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High Life : A WEEKLY FORUM FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS : Mirror Images : Students Find Navajo Group Surprisingly Like Themselves

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When the Life to Life Club at University High School announced it would play host to eight students and four faculty members from the Leupp School, on a Navajo Indian Reservation near Flagstaff, Ariz., some students expected their guests to arrive clad in leather skins, fur, feathers and colorful war paint.

“You can’t stereotype a culture,” said Julie Sortais, a 16-year-old junior at University whose family served as hosts. “You’re ignorant until you actually get a chance to know them.”

The Navajo visitors looked, dressed and talked the same as any other student when they arrived on the school’s campus in mid-September. They came wearing baseball caps and sweat shirts and sporting skill in Nintendo and basketball.

“We have the same interests,” Sortais said. “Our cultures are different, but in the way they act, there’s basically not much difference from the way all teens act.”

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Arnold Manygoats, a 16-year-old junior, said he wanted to be a part of the trip to “see how the real world is, see the school, how well (students are educated), how things in the big city are . . . the culture, traditions.”

Manygoats and his friends discovered that the biggest difference between Southern California and Leupp are “the schools--they’re very big and populated . . . and traffic isn’t as bad in Arizona.”

That makes sense, considering Leupp School has 13 grade levels, a population of 400 students, and only one or two students actually drive to school.

Manygoats said while “some people still live in the traditional way with no electricity or running water, we only use tepees in special meetings--spiritual meetings held around special occasions like Christmas, birthdays and newborn babies.”

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During their six-day stay, the Navajo students shared such aspects of their culture with students in University’s U.S. history classes.

Leupp School’s curriculum is similar to that of most schools, with classes in English, computers, science, physical education and math. During their free time, Manygoats and his friends “listen to heavy-metal music, play basketball, do homework. We also have trips--we go to the mall, watch movies, hike, eat out.”

These “trips” don’t occur on an everyday basis; Leupp is about 45 miles from Flagstaff. But the visiting students more than made up for their comparative isolation by visiting such tourist attractions as Catalina, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Hollywood, the beach and Disneyland.

Manygoats said he couldn’t choose the best part of his trip, deciding that “everything has been fun.”

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The visit reciprocates the one made to Leupp during spring break by 26 members of the Life to Life club.

“Club members were able to establish an ongoing relationship with the Navajo students, break down some of the barriers between the reservation and Irvine, and learn more about the Navajo culture and their own by contrast,” said senior Julie Alvarado, publicity chairwoman for Life to Life.

“It was a great experience for all those who were involved,” said senior Tracey Olsen, president of the club.

“We learned a great deal about their culture while they learned about ours. I hope this exchange will continue soon and lead to bigger and better things.”

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This opportunity to exchange information about cultures came about through Life to Life, a program sponsored by US Students Against World Hunger, an Irvine-based relief agency started two years ago by Steve Tucker, a parent of two graduates of University High.

Last February, about 600 University students voluntarily skipped lunch once a week and donated their lunch money to the Skip-a-Lunch-Save-a-Life project. They also found sponsors to match their donations and raised $25,000, of which $5,000 went to help homeless people in Orange County.

The remaining $20,00 went toward digging a well and building a school in West Africa. Six club members, including Olsen, traveled to that country in late March to witness the results of their fund-raising efforts.

Other club activities have included trips to Ensenada for volunteer work and to Santa Ana to serve Thanksgiving meals at the Santa Ana Mission.

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Next March, Life to Life is co-sponsoring the Walk for Mankind to help raise funds for international health projects.

“The goal of Life to Life is to give of ourselves to others in any way we can,” Olsen said. “We hope that in touching others’ lives, it will touch ours in return.”


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