YES Programs



From Albania to Alaska: Reflections From a Girl Gone North

snow covered barn

By Anxhela Gorani (YES 2019-2020, Albania, placed by S4-H in Kenai, AK)  

From the very first time I heard of the YES program, I was determined to apply and take the chance to go to the U.S. Now having had the experience, I can't find the right words to express how thankful I am that the dream turned into reality. 

When I was first applying, I wished to be placed in a warm place with a house by the sea. Funny enough, I soon received an email saying I'd be hosted in Alaska.

YES student standing in snowy field

I come from a small town in Albania called Berat, which has a typical Mediterranean climate and is surrounded by hills and mountains. Berat is a UNECSO World Heritage site because of its unique architecture with influence from several civilizations as well as many churches and mosques painted with murals and frescos. Needless to say, the difference between the two places is drastic.  

At the time, I wasn't sure how to feel about it, but very soon I realized living in Alaska would be an amazing and unforgettable experience. 

I lived in a typical Alaskan house full of lovely pets. The house was a big cozy cabin with a wooden interior, two fireplaces, and big windows to let as much natural light in as possible. The basement had a fun room with a pool table and a big TV for movie nights, as well as a sauna. We also had a small backyard basketball court and a big trampoline. At the back of the garage, there was a chicken coop and a geese coop.  

Every time I think back on that year, I long for the family and school trips because those were some of the best memories I made. One highlight from the year was seeing the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage. It is an annual event that happens in March and takes about 10 days, but sometimes it can take more depending on the weather conditions.  

Regardless of the cold weather, many people attended. There were snacks and photo booths, as well as little souvenirs. We were all freezing during the wait, but as soon as the race started the cheering and excitement warmed us all up. I found it lovely how the dogs wore booties to protect their paws from the snow along the trail. I must say a race like that does take a lot of courage.  

It was always fun to hit the road and venture out, because I was amazed by the nature and the wildlife. There were so many lakes, rivers, lovely frozen waterfalls, and beautiful mountains covered in snow that the hours traveling felt like minutes.  

One would think the low temperatures would be unbearable and yet there's nothing like putting on snow gear, playing around and then lying down to look at the trees trying to reach for the sky. I could do that for hours, if it weren't for the wildlife that would pass by and visit you.  

The Alaskan forests are not home to adorable deer, but big moose that find themselves at home anywhere, including our yards. It was rare not to encounter a moose on a daily basis, which was the best scenario, since often you could run into a mama moose and her babies.  

YES student with a group of people

This experience wouldn't have been so special, though, if I hadn't met all the wonderful people that became my family, friends, and teachers. I always felt loved and supported, so far from home yet never alone. My host parents were the most welcoming, understanding, loving people. I was an older sister to three wonderful siblings whom I now miss very much. We got along so well, and they made me feel home within the very first week. I always enjoyed doing chores, helping around the house, and cooking Albanian dishes every now and then. 

I know I will always be part of the family, and I keep waking up to text messages from my host sister asking me to go back, as I wish to do some day. Maybe this time, I’ll go during the summer, so I can enjoy Alaska in a different way, rather than covered in white magic. 

To this day, when I mention to others that I lived in Alaska, I get the funniest, surprised looks, which I must say do amuse me every time.