Waking Up 6,000 Miles From Home

Veronica Vaccaro, Contributing Writer

Have you ever seen a squirrell? I had not before I came to the US. So, when I woke up for the first time in my new American house, 4,074 miles from my native city, I was flabbergasted when I saw one from my window, bouncing on the grass like a tennis ball. 

It’s hilarious how the smallest differences can be the ones that shock us the most. But what is life without a little surprise and desire for knowledge? This is the philosophy that convinced me and many other tennagers to leave our countries, houses, families and friends, all by ourselves, looking for new adventures, to learn about the world, and to teach the world about us. This way we can fight ignorance, stereotypes and xenophobia.

Kosei, from Japan, Bertine, from Norway and Max, from Czech Republic are the main characters of this journey. It’s amazing to see how people coming from such different backgrounds can be so similar. The same reasons pushed them to take this crazy decision, the same obstacles appeared on their paths, the same struggles accompany them every day; the same smile grows on their faces when you ask politely about their native country. 

I just wanted to make a change. I found the exchange year an amazing opportunity to become independent, grow up, and meet new people.” said Max.  

“I’ve always been interested in traveling and experiencing new cultures,” stated Bertine. 

“I also really wanted to watch the NBA, and see Broadway with my own eyes,” added Kosei. 

What most people don’t know is that this journey doesn’t start when the plane leaves, but long earlier. It starts when a young kid develops the desire to acknowledge the outside world. They find out bad things about the world and they want to change it. It starts when that little kid begins fantasizing about going away. Leaving and discovering the world. They find out about this program and they start working hard to earn a spot.

“I’m in a student exchange program through the organization AFS. It started off with sharing basic personal information and then it became more and more paperwork.” said Bertine. Hope starts to grow in the applicants’ hearts, even if the chances to win scholarships are so low that sometimes it’s hard to fully believe it. Still, they don’t give up and start working so hard. 

I applied for a scholarship and there was a 1.2% chance to win. There were three phases of selection. At first I was competing against 800 people and I had to write approximately 20 essays. On the second one 150 people remained and I had to attend some interviews, first in English and then in Czech. I got into the third phase where 13 finalists had made it.” But the feeling of disbelief, surprise and extreme joy when they get the long-awaited news is hard to describe. “I couldn’t believe it when I got a phone call and a lady told me I had won the program. There were many people with my same name applying, so I had to double check the last name before I actually started believing it was true.” said Max. 

One of the hardest parts of this experience is telling your parents and friends you’re going to cross the world and be away for a whole year alone at the age of sixteen. “When I told my mom I would leave, she started crying. I was especially scared to tell my best friend Zuzka. She became a little distant when I did, because she was angry and sad. She and her mom really hoped I didn’t get into the program so that I would have stayed with them.” 

These young kids need to deal with a lot of emotions, both positive and negative. Fear, sadness, loneliness. I asked the exchange students how they were feeling before leaving. “I was scared I couldn’t make any friends because my English wasn’t that good and you can’t make friends without communicating.” said Kosei. 

The moment of the separation is for sure one of the hardest moments but it was funny and surprising  to find out from the interviewees that sometimes, separating from their family was not as hard as separating from their pets. “The hardest part for me was to say goodbye to my cat Heilinka” said Max and “a challenge for me is that sometimes my mind is in Norway, while my physical body is here. Especially when it comes to my dog Apollo, he’s my best friend. I know he’s in good hands but being away from him for a year is a long time!” said Bertine. 

Another challenge for our exchange students is for sure facing all the differences and the cultural shocks of a country that is far from their home. I asked them what was the biggest difference and they all agreed. “Strangers talk to me a lot. Once a boy complimented my backpack and I got scared. I remember my first night here. My host parents hugged me to say goodnight and I thought that it was weird. That was a very big cultural shock for me” said Kosei. 

“The people!” said Bertine.  “There’s a huge difference between how Norwegian and American people interact with each other. In Norway we’re more introverted and don’t usually speak with people we don’t know. Meanwhile, people here are interacting with strangers and being much more polite, but it’s hard to find real friends here because you don’t know who’s just being polite and who really wants to be your friend.” and “The mindset. People are so open minded here. And people really care about each other. I feel like in Czech Republic people are taught to rely just on themselves, while here, children are taught from a very young age to work in groups helping each other.” stated Max.

Lastly, I asked them what are the biggest challenges they have to face every single day and Kosei answered “Every day I struggle with my English class. Daily conversations are not a problem, but writing essays is so hard. It’s really helpful but so hard!”