By Anna Kate Clark, FBRA Girls Class of 2019
Always remember, you can do hard things!Anna Kate Clark
I grew up hearing bits and pieces of my mom’s experience as an exchange student in New Zealand. Little things would remind her of a story about New Zealand where she formed memories that have lasted throughout her lifetime. From the first time I heard about her adventure, I’d been slightly interested. My grandparents also hosted exchange students while my mom was in high school, and one of them still visits every year when he can. I wanted to have the opportunity to create a bond like that.
Pictured right: Anna Kate with some Finnish friends, hanging out in the dark at 5pm
Destined for International Travel
I’ve had a fascination with traveling for as long as I can remember. Going to Costa Rica with FBRA is most likely what started it though. I met new people each year and lived with different families, which gave me a chance to see their different ways of living. FBRA pushed me out of my comfort zone for the three years that I attended. Many of my teachers repeated the phrase, “You can do hard things,” and although it was repetitive then, I still repeat it sometimes. Because of the time I spent with host families in Costa Rica, I wasn’t nervous about living with a Finnish host family. Living with a host family taught me how to communicate my needs without coming off as rude. A key difference in my current living situation is that in Costa Rica my FBRA classmates were all together during the day and one was with me at home, but here in Helsinki, Finland I’m on my own because I moved alone and didn’t know anyone.
This past year, my family hosted an exchange student from Germany for three-and-a-half months, and she became one of my closest friends, like a sister to me. Although she told me about her struggles, I also heard about her favorite experiences. She still talks to me about how much she misses it. When she heard that I was thinking about being an exchange student, she spent the rest of her time in the United States telling me how amazing it would be. She told me it would be difficult at times, but in the end it was worth it. I don’t think I would have followed through with the application if she didn’t live with my family. I needed that final little push.
Adjusting to Life in Finland for a Year
Finnish students start learning English at a young age in school and by the time they’re in high school, they’re pretty fluent. Everyone I’ve met in school has very good English, considering it’s not their first language. The Finnish stereotype of being introverted seems to be because they’re shy about speaking English because once they start talking to me, they’re pretty open. There have been times where there’s an awkward silence, but I’ve noticed that people here don’t feel the need to fill the silence with talking, and it’s not really awkward to me anymore.
Before I left the United States, I relied heavily on my friends around me when I met new people. I’m a pretty introverted person so I’ve had to adapt and become more comfortable with starting conversations. I used to worry about what to talk about after the initial topic ended, but I’ve learned that if I at least start the conversation other people will continue it and if they don’t, the silence isn’t so bad. I enjoy alone time, but in the United States I would spend all of my alone time at home. Since coming to Finland, I’m more comfortable doing my own thing and I’m able to explore the city.
Pictured left to right: Anna Kate baking with her host dad, her first time seeing the Northern Lights, view of Mustikkamaa and the Baltic Sea from her bedroom window:
Adapting to Finnish public transportation was strange at first because I never had to use public transportation in Asheville. When I was driving in the States I could leave when it worked best for me and I had more time in the mornings, but here I don’t really have that luxury. I have had to get used to leaving on time to catch the bus because if I didn’t I would miss it and be late.
Helsinki also has different sections, similar to how Asheville is “divided” into North, South, East, and West, except there are way more sections here. I live in Kalasatama which used to be a boat port, and I’m able to see the Baltic Sea from my living room window. Learning how long it takes to get to each section has also been pretty important when it comes to making plans.
The time changed the last weekend of October, which has the sun setting around 3:30pm. It will continue to get darker sooner, but now that it has started to snow, it doesn’t feel as dark. It has taken some time getting used to the darkness, and even now it’s difficult sometimes. Finnish people have a word “sisu” which doesn’t have a direct translation, but roughly means “courage and determination related to the darker months.” When the time first changed, I was having a hard time and was feeling homesick. I added a daily walk into my schedule because it gave me a sense of routine that helped with adapting to the dark. There is an island, Mustikkamaa, very close to where I live and it has different places for activities including trails, tennis courts, an adventure park and access to the Helsinki Zoo. Most of my daily walks are spent on the trails and sometimes I stop and sit on the benches to look at the sea.
Left to right: Anna Kate adding pearl sugar onto Korvapuusti, lighting the fire for the sauna at her host family’s summer cottage:
Some Nuts and Bolts of Exchange Programs
Traveling to Spain for two weeks last summer helped solidify the idea that if I did study abroad as an exchange student, I wanted to go to Europe. When I applied, I picked three countries: Iceland, Norway and Finland. The AFS program made the final decision for me. I chose to be an exchange student after I graduated high school so it’s acting more as a gap year for me, but most people study abroad during high school. Many of the exchange students I’ve met here still have a year or two of school back in their home countries. I’m studying in Finland through AFS-USA which is also the program my mom went through. AFS offers semester, yearlong, or 1-3 week and 4-8 week Summer programs. AFS works hard to prepare students before they leave, including scheduling Zoom meetings and having different activities for the students to do. The German exchange student that was in my house was in the United States through Rotary Youth Exchange which is another great program. I’ve met a few exchange students that are here through Rotary and also people that have studied abroad through Rotary and loved it.
If you’re interested in being an exchange student, my advice is just do it. Even if everything isn’t amazing, it’ll change your life. Many people that I’ve met here have had struggles with their host family, missing home, making friends and keeping friends at home, but even with those issues we all love it. I miss the United States sometimes, but I am so glad I decided to study abroad. It’s been very eye-opening so far and I’ve learned so much about myself. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t go out of my comfort zone and follow through with my application. I will always be grateful for this experience. Always remember you can do hard things.