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Filtering by Tag: finland

Her exchange was 47 years ago, but still is very much a part of her

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Story By Janelle Holt, State Coordinator of QueenslandAs a YFU volunteer I am often asked, “What will I get out of traveling overseas” or “Why should I host a foreign student?”  Those questions do not leave me stumped because, to me, the answer is as natural as breathing. “You will gain another family.”

Forty-seven years ago I travelled to Finland as a YFU exchange student. I was seventeen and had never been far from my Michigan farm or my family. June 1968 I boarded a plane in Detroit and flew into the unknown. I felt excitement, but also angst. I asked myself, “What have I gotten myself into?”

My home was in Rovaniemi, Finland with Olavi and Kerttu Lahtinen. I became their fifth child, as they had four of their own, Kirsti (18), Veikko (15), Ritva (11) and Heikki (8). Rovaniemi is located just ten kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. This far north never gets completely dark in summer nor light in the winter.

The early days of exchange I was terribly homesick and in 1968 there was no internet and long distance telephone calls were expensive. The only connection with home were letters that arrived by post. To ease my homesickness, my host mom climbed the stairs to my room each morning to bring my letters and a cup of tea. Years later I came to understand just how pampered I had been.

Early in my exchange, my senses were on overload. As summer wore on I became familiar with the sights, sounds, and smells of my new home. I woke each morning to the aroma of Karjalan Piiraka (Karelian Rice Pies). My mom made them to sell at the local markets. It was a foreign smell to me at first, but as summer progressed I came to love waking to the smell of those pies. Now if I smell of those pies baking, I’m transported to my days in Kerttu’s kitchen.

Kerttu and Olavi spoke no English and I did not speak Finnish. We learned to communicate with hand gestures, looks, or in other ways. One day Olavi was eating clabbered milk. It is a soured, unpasteurized raw milk that was left in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. It looks thick and elastic, similar to hot mozzarella cheese. Never having liked milk, I found this particularly disgusting. My father, generously, offered me a taste. I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. His loud voice boomed, “Hyvää”, which I knew to be the word for 'good’. I again shook my head and said, “no hyvää” and we both laughed.To this day I have never forgotten that word, or my ‘conversation’ with my host father.

Summer passed, and I was more and more comfortable in my adopted home. I felt truly cared for and part of the family. They seemed to enjoy having another child in their midst. As the day of my departure neared, I felt a tugging on my heart. It was such a bittersweet feeling. I wanted to return home to my friends and family, but I also didn’t want to leave.

One day I received a package. In it was a videotape that the family had made for me. Each family member spoke to me and showed me their homes and their families. Time had changed how everyone looked, but their hearts were still connected to mine. I cherish that video because it was the last that I would ever see my father, Olavi. He passed away before I could return to visit.

The connection has stayed strong for nearly thirty years now. I have visited my family several times. I have gone to celebrate birthdays and participated in the Christenings of my great niece and great nephew. I took my son there when he was eight to meet Kerttu, his ‘mummo’ and the rest of the ever-growing family. My son and mother communicated without words and it was magic.

Through the years my four siblings grew and had children. I now have two brothers, two sisters, two nieces, five nephews, five great-nieces and three great-nephews. My family keeps growing and filling my heart with joy.

One of my most special memories, though, was when Kerttu, Kirsti, and Ritva travelled from Finland to Florida to celebrate my 50th birthdayKerttu was 75 years old and had never been to the U.S! The fact that they went to so much effort and expense to spend that time with me made it the best birthday I’ve ever had!

YFU exchange is not just about the spending months overseas, learning another language or getting to see sights you’ve only read about. Exchange is about opening your heart, taking in new sights, sounds, and smells, sharing another language, and living a life different than your own.

For this reason, when asked “why go on exchange”, or “why host an exchange student”, I speak from the heart.

“It will help you grow.  It will enrich your mind.  It will change your life.”

First Hand Gap Year Experience

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Nikole Hampton Photo 2 - Graduation“Most kids from my hometown either went straight to work or straight to college.” This may have been true for many students in Harrisville, Michigan, but Nikole Hampton wanted more after she graduated in 2008, so she decided to take a gap year between high school and college to attend high school in Sweden. “It was the best experience of my life and forever changed me for the better,” Nikole says of her year. She had been unsure of her future plans, but she was sure of one thing: she was looking for the adventure of a lifetime and she got it.

“My parents were more in support of me going to college immediately, until they looked into gap year programs with me and realized that I was really motivated to do this. I deferred my acceptance to the University of Michigan, so they were happy to know I didn’t lose this opportunity either, and then they really started to support me.” Nikole got the best of both worlds with her gap year. She was able to take a giant leap out of her comfort zone and find out what she was made of, then attend college the following year.

Nikole Hampton Photo 3 - Art ClassNikole lived with a host family outside of Stockholm and attended Nacka Gymnasium as a third year (or a senior). In Sweden, students attend school until they are around 19 years old, which meant that her classmates were the same age, which was very important to Nikole. Despite the fact that she was the same age as most of her classmates, Swedish school took some getting used to. “Swedish high school is set up more like American colleges, with weekly schedules and classes that met twice per week.  We also had the majority of classes with our ‘class,’ or about 20-30 students studying the same track.  Mine was social science and art, so that is what my classes were mostly about except for our electives.” Her classmates quickly became her closest friends. “We were like a family!” She also made friends with kids on her track team and became close with her host sister who often invited her to hang out with her friends even though they went to different schools.

One of the best memories she has was the vacation she took with her host family. “My favorite was going on a road trip with my host family and skiing! It was so beautiful and we got to spend a lot of quality time together, cooking and playing cards and such.  School and life gets crazy busy sometimes, so it was relaxing to have some time off and just spend time with each other. And be in the outdoors of course!” It is times like these that really characterize an exchange. Although Nikole’s family’s English was near perfect, eventually they only spoke Swedish to her so she could practice. “They helped me with homework and taught me lots of words before school even started! They also got me a library card too, and I spent a lot of time reading which was another good way to learn a language.”

Nikole Hampton Photo 1 - Family VacationNot only did she get the opportunity to bond with her host family, but she was also able to bond with her natural family as well! “I visited family that lived in the south of Sweden and got to learn more about my heritage and experience a very different region. I also had some family living in the Stockholm area, so I met up with them occasionally too!”

Because Nikole joined her class during their last year of school, she was able to graduate with them! “Graduation was completely different than in the U.S. We had what was called an ‘utspring’ at school after an assembly, where they called out each class and we ran out of school and looked for a poster of us that our families secretly made (I realize this sounds strange...). Then our family put presents and letters on necklaces around our necks and we went home with them, changed out of our nice clothes, and then met up with our class again on a giant flat-bed truck that went all around Stockholm and blasted music.  After that, we go home again, and our families and friends were all over for a dinner and such in honor of the new graduate.”

Nikole Hampton Photo 5 - Class PhotoNikole took a risk and challenged herself and it paid off immensely. She learned a new language, made incredible friends, even ate reindeer! Now, she is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan. As a graduation present to herself, she is traveling back to Sweden this summer to visit her friends and host family, that she hasn’t seen in four years, to relive all of the wonderful memories she had there. This experience for her was unforgettable and transformative. She came back from Sweden motivated, confident and ready to continue with the ideas that ignited her passion for social issues while abroad.

Written by Zoe Colton Quotes from Nikole Hampton

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