Rotary exchange students, from left, Abigail Anderson, of Petersburg, Bruno Henrique Caetano, of Unaí, Brazil, and Kara Newman, of Petersburg. Caetano is wearing the customary Rotary blazer, decorated with pins and trinkets from his time in Alaska.

Every year, the Petersburg Rotary Club hosts a foreign student as part of Rotary International’s Youth Exchange Program. The exchange program covers over 100 countries, with the goal of connecting young people to foreign cultures to help build international understanding. Ari Snider spoke with the current exchange student and the two who are headed out in the fall about why they decided to spend a year so far away from home.

When Bruno Henrique Caetano, from Brazil, applied to be a Rotary exchange student, he was hoping to end up in Canada or the U.S. Caetano is from Unaí, a medium-sized city near the capital city, Brasília. He says he was hoping to learn English while studying abroad. But getting placed in Petersburg was a surprise — he’d never heard of Alaska before.

“Oh my god, I don’t know why I get this place,” Caetano recalls thinking. “Because when you go to the Internet and you put ‘Alaska’ there you don’t see many things. And no one makes exchange here. Some people make but they never talk to the world about what happens here. And you get scared and afraid it’s like ‘Oh my god I lost my best opportunity in the world.’”

Of course there are exchange students throughout Alaska, but it’s not like being in a big city in the Lower 48 where you’d likely have a larger community of Rotary students. But, Caetano says once he got to know Petersburg, his whole attitude changed.

“Right now I’m really happy because it’s really different what I’m thinking before,” he said. “I came and it was like amazing, everything amazing. And I find a lot of people here so it’s really fun.”

Caetano is six months into his year-long stay in Petersburg. Meanwhile, local students Kara Newman and Abigail Anderson are preparing to go abroad later this summer. Newman will spend her sophomore year in Sweden, living in the southwestern coastal town of Varberg. She says going on an exchange fulfilling a long-held dream of living somewhere far away.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years, ever since I was young I’ve always wanted to explore the world,” Newman said. “Because I remember when I was little I’d see the fishing boats leave and I’d say ‘Hey, I’m gonna do that some day.’ But I’m leaving the country, so it’s not always what little me imagined.”

Newman said at first it was hard to convince her parents to let her go, but she said they got on board once they attended a Rotary information session that explained the purpose of the exchange program. Then, they understood how important it was for her.

“My parents realized, this is what Kara wanted to do. She wanted to be an ambassador between countries and stand for something bigger than just herself,” Newman said. “I mean that sounds like bigger, and they probably didn’t say it like that. But they did realize that I wanted to do more in the world than just grow up in Petersburg.”

Abigail Anderson, also heading into her sophomore year, is going to Celle, a town of about 71,000 people in northern Germany. She says she’s looking forward to it, but, you know, it’s also not easy to leave the country for a year when you’re only 15 years old.

“I feel a mixture of emotions,” Anderson said. “The only thing I’m really worrying about right now is the flying. Because I’ve never flown alone. And school, catching up on that when you come back. And then language, but that’s coming along, ish.”

Anderson and Newman will of course have support while they’re away. They’ll be sponsored by the local Rotary club, they’ll live with host families, and they’ll attend school, just like Caetano is doing here. As advice to the outbound students, Caetano says it will be difficult, but the best approach is to just be open to it all.

“Prepare your mind and open your eyes cause everything will be new. And it will be hard, sometimes it will be hard. Talk to the people, make friends, be nice, and try to just enjoy your time,” he said.

A year seems like a long time to be away, but it really flies past. Before you know it, Caetano will return to Brazil and Newman and Anderson will be back in Petersburg, all three of them with some pretty good stories to tell.