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Submitted photo Perham High School student Makayla Kroenke, who is currently studying abroad in the Phillipines.

An education in paradise; Perham student reports on first months studying abroad

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Perham High School student Makayla Kroenke won't be home for the holidays this year.

But don't feel too sorry for her just yet.

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Though she'll miss her family, the 17-year-old foreign exchange student admits she won't miss the snow, wind and ice that comes with a Minnesota winter - instead, she'll probably be lying on a beach, soaking up some sun and enjoying "another day in paradise."

At least, that's how she spent her Thanksgiving.

"Over Thanksgiving I was in Boracay, named '2012 World's Best Island,' and I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else," Kroenke stated in an email to the Focus.

And while Christmas may be a little harder for her, as everyone else gets to spend time with their families, Kroenke expresses no regrets about her decision to spend a year abroad. She calls it "an opportunity I couldn't pass up."

Through Rotary International's student exchange program, Kroenke is studying in the Philippines for the year. She left in August and will get back by early June of 2013, returning for her senior year of high school in Perham.

"The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands and each one is distinct," Kroenke said. "The beaches are beautiful and unforgettable."

Her experiences so far have been very positive. She said her host family has been "great," it's been easy for her to make friends, she's gone island hopping, visited ruins and attended a three-day festival called the Masskara Festival. The streets are filled with dancers, parade floats, vendors and more for this festival, Kroenke described, "It's a celebration of overcoming hard times."

To ensure she got a true "taste" of the Phillipines, Kroenke said she even ate a certain food that "some locals are unwilling to eat." Called Balut, it's a traditional street food consisting of a fertilized duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell.

"In general, Filipinos are very friendly and hospitable," Kroenke said. "The lifestyle here is more relaxed and they spend less time worrying. For example, my host family has three maids, a cook and a driver. I really don't have to do much. It seems like an easier way of life."

Kroenke's current host family includes a mother who works in retail management, a father who sells real estate, and two daughters, one of whom is studying in Oklahoma this year.

Host families change every few months, and as of Monday Kroenke was preparing to move in with her second host family on Wednesday. She didn't know much about them yet, except that they have four boys under the age of 15.

She has been able to keep in fairly regular contact with her family back home in Perham through email, she said, but she tries to keep Skype calls to a minimum: "I feel that too much contact with them could interfere with me adapting to the Filipino culture."

Kroenke said she chose the Philippines "partly because I wanted to go to a country with a tropical climate," and also because it's completely different from Minnesota and she wanted to get out of her comfort zone. She hoped to meet new people, learn about other cultures and be involved with something out of the ordinary.

And so far, she said, "I have done that and more. The last three months have been absolutely incredible. I have learned so much, not only about another part of the world but also about myself."

Yet the experience is not without its challenges. For one thing, Kroenke said, the language can be a barrier. While she said most Filipinos understand English, it can be hard for her to understand them when they speak it. This is especially an issue at school, where she sometimes needs to ask her teachers to repeat directions three or four times before she completely understands.

School itself is a challenge. Kroenke is attending the University of the Philippines High School Iloilo, a prestigious and rigorous government-run school. She said more than 1,000 students from all over the Philippines apply to the school every year, and only the top 50 are accepted.

"The academics are challenging and the school day is 10 hours long," she said. "The extra curricular activities offered are math and science club and a drama program, but it is in Hiligaynon, the local dialect, so it's difficult for me to participate."

It's also taken some time for Kroenke to get used to attention. As a 5-foot 10-inch tall Caucasian high school girl, she said, her appearance is highly uncommon, and she gets plenty of stares from the locals.

Still, she's adapted quickly to her new surroundings, and neither her appearance nor the language barrier have made her feel isolated. Since the people are so easygoing, she said, it isn't hard to make friends. In addition to her classmates, she also gets to hang out with other exchange students and their friends.

"We usually go to the mall and walk around, watch movies, or go to one of the many beach resorts in the area," she said.

To follow more of Kroenke's adventures, visit her blog at http://makaylakroenke.tumblr.com/

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