While Ukraine probably doesn't top the list of spring break destinations for students, 10 North Hollywood High School freshmen and sophomores have packed their bags for a trip starting Friday to the former Soviet republic.
The three-week visit, including a cultural stop in Kiev, marks the first phase of an American-Ukrainian-Russian exchange program that will bring a group of Ukrainian students to North Hollywood in November.
The program was organized by the American Councils for International Education in Washington. Funded primarily by the U.S. Information Agency, each student will kick in about $700 for the chance to compare cultural notes with teens across the world.
"I can't wait to be immersed in their culture," said Jennifer Kretchmer, 14, who is completing a crash course in Russian at school. "I get e-mails from them [Ukraine students] everyday," said Jonathan Sicotte, 16. "We read the same books and share the same technology. I want to dispel our country's negative stereotype of Ukraine as a primitive outpost."
Eugenia Kaplun's expectations are simpler.
"I want to eat Russian food," said the 14-year-old, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and moved to the U.S. as a young girl. "My parents grew up in Ukraine, and I want to witness firsthand the culture they've talked about all my life."
The students, selected from among 20 applicants after a rigorous essay and interview process, will depart for Kiev on Friday and arrive in the Ukraine capital the next day for 72 hours of museum-hopping and theater.
Then the students--nine of them from North Hollywood's highly gifted magnet program--will travel by train 200 miles west to Rivne. They will be met by their host families, whose children will visit here in the fall.
"An experience like this will change their lives forever," said foreign-language teacher Stacy Ordona, who will chaperon the students. "They'll be exposed to a different way of life, and we hope it will be a motivation for further study, especially Russian."