Culture shock

Black in Sitka: Sharon Shaban discusses culture shock and life as a Kenyan exchange student

As one of only three black people in her high school, Kenyan exchange student Sharon Shaban’s experience hasn’t always been easy, but she says the kind people she met in class road trips made it easier (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

In honor of Black History Month, KCAW’s Tash Kimmell spoke with black Sitkans over the past two weeks to better understand what the black experience is like in small town Alaska. For the fifth and final installment of Black in Sitka, she spoke with Kenyan exchange student Sharon Shaban. Listen below:

My name is Sharon Shaban. I am an exchange student, from Kenya, the coastal part of Kenya. I’m at Sitka High in 11th grade.

Have you ever been to the United States before?

No, it’s my first time. It was difficult to love, to think “I’m going to leave everything and I’ll travel alone”, etc. But it’s fun. Like, I can see everyone and the people are so welcoming and kind.

Is it like an exchange program? Or tell me how you were selected to come?

Actually, it was just, my friend got a link. And she was like, “Oh, you wanna try that? It’s a question of exchange and other things. You can go to the United States for a while. And I’m like, “Okay!” I tried as a joke, then got a notification on my email, with forms I’m supposed to fill out. And I thought, oh, this was something serious.

Did you know anything about Alaska? Or had you heard of what Alaska was like before coming here?

Not really. I just watched children’s shows. And, you know, when something happens, and they have to go to Alaska, it’s so cold. It’s the only thing I knew. Yeah. In fact, I didn’t think it was part of the United States.

Obviously we don’t have a large black population in Sitka. Is that something you noticed when you got here?

Oh yeah, I thought it would actually be worse.

Did you think you would be the only one?

Yeah, that was a little scary. But then, yes, we are like three at school.

Three exchange students or just three blacks?

Three blacks at school.

Oh wow, that’s not much. What’s it like to be in a predominantly white community?

Well, sometimes some people really aren’t that nice to you. And then you like, you kind of understand the way they think of you. Sometimes it’s frustrating when someone treats you and looks at you in a weird way. But then you get used to it and tolerate it, because there’s nothing you can do about it.

As an American, like as a black person in America, you think a lot about your identity as a black person. It’s very political. And so I’m just wondering if that’s something you thought about in Kenya, or like now, coming to the United States, did you kind of have to think more about your blackness?

Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I look at myself, but then, you know, when you see other people from other countries, and I’m like, “Okay, if that person survives, well, I can survive too.” But even though they are from other countries, most of them are not as black as me. So I’m like, “Okay, I’ll get used to this.”

If you explained what it’s like to be Kenyan and Sitka or Black and Alaskan to your classmates. In Kenya, what would you say?

I will say you might not like everything people say. You might not understand what people are saying at some point. But then, when you know people better, you get used to it. And sometimes you feel like you’re part of it. Even if you look different. Yeah, some of them are so nice. And then if, if something is so difficult, you just love, you think positive. It’s actually something I’ve been working on – thinking positive. And like, even if it doesn’t turn out the way it was supposed to, just know that something good is happening.