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Being an Exchange Student

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If you saw me in the halls of Gig Harbor High School, you might think I’m just any other student. One in a million. Just like you and everyone around us.

But the truth is; I’m not like you. I’m not like everyone else in this school. I’m an exchange student. I’m from Stockholm, Sweden, and in August of 2015, I moved to Gig Harbor to study abroad for a year.

My year abroad is a little more than half over. A typical exchange year lasts for ten months, usually mid-August to mid-June. While many people go to the US or other English speaking countries, even more people go to places where they don’t know the language at all. Learning a new language can be difficult, but for those who choose to go to France without knowing any French, or those who decide to study in Ecuador and haven’t said a word in Spanish in their life, that’s part of their experience.

However, being an exchange student isn’t only about moving to a different country and learning the language. It’s about cultural exchange as well. Even though I personally am very good at English, I know barely anything about culture in Washington. In Sweden, we take our shoes off as soon as we enter someone’s house, but the first few times I did that here, I got weird looks. I didn’t know that ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ were used as often as they are. I had never celebrated Thanksgiving, and I was definitely not used to celebrating Christmas on the 25th, as it is celebrated on Christmas Eve in Sweden.

Cultural exchange has not only allowed me to learn new things, but my host family and friends as well. For example, I introduced them to a Swedish holiday called Lucia. Every year on December 13, Swedes celebrate Saint Lucia, a woman who lived during the 4th century in Sicily. Gig Harbor had a small Lucia celebration on December 12 at the Harbor History Museum, and I brought my host family and my girlfriend to it. They all liked it, and it made me happy to see them appreciate something only I had known about until then.

When I first decided I would apply to YFU ‒ Youth For Understanding, which is the organization I’m on exchange with ‒ I was terrified. I pressed ‘send’ on the application form and I felt like throwing up, but I was excited. I later got an email telling me that I had been accepted, and in that moment, the greatest adventure of my life had begun. I was filling in papers and recording messages and sat through several phone calls, and then, a few months later, I landed in Washington.

As an exchange student, you get to experience the life of a teenager in a different country, with a different language, surrounded by a new culture. I highly recommend it. Sending in the application form was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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Being an Exchange Student