A Whole New World
There are certain things in this life that do not go together—forks and power outlets, Mexican food and tight jeans, and the idea of an exotic Norwegian living in the piney woods of Northeast Texas.
Almost seven years ago, my family and I hosted a foreign exchange student from Norway. Her name was Karoline Gregersen and in my melodramatic mind, she was sure to arrive in America with long, blonde braids showing from underneath her horned Viking helmet, all while wielding a sword. Karoline’s hair was indeed blonde, but she looked just like everybody else in Atlanta, Texas. If she had a sword, I never saw it. She spoke fluent English and was very disciplined with her homework. She was a member of the high school tennis team and never complained about after-school practice. In other words, she was very unlike my very American children.
Karoline introduced us to Norwegian chocolate, which my family still claims to be the best they have ever eaten. She cooked us porridge. She educated us on all things from Norway. We, in turn, took her to Six Flags, introduced her to baseball, and helped her get her driver’s license. While under my roof, she also fell head over heels in love with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. My Norwegian daughter was very easy to please, and I was thankful.
This year, Atlanta High School is hosting two foreign exchange students. Laura de Miquel Perianes is from an island, just off the coast of Spain, and Alex Bodholdt is from northern Denmark. Both teenagers say that they were very excited to be coming to America via the FLAG exchange student program. Laura said America was definitely the most interesting place. Alex spoke of a well-liked teacher that he had in Denmark who hailed from Chicago. So, naturally, the choice for both kids was the United States.
Exchange students do not get to request the city that they are placed in. They could have been housed anywhere from sea to shining sea. When Laura and Alex heard Atlanta was to be their new home, they both instantly thought of the Georgia version, population five million. Not quite, y’all. These two wound up in Atlanta, Texas, population 5,400.
Both Laura and Alex are well-traveled but traveling to America alone was a different ballgame. When Alex approached the subject of being an exchange student, he says it was an automatic yes because his dad had dreamed of participating in the exchange program when he was young, but never got the chance. Laura said it took a little more time to convince her mother to let her travel to America, but she eventually relented and wished her the best in her travels abroad. Letting your kids go to college in your own country is hard enough but trusting your kids into the hands of complete strangers on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is a completely different animal. As a leap of faith and with the hopes of furthering their children’s cultural experiences, these families waved goodbye as their kids boarded a plane to America.
Laura was welcomed by Jeff and Terrie Peace, while Alex found his new home with Kevin and Camille Sherman. The families are close friends and are deeply involved in the Atlanta, Texas community. Because of this, Laura and Alex have settled in well and have really sunk their teeth into small town living. In fact, both students readily agree that their favorite part of small-town life is Friday nights.
In Denmark and Spain, as in most European countries, there are no extracurricular activities at school. There are sports clubs, but they are not tied to education are not well attended. Only family members serve as spectators. “Here, everybody in the town comes to the game on Friday nights to support the students. There is a lot of school pride,” Alex said in amazement. Laura laughed and added, “I do not understand American football, but it is exciting! The players are all grouped together in a pile and then they move down the field when they throw the ball. That is all I know about it, but I like watching it!” Fridays bring pep rallies, school colors, the band playing, and a heightened energy in the atmosphere that these exchange students cannot get enough of.
As far as education, Alex, age sixteen, has graduated high school in Denmark, because all kids graduate at sixteen in his country. Because his current age is that of an American high school student, Alex can still participate in the foreign exchange student program. Upon returning to Denmark, he will begin his university studies. Laura is fifteen and still has a couple of years left to complete her high school diploma, but she is glad that one of those years is being spent here in America.
Both students agree that American education is much easier. “Numbers are numbers, no matter what part of the world you’re in. Two plus two will always equal four in any country. So, math is not a problem,” Alex explained. However, the subjects that use the written word to educate can be a different story. Laura and Alex both speak English quite well, and several other languages between them, but there is sometimes a language barrier that they must overcome and that tends to be the hardest part of their studies at Atlanta High School. It is well known that people in Northeast Texas and the surrounding areas have more sayings than Carter has little liver pills. Because of this, Laura and Alex must not only wade through the English language, but they must also decipher small-town phrases said with a southern twang. Never fear! These two are picking up on both things very quickly!
Education in America differs greatly from that of Europe, but these two teenagers are adapting. In both Spain and Denmark, students stay in the same room for the entire school day. Different teachers will rotate in and out, depending on the subject they teach. So, to change every class in their new school is quite a different experience, but they like it. The two say that they get to know more people by being in a different classroom every hour of the day. Laura’s favorite class is Mrs. Beth Boyd’s culinary class, while Alex most enjoys Coach Tyler Johnson’s Money Matters class.
The two agree that one of the biggest differences in the learning aspect of school is that more in-depth projects are not assigned to students for presentations. In their respective countries, students are assigned projects they are required to work on for about two months. After the two-month study of a particular subject, the students are very well educated on the topic and present it to the class. Laura and Alex believe this to be a much more efficient way of retaining knowledge than only learning answers to multiple-choice tests. They agree multiple-choice testing is strange to them, but they consider it part of their experience.
While Laura and Alex are soaking up their foreign exchange student experience, there are some tough days too. Laura says that constantly dealing with the unfamiliar can be taxing. She has taken it in stride, though. She also admits she misses her sailboat that she sails off the coast of her Spanish island every day. Alex admitted it is sometimes difficult not to be with his family. He says it was especially difficult not being home for his mother’s birthday this year. Homesickness usually means home and the people in it are very loved. That is definitely true for these two students living so many miles away from their families.
American humor is also very different from what Laura and Alex are used to. “In Denmark, there are certain things that are acceptable to say and laugh at. There are other subjects that are completely off limits. I’ve learned that anything goes in America,” says Alex. As Laura put it, “Americans laugh at everything!” Whether good or bad, these kids have learned to just roll with it, building on their remarkable ability to adapt to a new way of life. Laura and Alex both find it frustrating that their American classmates cannot point out Spain or Denmark on a map. Even though American news and pop culture influence the youth in European countries, these two kids are proud of where they are from and wish their native cultures were more well-known worldwide.
Both Laura and Alex miss food from home. However, they are liking the new flavors the US has to offer. Laura really has a taste for ribs, while Alex says that hot pockets are his favorite. Apparently, there are not a lot of microwaveable foods in Denmark, so he is very impressed that after-school snack food can be ready in just minutes! Ribs and hot pockets… God bless America!
If hosting an exchange student interests you, there are many reputable programs that place students from other countries in the care of qualified American families. This year, Atlanta High School has used the FLAG company. They closely monitor foreign students, such as Laura and Alex, to make sure they are adapting well to life in America. For host families, it is the perfect chance to give teenagers from other countries the opportunity to experience American culture and make lasting memories. I pray that my own Norwegian exchange student, Karoline Gregersen, considers her time at our house a pleasant memory.
Much to our surprise, Karoline made the trip back to America a couple of weeks ago. She could have gone to see the Broadway lights of New York or the Hollywood Walk of Fame, while she was here. Instead, she paid a quick visit to… you guessed it… Atlanta, Texas. She came to our house, and we laughed for hours as we caught her up on all the ins and outs of our small-town life. We laughed at the time our dog ate her birthday cake. We congratulated her on her college graduation and her newfound love of social work in Norway. Karoline’s visit was simply delightful and reiterated the fact that our decision to host an exchange student was definitely the right one. We would definitely do it again. She hugged us as she headed back out into the world, but not before we sent her back to Norway in possession of her beloved blue-box macaroni and cheese.