As the peninsula prepares to celebrate Alaska Day -- the anniversary of the sale of the state from Russia to the United States -- area students are getting a closer look at the similarities and differences between the two countries.
Twenty students and five teachers from Magadan, Russia, are spending the month on the Kenai Peninsula, exchanging cultural lessons with area families and schools and working on technology and health projects.
The teachers and students, from Magadan school No. 1 and 14, are living and studying with a group of students from Skyview and Soldotna High who are taking an evening course in Russian culture, language and history. In the spring, 20 students and five teachers from the class will travel to Magadan to complete the exchange.
The program is part of a U.S. State Department grant that focuses on exposing Russian students to as much U.S. culture as possible.
"(The state department's) purpose is to improve the U.S. image worldwide," said program coordinator Allan Miller, Skyview's assistant principal. "The idea is that we're all human beings living in different cultures. There are fundamental differences, but inside we're all the same. We have the same needs, wants, desires."
That lesson is exactly what the students say they have learned since arriving in Alaska Oct. 3.
"America is more highly developed, but other things are the same, even people," said Nina Shilova, one of the visiting students. "We expected it to be very different, but no."
"The school is different -- the building, how much computers in the classes," added Veronika Philappova. "But how students study, what we learn, it's very same."
Mostly, what the students are learning in classes this month focuses on technology and health. Rather than sitting in on regular classes with peninsula students, the Russian students are participating in a program specially designed to fit the purpose of the grant.
They have gone on a number of field trips with students -- touring Anchorage, participating in a space mission at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, studying the state at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center and touring various industries in the Nikiski area. They also spent their first weekend here in Seldovia building relationships with area students. And this week they will head to Seward for a Kenai Fjords tour, Alaska SeaLife Center visit and Exit Glacier trip.
The tours help the students learn about Alaska and American culture and geography in a hands-on way. But there's more to the trip than sightseeing.
The students also have spent a great deal of time in classrooms learning how to use computers. In addition to travel expenses, the state department grant also included money for computer labs in both Magadan schools -- so students are learning to use those computers while in the United States. They have learned how to use the Internet and e-mail and are now learning more sophisticated skills such as using global imaging system maps and making business cards and post cards.
Students and teachers from Magadan, Russia, pose outside the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage earlier this month after a long flight. The visitors are spending nearly a month on the Kenai Peninsula as part of a U.S. State Department funded exchange program.
Photo courtesy of Skyview High School
"Not everyone has a computer at home (in Russia)," Philappova said. "This is the first time I worked with the Internet. It's exciting."
The students also are working on health projects with Skyview students, putting together presentations on smoking, stress and other wellness issues.
"That's one of the most important parts," said Liubov Lobastova, a teacher with the Magadan group. "We need to pay attention to our health and our children's health."
But the exchange is about much more than technology and health.
The unplanned lessons are the ones that have stuck out most in the visiting students' minds.
"I play soccer with Amer-ican teen-agers and visit different places with them," said Alex Ukhanov. "I like to do everything what American students do. It's a new experience."
The trip also has provided an opportunity for students to learn more about the English language and, added Philap-pova, to learn new games such as American football.
Shilova added that her host family has exposed her to new experiences each day, from bowling to playing pool to eating at different restaurants, and that her host sister took her to visit an adult care center for a choir concert. Russia, Shilova said, does not have such places.
"How they looked at the performance, how the children were singing for them, it was very good," Shilova said.
It is these little lessons that the Russian teachers also found important.
"I think it will be useful (for the Russian students) to see how American children are different from them, how they behave, how they defend the environment," said Lobastova who, like most of the students, had not been to the United States before this trip.
Tatiana Korchenkova, who was making her third visit to the United States, added that noticing the similarities between the countries also is important.
"I want my children, my students, to have such good American friends like I have," she said. "If we are friends, we won't be enemies."
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