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Rotary trying out new, shorter exchange program


Jess Field / Petersburg Pilot

Svea Zahnke, Gillian Wittstock (center) and Vilja Zahnke (wearing her Petersburg hat) take a photo at the end of the Zahnke's visit to Mitkof Island.

The local Rotary Club is known for sending students on its year-long exchange program to study abroad, but this summer a PHS student took part in the club's short-term program. Gillian Wittstock spent four weeks with a family in Germany and the two girls who hosted her there recently traveled to Petersburg to stay with the Wittstocks.

Gillian is the first local student to participate in the program. She says getting to know Svea and Vilja Zahnke in Germany really made it easy for everyone to enjoy their time in Southeast Alaska.

Svea and Vilja are twins who live in Soltau, Germany, a city with a population of around 20,000. It's also about a three-hour drive from Berlin. In Germany, the twins are surrounded by people so island life in Alaska suited them, so much so they didn't want to leave. They always dreamed of coming to the state and thanks to the Rotary program they were finally surrounded by the outdoors.

"It's so beautiful and amazing," Svea says. "I love the nature and the air, and the rest. The trees and the city and I love Gillian."

The twins consider Gillian a third sister, and her mother Bridget a second mother. In fact, they are already making plans to come back for a visit.

"I love Petersburg also," Vilja says giggling. "I love that it's so little and cute. There are not so many lights, and the traffic and the air is so free."

"Clean," Gillian says correcting Vilja and causing the three girls to laugh.

The girls flew with Doug Riemer on a glacier tour, hopped aboard a whale watching trip, checked out Anan Wildlife Observatory and spent a couple days at the Wittstock's cabin at Anchor Point. The twins enjoyed seeing a black bear sow with her tiny cubs. They also saw whales for the first time and witnessed whale breaching. However, they weren't the only ones enjoying the various trips.

The experience gave Gillian a greater appreciation for the place she calls home. Without the program she wouldn't have traveled to Anan or visited the Clausen Museum. She quickly realized how little and large things can be taken for granted when you grow up in such a remarkable spot on the map.

"You kind of learn new things about where you've lived your whole life," Gillian says. "It's cool to see that it's so different for them, and I should totally take advantage of what I have."

For Svea and Vilja, everything was a photo opportunity, and when they saw brown bears it became a photo frenzy. They didn't mind gray, cloudy days, in fact they quite liked them. The twins also liked seeing sea lions, although Gillian had to remind them looks can be deceiving.

"We tell them, 'They're dangerous'and they were like 'Awe but they're cute," Gillian says laughing.

During her time in Germany, Gillian experienced a language barrier but the Zahnke family spoke "very good English" which made the trip much easier. The twins took her on a boat tour in Hamburg and the girls saw castles together. Seeing architecture hundreds of years in the making was eye-opening for Gillian.

After this experience, the idea of a year abroad still seems like a lot, she says.

"It's just not for me, and I know a lot of kids who want to travel but not do a year away from home," Gillian says. "With this program you get a taste of a new place in a month, which I think is kind of perfect."

Svea and Vilja's mother enjoyed having Gillian stay with the family so much she prepared a scrap book of photos from her time abroad. However, she didn't have enough room for all the pictures, so she sent Gillian two more scrap books in the mail.

"I never would have gotten to meet them if I hadn't done this," Gillian says smiling. "It's totally an exchange, because I got to go there and they got to come here. I totally love that about it."

Bridget Wittstock says the shorter exchange program doesn't lead to kids getting homesick because there really isn't time for it. The short-term commitment also allows kids who are invested in academics, sports, or music and dance programs the opportunity to travel. She echoed the sentiments of her daughter about how the program is structured.

"They get to spend time on each other's turf," Bridget says. "That's one of the coolest things, they each get to share the highlights of where they live."

Bridget also likes the option of the shorter exchange program because it's basically the cost of an airplane ticket and spending money. She looks forward to seeing other students take advantage of the program as it expands.

"An intense cultural experience is what I would call it," she says. "I hope that we can continue this program here in Petersburg."

Dave Berg, Southeast Alaska and Yukon coordinator for Rotary Exchange, says the program is called the Short-Term Exchange Program or STEP. Berg sees the benefits of the shorter exchanges. The long-term program application process is more intensive, it also costs more and the kids don't get to pick where they go.

"In the short-term program the kids are encouraged to choose a country of their interest," he says. "Then we shop their application out to that country and see if we have a like-minded individual that wants to come visit Alaska. At that point we hook the two families together and they work out the details."

STEP is relatively new to the Alaska/Yukon district and it's available for high school kids, even if they are recent graduates, Berg says.

"It allows them to get a feel for living in another country with a family rather than just going someplace on a vacation," he says.

The deadline for STEP applications will roll around in January and the deadline for the year-long program is Oct. 15. Information on both can be found at Berg is looking for people willing to host this year's inbound student Topi Karikorpi from Finland. If interested contact him at Viking Travel.


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