Seventeen-year-old Sarah Boelter recently had front-row seats for Mass with Pope Benedict XVI at Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany.
Boelter also saw German President Christian Wulff and Chancellor Angela Merkel in person.
And she still has nine months left before returning to Eagle River.
Boelter is one of four local students who are studying abroad for a year via the Rotary Youth Exchange program. The others include Kyla Cook (Turkey), Sierra Justis (Taiwan) and Marcus Gamble (Ecuador).
Boelter, who lives in Luneburg, left Alaska on Aug. 8. Rotary ultimately decides what country a student is placed in, but Germany was high on her list of preferences.
“I was particularly interested in the history that was deeply woven into the architecture and culture,” Boelter wrote in an email.
Boelter said she plans on returning home in August 2012.
Hearing about the experience from others who traveled abroad via Rotary is how Boelter first got involved with the program. Rotary’s motto, “Service above self,” was another selling point, she said.
A friend also inspired Cook, 16, to study abroad. Cook has been in Edirne, Turkey since Sept. 1. Her plan is to come back late August 2012.
Cook said she watched a travel documentary about Turkey just before compiling her list of countries she’d like to live in — and Turkey was at the top.
“I just had a feeling I was meant to go there,” she wrote in an email.
“Also, I was excited to explore the rich history that’s everywhere here,” Cook wrote. “I was also hoping to be able to understand the unique blend of cultures that defines Turkey.”
Boelter said it was nearly impossible to explain all she’s gained in her time out of the U.S.
“I could not sum up into words how much I have learned from the seemingly short time I have been here,” she wrote.
Some of the most important lessons learned by Boelter include: “It is not so much the place as the experience,” she wrote. “The little things are worth the most in life and always look both ways for bikes.”
Cook said her host family treats her as one of their own.
“I have gained a second family, a second language (well, I’m working on that), and a lot of independence,” she wrote. “I’ve had to learn to stick up for myself.”
Family comes first
One of the biggest differences between Turkey and America is the sense of loyalty, Cook said.
“Loyalty to family is first and foremost,” she wrote. “Putting up parents in nursing homes is very uncommon, and it is assumed that you would always like to be with your family.”
Devotion to country is also important, Cook said.
“I’ve never heard any Turk say anything negative about Turkey,” she wrote. “The patriotism is contagious. I find myself truly adoring Turkey in a way I’ve never felt about a country before.”
Boelter said the German people are quite environmentally conscious.
“People generally bike or use public transportation instead of taking their car,” she wrote. “Also, there is a BIG emphasis on recycling. Almost everything is sorted into different containers to be picked up on recycling day.”
The public transportation is one of Boelter’s favorite aspects of Germany.
“Being from Alaska, driving is a part of life. Here, I might go a week without using any sort of automobile,” Boelter wrote. “I can use the bus, a bike, the (subway), (street car), trains or walk.”
Friendly, hospitable nation
The friendly, hospitable people tops Cook’s list of most appealing aspects of Turkey.
“Everyone here is constantly concerned about me,” she wrote. “They will ask me if I’m cold, if I’m hungry, if I’m bored. They want to make sure I’m happy here, and they go out of their way to do so.”
Students at Cook’s high school are all interested in getting to know her, she said.
“They like to call out my name in the hallways and try to practice their English with me,” Cook wrote. “Of course, I make sure to practice my Turkish as well.”
Every day an adventure
While her “way cool” trip to Berlin to see the Pope is sure to be one of Boelter’s top memories from her time abroad, each day brings excitement, she said.
“Every day on exchange is an adventure,” she wrote. “I find that some of the best times I have had is getting pizza in the city and going shopping at night. Or even just a normal day at school.”
Cook agreed that her best experiences have come just going about her daily routine.
“My best memories are all little moments when I felt included,” Cook wrote. “Once, I got sick and had to go to the hospital. But when I got back to school, it seemed like the entire student body showed up in the nurse’s office to see me.”
Trading a lesson in waltzing for a lesson in traditional Turkish dance before gym class was another memorable moment, Cook said.
“Later in the week, I put on an impromptu dance performance with a friend in front of our math class,” she wrote.
Blogging from abroad
Boelter and Cook both keep blogs about their time abroad. Cook said she updates her blog, http://kylas-travel-journal.blogspot.com, at least once a week. Cook said she doesn’t use it as a way to keep in touch with friends and family stateside, but wants others to use it as an educational tool.
“My goal for my blog is to use personal stories to educate,” she wrote. “I want people who know me to be able to see what I’m up to, but I’d also like strangers to be able to gain something from it.”
Boelter’s blog, www.sboelter.blogspot.com, was created to document her trip. Boelter said she updates it three to six times a month.
“I created it to record the adventures I went on so everyone can see it at their leisure,” she wrote.
The blog is a good way to circumvent the time-consuming task of sending individual updates, Boelter said.
“I have found this is a great way to stay in touch, considering I don’t spend too much time on the computer,” she wrote.
Visiting other countries
Neither Cook nor Boelter have traveled outside of their exchange country, but both plan on doing so.
“I’m approximately 15 minutes from Greece and Bulgaria, so I imagine it won’t be long before I have some international adventures,” Cook wrote.
Boelter said she’s planning a monthlong trip to about 10 different countries with other exchange students.
This won’t be the only time abroad for Boelter and Cook.
While she has no specific plans, Boelter said “international travel (is) in my future.”
Boelter said she’s considering attending college in Germany, Austria or Switzerland.
For Cook, narrowing down which countries she wants to visit will be the challenge.
“There are so many places I’d like to go,” she wrote. “Right now, it includes Israel, Poland, Italy, Taiwan and Egypt. I have a hard time imagining myself not getting to see everywhere. I imagine I’ll have to get more realistic as I grow, but for now, I’m letting my dreams go wild.”
Cook and Boelter highly recommend studying abroad. But, Cook said, an exchange isn’t a vacation.
“Exchange is ideal for anyone who loves learning,” she wrote. “There is just something amazing about writing a report on Turkish food and being interrupted to go eat some. Or doing Turkish flashcards and hearing someone using a word in context right after I learned what I meant.
“I’ve gotten to do some really fun stuff, but the parties and sightseeing are just extra for me,” Cook wrote. “Someone who goes into exchange just wanting to get away is going to be disappointed because exchange is real life.”
Studying abroad gives students the opportunity to “learn real life lessons while seeing the world in a new perspective,” Boelter wrote. “Textbook learning can only take you so far.
“I have made so many new friends, seen so many places and learned so many new things (including German) while here,” Boelter wrote. “Although, like in real life, there are ups and downs, I wouldn’t change the experiences I am having for anything.”
Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or firstname.lastname@example.org