Exchange students bring outside world to Homer

Meet Homer High School’s exchange students: Maximiano “Max” Mangue Jr. of Mozambique; Yusra Sahi of the Philippines and Sebastian Talamas Jr. of Bolivia.

“Our current exchange students are sweet, respectable young men and women,” said Principal Doug Waclawski. “I’m glad they chose to come to Homer High.”

Enrolled as seniors, the three 16-year-olds will participate in senior activities, including graduation ceremonies in May.

“I’m the first one in my family to be an exchange student,” said Max. “I felt like it would be a very good experience and that I would like to know the United States.”

Here through the AFS program, Max asked for placement in California, Las Vegas, Miami or New York. Three days before his scheduled departure from Mozambique, a phone call brought unexpected news.

“I got a call from my host mother and she asked, ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ I said, ‘no’ and she said, ‘Alaska’ and I was like, ‘What?’” said Max.

Yusra, a Muslim who frequently wears a hijab, hair covering, also is here through the AFS program. She has two sisters, one that is older and one that is younger. None of her immediate family has had an exchange-student experience, but other relatives and friends have studied at schools across the United States.

Like Max, Alaska was not Yusra’s choice. She preferred a more populated city, perhaps in California or New York. 

Sebastian is in Homer through Rotary International’s exchange student program. He has one older brother and two younger sisters. His mother traveled to Indianapolis as an exchange student in 1985, and wants her children to have a similar experience. Sebastian’s brother went to Minnesota four years ago.

Now it’s Max’s turn. Offered North Dakota or Alaska, he chose Alaska.

Weather is, so far, the biggest adjustment for the trio.

“It’s 36-38 Centigrade now at home,” said Yusra of temperatures that equal 96-100 Fahrenheit.

Temperatures in Mozambique are similar to the Philippines, said Max, adding that his below-the-equator homeland is moving into summer.

Homer’s size also stands out.

“I’m from a city with three million people. (Homer) is a small town,” said Sebastian.

Then there’s food. At the Pratt Museum’s recent Tamamta Katurlluta: A Gathering of Native Traditions, Sebastian sampled the small black and pink chunks filling two plates.

“I didn’t know what it was and someone said to eat it first and then I found out it was whale,” he said, making a face at the memory of eating muktuk.

Learning to do laundry and cleaning is a new chore for Sebastian.

“At home we have someone that does that,” he said. “Here, I have to do it myself. I learned that the first week.”

English has been a challenge — Yusra’s first language is Tausug, Max’s first language is Portuguese and Sebastian’s first language is Spanish — but “here at school is getting more comfortable,” said Max, his comment drawing head-nods from Yusra and Sebastian.

The three students agree they have been welcomed and kept busy by their host families. Max is living with Shellie and William Worsfold and Yusra is staying with Catherine Knott and David Pruett. As a Rotary exchange student, Sebastian will divide his stay between three different families. For now, he is staying with Will and Diana Hutt.

Being here is an opportunity for Sebastian, Max and Yusra to try new activities.

“I’ve watched football since I was 10,” said Sebastian, whose favorite team is the Colts. “When I arrived, it was either cross country running or football … and I decided it was football.”

Running with Homer High School’s cross country team, Max was first alternate at the state meet in Anchorage on Saturday.

“At the beginning, I didn’t like running, but my mom said to keep going and now I love it,” he said. 

Yusra arrived in mid-September, too late to pursue an interest in cheerleading for football, but she has her eye set on cheerleading during basketball season.

As Max, Yusra and Sebastian learn about life in Homer, the students they rub shoulders with every day also are getting valuable lessons.

“Finding out that a fellow student eats, prays and dresses different than you can be a really startling revelation,” said Lin Hampson, HHS guidance counselor. “When a student discovers that a friend may be from a country that is vilified in the press, he or she discovers not everyone who is vastly different is necessarily an enemy.”  

Waclawski agrees.

“Exchange students help bring a diversity and different perspective that our students would normally not have,” he said. “It gives them a more personal window into other parts of the world, especially in areas that are in the news right now.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at