Trading places

Kenai teen headed to Kyrgyzstan with Rotary exchange program

When 16-year-old Josette Renken told her friends she would be traveling to Kyrgyzstan to study abroad, they had two questions for her. 

“The first one was, ‘Where is that?’ and the second one was, ‘Are you crazy?’” Renken said.

The Kenai Central High School junior said that when she found out she would be going to Kyrgyzstan, she was game.

“I was really excited, and honestly I didn’t know anything about Kyrgyzstan.” she said. “I knew where it was and that was it.”

Kyrgyzstan is located south of Kazakhstan and west of China. Renken will be living in Bishkek, which is in the northern part of the country. Bishkek is the capital city of Kyrgyzstan and home to about 1.5 million people. 

Renken’s exchange program is through the Soldotna Rotary Club. Each year, the club selects one student to travel abroad and act as an ambassador, said Evan Frisk, the club’s youth exchange officer. 

Frisk said the application process is quite thorough — students submit essays, and then must fill out applications, and finally there is an interview process with members of the Rotary Club.

“We picked her as an alternate,” Frisk said, “in case one of our Rotary district clubs happened to not find a student.

“Juneau couldn’t find a student, so she’s going under Juneau’s Rotary club.” 

Renken’s father, Aaron, said he was uneasy about the idea of his daughter being in another country somewhat close to danger for an extended period of time.

“Obviously I had concerns,” he said. “I talked to Evan for a bit, he reassured me things were safe over there.

“The Rotary Club International was a good fit, it’s worldwide, they take care of their people and there’s a lot of community in Rotary.”

Helping Aaron feel more at ease about his daughter’s travel was the fact that a student from the same city in Kyrgyzstan is attending school in Soldotna with the same program.

“His parents live in the same town Josette will be in, so there’s a resource there. So I’m comfortable,” he said. 

Nick Sanjarov, 16, is attending Soldotna High School where he is on the Junior Varsity football team and plans to participate in basketball as well.

Kyrgyzstan is a Russian-speaking country. Josette said she started to learn the language, but was preoccupied with other activities. 

“I know about 40 words, tops,” she said. 

Renken’s trip will not set her back too much in terms of graduating. She will still be able to graduate with her class with the help of summer classes; most of her elective credits will be fulfilled by her trip.

School in Kyrgyzstan is a bit different than school in America, Nick said.

“We normally go to school six days a week and we take 22-23 classes a year,” he said. “And here we take 6-7 classes a year. That’s the main difference.”

Josette’s mother, Mya Renken, said she was excited for Josette to have a rare look at democracy in another country.

“She has an opportunity to see something that’s really amazing,” Mya said. “In April of 2010 (Kyrgyzstan) went through a whole change in the political system.”

In this year’s election, there are 82 people running for president, Nick said.

Josette grew up in Unalaska, where she said there was a lot of different cultures, but she moved to the Peninsula with her family, she did not see the same diversity. That, plus her prior experiences traveling and hosting exchange students led to her trying to study abroad.  

“I’ve always loved traveling, we’ve always have people in our house from around the world and different places,” she said. “I’m just interested in seeing the world and meeting new people.”

In order to do so, Josette said she will spend a total of 50 hours either in an airport or on an airplane (three airplanes for a total of 27 hours).

Nick chimed in as Josette explained her itinerary — he had to experience the same route coming to the Peninsula almost two weeks ago.

“I was so tired,” he said with a laugh.

Josette was set to depart from Anchorage at 12:45 this morning and will arrive in Bishkek Sunday at 3:45 a.m., when she’ll meet her host family and become immersed in a foreign culture for at least the next three months, perhaps longer.

“Right now I’m only allowed into the country for three months,” she said. “Hopefully by the end of the three months I’ll convince them (the consulate) to let me stay the whole year.”