4 high schools in 4 years and no regrets for Zama American senior
TOKYO — She’s ridden elephants, scuba-dived and hang-glided in Thailand. She’s walked the Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan. She’s camped at Denali National Park in Alaska and seen the Northern Lights. She speaks Thai and French and has studied three other languages.
Though traveling is nothing new for many DODDS students, few have packed their bags as often as Whitney Russell has in recent years. But what she’s taken away from having attended four high schools in four years in three countries, she says will stay with her the rest of her life.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said the senior volleyball player for Zama American. “It’s been a great experience and it’s changed my outlook on life.”
Growing up in McGregor, Texas, Russell said she got used to doing things “a certain way.” But attending M.C. Perry in Japan as a freshman, Eagle River High in Alaska as a sophomore and Damrongratsong Kroh School in Chiang Rai, Thailand, as an exchange student as a junior, made her view things through a different prism.
“I didn’t know there were other right ways to do things and different ways to do the right things,” Russell said.
Moving became a rite of passage starting three years ago, when her mother and sponsor, Dr. Holly Jones, was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, then to Alaska for two years and now as a counseling psychologist at Naval Air Facility Atsugi’s fleet and family support.
Russell’s stepfather, Peter Robles, is the command sergeant major of the special troops battalion at Camp Zama.
With a move, there’s always the not knowing anyone again, making new friends again, being the “new girl” again. Russell says she’s taken the changes over the years in stride, especially in Thailand, where she was the school’s lone English-speaking student.
“You’re kind of forced” to make new friends, but after awhile, she found there’s “great people everywhere. I have so many friends around the world,” Russell said.
Russell says she never wanted to move that much, having wanted a full four-year high-school experience in the same place. But “after I got used to it, I got excited for every single year, I got to start over again,” she said.
A teammate who has lived at Zama her entire life, junior Candace Bowman, said she might not handle that sort of nomadic existence well. “It would have been a hard adjustment, to both move and be away from my family,” she said.
Zama and Perry resembled the American schools that Russell went to in Texas. Not so in Alaska and especially Thailand, which Russell said was “a completely different experience than all the others I’d had before.”
People at Iwakuni, Russell said, were “so open and friendly. It was easy to make friends there. Alaska I liked because the place was so amazing, I loved the weather and I loved the culture. Thailand, the first couple of months I didn’t like because I didn’t speak the language. But after that it was amazing. Every day, I was trying something new, so that was really fun.”
Among other things she did in the tropics were seeing the Thai Floating Market, learning traditional Thai dance and becoming certified in Thai massage. “Legally, I could open up a Thai massage parlor if I wanted to,” Russell said.
Alaska meant camping and hiking virtually every weekend, getting frostbite for the first time and viewing the Northern Lights, which were “incredible. It was so surreal. It was like a scene from a movie; you’d never think that something like that actually exists,” she said.
Not all she saw and experienced was good. In Thailand, she saw students in classes studying, but on weekends they begged on the street in their school uniforms “because those were the only clothes they had,” Russell said.
“That was really painful to see. Now, I really appreciate my education and I try more now than before … because I appreciate it more.”
Russell says she plans to major in international business or international relations and minor in Russian or Thai at the University of South Carolina. In addition to speaking French and Thai, Russell says she’s studied Chinese and Russian.
In every location, she has played basketball, and Russell says she plans to play a spring sport at Zama, something she didn’t do at Perry. Aside from feeling she should have played a spring sport at Perry as a freshman, she says if she were to change anything, it would have been to be more outgoing in Alaska. “I was a little shy,” Russell said. “It was my first change in high schools.”
What advice would Russell give somebody in the same position, moving every year to a new school in a new country?
“Be as accepting and outgoing as you can because people aren’t always going to come to you,” she said. “Don’t judge something because it’s something you’re not used to, different from what you see.”