'The Lord wants me in Czech'

by Sonja J. Keith

As her classmates return to Conway High School for the fall semester, 17-year-old Alyssa Strickland will be embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime experience as an exchange student to the Czech Republic.

Alyssa’s interest in the Czech Republic was sparked on a mission trip in 2011 through her church, Fellowship Bible Church in Conway. “I felt I had seen a whole new aspect of life,” she said, adding that she was not familiar with the country prior to her trip. “It came out of nowhere, and I felt a tugging to go. I think that’s what the Lord wanted me to do, and I’m glad I did.”

Those on the trip taught English to high school students and young adults as well as played games and sports, sharing their faith when an opportunity presented itself. “Our main goal was to build relationships with the students.” 

Returning from the trip, she visited with exchange students at Conway High who shared “how neat” the experience can be studying in another country.

Alyssa and a group from Fellowship returned to Czech in 2012 on a second mission trip. “By the end of that trip I knew I wanted to live there for a while.”

When she returned to Conway, she focused on finding the right exchange organization and developing a plan to raise about $12,000 to fund the trip. And, she had to ask her parents. “I threw it out there: ‘Mom and Dad, what would you think about me being an exchange student for a  year?’ I was happy they were open to it.”

Alyssa was encouraged by a school counselor to discuss her interest in being an exchange student with Karen Strossner, a French teacher at Conway High who has volunteered with the AFS program.

She also worked on a budget and a plan to raise the money needed. “I knew I had to get a job,” she said. To devote the time to raising the funds, Alyssa made the difficult decision to quit all of her sports activities. “If anyone knows me, they know I love sports, but I kept my goal in mind. That was really tough.”

Alyssa began working at Ed’s Bakery last August and made money babysitting, doing yard work, etc. She also filled her school schedule to earn the needed credits for graduation. She only lacks English 12, which she will complete overseas to earn a diploma from Conway High.

“That was the hardest year.”

While she had managed to raise some money, Alyssa realized in December that she was going to come up short despite her best efforts. She began applying for other programs that were less expensive, but none offered the Czech Republic. For two or three months, she was confused and not certain what to do. While waiting to hear if she had been accepted to a program with placement in Germany, she received a call from AFS that there were scholarship funds available, cutting in half the amount of money she would need for the Czech exchange program.

“I immediately burst into tears and cried,” she said. “I don’t know how it happened, but the Lord provided more than ever what I could think of . . . I feel the Lord really wants me in Czech.”

Alyssa has been assigned a family in Prague, which includes her mom, Jana, 18-year-old sister Katerina and 24-year-old sister Martina. “I’ve never had a sister before. I’m really looking forward to having one.”

Although Alyssa does not know the Czech language, young people are required to take English in school, so communicating will not be too difficult. “I’ll teach Katerina English, and they’ll teach me Czech.”

The Czech Republic is known as a predominantly atheist country, which stems from its many years of communism. Prague, where Alyssa will live, is a big city with few churches.

Alyssa describes the country as beautiful and interesting, from its architecture to
its natural surroundings. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” she said. “Everywhere I went, I wanted to stop and take a picture. It was so beautiful.”

Her plan is to fly from Little Rock to New York, where she and 60 other exchange students will gather before continuing their trip overseas. Alyssa will join three other U.S. students traveling to the Czech Republic. Alyssa will return in late June/early July to the United States. She plans to attend the University of Central Arkansas or Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

While away, family and friends can keep up with her through her blog at czechups.blogspot.com

Alyssa knows she will miss Conway, her family and friends while away, especially her parents. “They have been supportive through this whole process,” she said. “They’ve always supported me in everything I do.”

Reflecting on the year ahead, Alyssa is both excited and nervous. “The Lord just provided — it’s one of the things I cling to. I just love Czech and the people there. My goal is to connect with my family there, love on them and try to be a light.”


School: Senior at Gymnazium Jaroslava Heyrovskeho.

Favorite subject: History.

What do you enjoy most at school: I enjoy the diversity. There’s always an opportunity to meet someone new and/or different than yourself.

Career plans: Possibly a coach, physical education teacher or part of a staff dealing with sports ministry.

Community activities: Swimming at Beaverfork Lake, playing basketball at the McGee Center, church at Fellowship Bible Church in Conway.

Family: Parents Mark and Charlotte Strickland; brothers Reed (22) and Connor (20).

Who do you admire the most: My grandfather, Lonnie Gibbons, who passed away in 2011.

Favorite meal: Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and any type of chicken.

Most cherished possession: My stuffed animal named Jackie.

Most enjoyed weekend activity: Spontaneous adventures with friends.

Favorite quote: “Only one life, ‘twil soon be past. Only what’s done, for Christ will last.”

Favorite place in Arkansas: The top of Pinnacle Mountain!