I’ve noticed that America puts kids on the educational assembly line from the ripe young age of 5, and sometimes, even younger. From kindergarten all the way until they graduate college, and often post graduate school, students often never take any time off, let alone a gap year from their studies. However, this opportunity is just as important as collecting various degrees from all the years in school. I noticed this flaw in our educational system and in my junior year of high school decided to study abroad.
I started researching for study abroad programs during my freshman year of high school but was disappointed to find that most programs were either short trips during the summer or for students already in college. One morning during my sophomore year, I heard over the announcements that the Rotary club would be coming by the school to conduct an informational meeting about Rotary Youth Exchange for students looking to study abroad. I knew right away that was the program for me. Fast forward 8 months and countless interviews and preparation sessions later, I’m on a plane to Denmark with my return ticket booked for the same day one year later.
It’s hard to condense my year abroad into few enough words to read in a way so that it doesn’t end up being a novel. After all, a lot can happen in a year, and even more so when you’re an exchange student. The year abroad I spent in Denmark taught me far more about myself, responsibility and adventure than I could have ever learned while at home in high school. Looking back now, three years later, this one experience changed who I am forever, redefining my character.
Being 16 in Denmark is remarkably different than being 16 in America. From school, to social activities, and at home responsibilities, I had to adjust to not only a different culture, but the many different expectations Danish culture holds towards their youth. The first few weeks in the new country were extremely overwhelming. Nothing was familiar. I hardly knew anyone and the language was extremely difficult. This slowly changed however, and by the end I was more nervous about returning home and facing reverse culture shock than I ever was when I first arrived.
Over the course of the year, I attended a gymnasium and was put into a Danish class with students in the math science concentration, also a year or two older than me. Thankfully, being a rotary youth exchange student is less about academics and more about cultural learning and self growth. Otherwise, my time in Denmark would have been a lot more difficult.
The high school I attended also happened to be partially International Baccalaureate, which means half the school was being taught in English and had a student body comprised of young people from all over the world. I was put in the regular Danish half to help speed up my language acquisition and also to become friends with regular Danish teenagers.
School was different from what I was used to on many levels. First off, I rode my bike to school every single morning regardless of whether it was sunny, snowing, or pouring rain. In terms of academics, their high schools are most similar to our colleges as demonstrated by the student-teacher relationships and work load responsibilities. There are no hall or bathroom passes. No one is monitoring the halls or telling students what to do and when. No study halls or early releases. Students come in and out of school as they please and are responsible for their work and attending enough classes to not fall behind.
Another very different aspect in Danish schools is the incorporation of alcohol in various dances and events hosted by the school. Alcohol is not only provided by the school during functions such as plays, dances, and concerts, but the highlight of a monthly “Friday’s Cafe” most students, and even some teachers, partake in to celebrate the beginning of the weekend. It was surprising at first. I was coming from a country where alcohol use had been drilled in my mind as a dangerous and harmful activity since I was little. But in Denmark, alcohol is just part regular part of everyday life. Teens can drink and buy alcohol legally before they can vote, or even drive, something most wouldn’t even consider for a minute in the U.S.
When I wasn’t at school I was spending time with my host-families. Over the course of the year I stayed with three of the most kind, caring, and wonderful families any exchange student could ever ask for. Changing houses every three or so months, I had the opportunity to meet three very different families, experience various ways of Danish living, as well as have the support and company of many host siblings.
I was included in all family activities, from holidays (Danish Christmas and Easter are two very special holidays), to family events like birthdays and confirmations, and even family vacations (a road trip to Germany and a Skiing holiday in Norway). I was truly made one of the family. They were a major help as I tackled the slow and painful journey of trying to learn the Danish language. They each whole heartedly let me into their homes to take a glimpse into their lives and truly understand what it means to be Danish.
Although I had the constant support and guidance of my three wonderful families, I had another family in which I found find comfort, another support system. The first two months of exchange were the hardest. I was lonely, unsure, and frustrated with the lack of command I had over the Danish language. I had only just moved in with my very first family and was still adjusting to my new room, the food, and my environment I later called home. I was tired all the time and was slightly disappointed with how my experience was going. Soon, I discovered my greatest asset…
My Rotary family. Together, we were all experiencing the same hardships and found comfort in being foreigners all together. We exchanged stories of the homes we had all left behind, stories of our Danish homes we were still adjusting to, and all the unfamiliarities of Denmark. We would bike, or take busses and trains to see one another, and always looked forward to weekend getaways hosted by Rotary Clubs where we would all be reunited.
We were from all over the world. Some were from Brazil, others from Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, Canada, Taiwan, Latvia, Australia, New Zealand and all around the United States. The fact that we were all in Denmark and all facing the same culture shock brought us all together. I became close friends with a Chilean girl who by the end of her exchange not only spoke Danish but had also become semi-fluent in English, just by spending time with her Rotary friends. We all had our own separate lives while living abroad, but our Rotary family served as a support system, offering friendly faces and always a good laugh when home seemed especially far away.
Saying the year I spent in Aalborg, Denmark flew by would be an understatement. Sometimes it feels like the entire year happened in the blink of an eye. But then I remember everything I did, saw, accomplished, and everyone I met. And then I remember how much can change in a year.
The greatest challenge about having been an exchange student is not about making the year just another chapter in my life, but truly creating a life within this one year. Having to leave it all behind at the end was not easy. I had grown attached to the people and my surroundings and felt so sure inside my heart that this was where I belonged. People told me a year would be too long, that I would be disrupted from my studies and that it would ultimately hold me back upon my return home.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. I ended up graduating on time with the rest of my peers, attended a university and if anything, it has been an unforgettable highlight, an extra bonus to my educational career. I had the chance to experience life somewhere else, somewhere different, not something most 16 year olds get to say they’ve experienced.