Visma and Cochem. And we just drove, we didn’t have to fly anywhere because it’s all very close by.”
Then in late July, the three flew together to the United States. Their first stop was Seattle.
“First we go to the Adele concert in Seattle. That was…thank you,” says Vilja Zahnke. She’s the more talkative of the two sisters, and visibly excited about their time here.
“Then in Alaska…Ah! The glacier. We [went on a] glacier tour. With a boat, and with Grampa Mike,” says Vilja, referring to Mike Schwartz who took them to the LeConte Glacier.
Then, they went whale watching.
“And that was…oh my god,” says Vilja. “We see breaches. A lot. Four, I think. I like the whales. It was so ‘BOOM!’ Any you feel that you are so tiny. And they are so big…I like the whales. And then they have a cabin. A very pretty cabin. And we make a fire there.”
While camping, they tried a new, very American snack.
“They tried s’mores for the first time,” says Wittstock.
“We have no s’mores in Germany,” says Vilja. “That’s so sad.”
They saw Alaska from the sky, taking a ride on a float plane, and visited the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory in Wrangell.
“And then we see three brown bears and a lot of black bears,” says Vilja. “And some black bear cubs. That was so cute! I think I want to hug her and then the little cubs but then I think ehh, maybe not. That was so cute. And also, they are so next to you. And that was like ‘ooo!’ But also ‘ahhh!’”
Coming from a city, Vilja and Svea appreciate life in small-town Alaska.
“Here you have no traffic,” says Vilja. “The rest is beautiful. The nature and the mountains and the trees. It’s so beautiful. To us, it’s a city. I love it here because the air is so free and so clean. And the mountains.”
“Everyone knows everyone,” says Svea.
“This is also nice,” syas Vilja. “And then you see the mountains, you hear whales when you wake up.”
Sitting with the three girls, it’s clear that they have become friends. They share laughs, help each other with the others language and appear generally at ease.
Wittstock says she’s more open-minded about traveling now, and would like to do another exchange in the future. And all three of them say they would do this one all over again.
The deadline to apply for next summer’s Rotary Short Term Exchange Program will be in January. It’s open to all high school students and 2017 graduates. The deadline for the long-term exchange program is October 15th. More information is available at YE5010.org.