When I was a freshman in high school I saw a poster about becoming an exchange student, it was an invitation to a presentation after school. I went to the meeting, and listened to the representative from the local Rotary Club talk about the exchange program they had. I was too young to qualify, but the idea of spending a year abroad intrigued me. Especially since I had never ventured further than Disney World.
The next few years went by in a blur of horses, live concerts in Philadelphia, homework and school plays. I worked part-time as a bus girl in an Italian restaurant, and washed Sunday brunch dishes at a cafe. I competed in horse shows and saw The Cure live in concert. Around the beginning of my junior year I remembered the exchange student presentation, and asked around about how to apply to the program. I quickly discovered that no one else had applied in years! The local Rotary Club was excited to hear that maybe there was finally a potential applicant to their program.
My grades weren't quite good enough to be accepted, but I was so determined to study abroad that they decided to give me a chance anyway. The Rotary Exchange program is truly an amazing opportunity. Clubs around the world sponsor students. It is a non-profit program, and this really opens the door for people from all walks of life to participate. Usually the family of each student is expected to host another student from somewhere in the world, for at least part of the year. For example, my parents hosted a girl from Japan.
Once I had been accepted I was given the opportunity to chose three countries I would be interested in moving to for a year. My first choice was South Africa, but because of the political situation in 1991 my parents vetoed it. I didn't really have any other particular choices, I think I chose Argentina, France and Iceland. I received the call a few weeks later asking if I would like to reside in Sweden. I said, " Sure!"
With my country set up, I was asked to participate in Rotary Exchange activities in my Northeast USA region, both with current foreign exchange students living in the US and with future exchange students like myself. I really enjoyed these weekends, getting to know what to expect. Honestly, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come but that was definitely part of the fun.
I flew together with all the other American exchange students flying to live in Sweden that year, we all left together out of Newark airport in mid-August. My high school friends drove up to the New Jersey airport to say goodbye. I didn't expect it to be so difficult. I was heartbroken to walk away from my parents and friends for the first time in my life.
My host family picked me up at the Arlanda airport, Ann-Helen and Georg with their two children Maya and Anna-Klara. Their son Per was also an exchange student that year, so I was arriving in his place. We spent the night in a flat in Stockholm. Everything was so different! It was like my whole understanding of how things worked had been flipped upside down. I remember feeling so nervous, thinking that I had made a terrible mistake. The family was so kind to me and we are close to this day, but that very first culture shock was something I will never forget.
Want to read more? Click to read on: Sweden-Part Two