Kenai Central senior Jose Araya grew up in Costa Rica, where temperatures stay in the 70s and 80s. In Alaska, such temperatures usually set records.
Araya also grew up playing soccer in a country passionate about the game. In Alaska, soccer has had a state high school soccer tournament for less than 10 years.
Despite these mismatches, when Araya finished his freshman year as an AFS student at Kenai Central, he wanted to come back for more.
He ended up spending his sophomore year and the first part of his junior year at Kenai Central. This spring, he will graduate with Kenai Central's Class of 2004.
"I've definitely won the lottery by coming here," Araya said. "I've definitely won the lottery by meeting the people I've met and coming to Kenai Central High School."
A big part of Araya's winnings have come from the classes he has taken at Kenai Central.
Araya has found the classes at Kenai Central enlightening and motivating. After some struggles in the early part of his freshman year due to unfamiliarity with English, Araya has come back to carry a 3.66 grade-point average. He recently was inducted into the National Honors Society.
"I get along with every single person the principal and the teachers," Araya said. "They're very gracious people and they're very great people."
Araya's admiration for the people he has met in Alaska does not stop with the staff of KCHS. He said his host parents, Charles and Nancy Cranston, have done a great job of supporting his success in Alaska.
After Araya's AFS exchange program ended at the conclusion of his freshmen year, the Cranstons helped Araya find a way to keep returning to Alaska on a private exchange program.
"He's just very easy to get along with," Charles Cranston said of Araya. "He's very motivated. From my own personal background, I really relate well to people who are highly motivated to do what they want to do.
"He's not the partying type of teen-ager you read so much about in the papers. He's very moral in his outlook. What makes him adaptable in our family is that we fully trust him."
Araya credits the experience of moving so far away from home when he was just 14 with making him a responsible and mature person.
He also said Alaska was a great place for such a coming of age.
"The people in Alaska are awesome," Araya said. "I haven't experienced any racism anywhere.
"Everybody accepted me. After my first year of school, I think I knew everybody in the school."
Jim Beeson, who served as Araya's football coach and economics teacher, said Araya's outgoing and easygoing nature has had a positive influence on the school.
"I don't know many kids that don't know him," Beeson said. "He just shaved his head, and he told me he's got his hair cut like mine.
"I told him the difference is he's got hair on the top and I don't, and his will grow back, and mine won't."
Araya's outgoing nature has gotten him involved with a number of activities at Kenai Central. He does community service through the Interact Club and also is involved with the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court.
Sports also have kept Araya busy at Kenai Central. He said he has formed a great relationship with Kenai Central soccer coach David Landry. Araya is one of the principal captains on this year's team.
"In soccer, as you know, there are no timeouts," Landry said. "It's very important to have a player like Jose, who serves as another coach on the field. He helps carry out the coach's wishes.
"He's a wonderful kid."
Araya grew up playing soccer in Costa Rica. In Alaska, many athletes play the sport for only three months out of the year. Araya was involved with soccer clubs in Costa Rica, where the sport is played year-round with 2 1/2- to three-hour training sessions every day.
"He's not 6-foot-9, 280, but he makes up for it because he's very skilled," said Landry of Araya, who's listed at 5-foot-4, 130 pounds on the Kenai Central football roster, which typically lists players as smaller than they actually are. "He has a good vision for the game. When the ball is on his feet, he has his head up."
His freshman year, Araya played a little junior varsity and varsity. He scored seven goals. The next year, he said he had 10 or 12 goals. Araya missed his junior year because his mother, Carmen Araya, was worried when the United States went to war in Iraq and requested that her son come home.
"I fully understand why my mom wanted me back, but it was really tough to leave," Araya said. "I played soccer when I was in Costa Rica and I'm ready for this year."
Although the soccer in Alaska is not as competitive as the soccer in Costa Rica, Araya said he has more fun playing soccer in Alaska.
"I have a better relationship with the guys, the team and the coach here," Araya said. "Fun is an important part of sport."
Araya also participated in cross country running, hockey and football while at Kenai Central. One of the highlights of his sports career was his experience in football this year.
He served as the placekicker and set the school record for extra points in a season. He helped the Kardinals to a small-schools state title and earned all-conference and second team all-state honors along the way.
Beeson said Araya came out to practice early in the season and watched a hitting drill. Araya quickly decided that wasn't for him. So he came to practice and worked on field goals every day.
"It was neat to see how it all came together," Beeson said. "We sent copies of the game tape to his mom and she couldn't believe he was playing football."
Araya is not sure what his plans are for next year. He has been accepted to Montana State University - Billings and would like to try and play soccer there. If that doesn't work out, he will most likely go to school in Costa Rica.
"I've just enjoyed having a kid like him around and seeing him find his niche," Beeson said. "It's great to see kids like him have success."
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