Thea Jonassen poses for the camera on one of her favorite trails in Missoula.

Exchange Students Live Their American Dreams

March 8, 2018

Dressed in fuzzy, penguin covered pajamas with her strawberry blonde hair in a messy bun, she sits criss crossed on her bed.  Her MacBook rests across from her, displaying the familiar faces of people thousands of miles away. She fiddles with the mouse while trying to remember words spoken so common before but rarely now.  Red, white and blue covers her bed stand to the left, a representation of her new home.

About 820,000 students did an exchange year in the United States in 2013 alone.  Most people would agree that being an exchange student would be an amazing adventure, but there are many things that people do not know about traveling to a foreign country to study for a year.   

Junior Thea Jonassen is originally from Aalborg, Denmark.  But this year she is doing an exchange year here at Big Sky through the program Education First (EF).  

She says that there was never any other place that she would want to go to other than the United States.  “I’ve never heard about anybody saying anything about an exchange year in England or Australia or other places in Europe.  Everybody always talked about the U.S. and how cool it was to come to the U.S. so I was like, ‘yeah let’s go to the U.S. then!’”

Thea has been wanting to be an exchange student since she was 10 years old.  The Disney movie collection, High School Musical, along with one of Thea’s elementary school teachers helped her realize that she wanted to do an exchange year.  

To be accepted as an exchange student, she had to go through a very long process including applying through the EF program, doing a series of interviews, being accepted to become an exchange student and getting a visa to be a student here in the United States for a year.  After that she had to pack her bags for a year away from home.

While in America, there are many things that Thea would like to do.  Because Denmark is relatively flat, she would like to do as many activities that involve mountains as she can, including hiking and winter sports.  “I’ve never skied before so I’m so excited for trying that or snowboarding. Just something where you slide on the snow… or walk on the snow with something other than boots on.”

Even though Jonassen has had a great time here in America, there have also been many challenges that have come up while on her journey.  She says that when she first spoke Danish after being in the United States for a month, she had trouble switching between the languages when she called home.   “I understood what my parents were saying, but when I tried to answer it was like my mouth wouldn’t let me pronounce the words.”

Although she will miss her family for a year, she didn’t find it difficult to leave them because they will always be there for her.  She found the hardest part about being away from home was not seeing her friends for a year. “Since I’m not seeing my friends for a year I’m not sure if they’re still going to be there when I go back.”  

One thing that helps with Thea’s adjustment is being able to Skype and video chat her family and friends back home.  She says she likes Skyping because she can catch up with everyone back home and hear how they are doing while having the closest to a face-to-face conversation as possible.

Because it is a free service and you can Skype for as long as you want, Thea often spends weekend mornings video chatting for hours to make up for not being able to see them on a  daily basis.

Francesco Ranellucci is also doing an exchange year in the United States this year.  His home country being Italy, he travelled a long way to be a Senior here at Big Sky.  During his first month abroad, Ranellucci had troubles understanding people. But his English has vastly improved during his time in the United States.

American Field Service (AFS) is another program, similar to EF, that sends students abroad to study in other countries.  The program says that learning a language in school in not enough to become fluent in the language. Being immersed in that culture is one of the best ways to learn a foreign language.  70% of surveyed AFS year program participants have achieved foreign language fluency while abroad according to www.afsusacom.

Thea has seen this firsthand as her English has vastly improved since being in the United States.

Deborah Miller is the Regional Coordinator for the state of Montana with the Education First exchange program.  She overlooks and trains coordinators, sustains the exchange students safety and care and handles problems that may rise.  Miller has been working with the program for 14 years and oversees about 53 students per year.

Miller has actually been hosting exchange students for more than 20 years and has welcomed 24 kids into her home.  She says that each kid is unique and extraordinary in their own way. The connections she makes with these exchange students is so strong that she even went to Germany last year to perform the ceremony to marry one of the students that she hosted.

The exchange students look forward to the new adventures they will have in their host country. Ranellucci said that he most looked forward to going to Yellowstone National Park.   “Our people think it’s like the Eiffel Tower and I was excited for it,” he said.  “And then I went. It was cool!”

Jonassen also looked forward to American events such as the Superbowl, prom and graduation because there is nothing quite like these events in Denmark.  She hopes to get the full American experience by participating in the celebration of these events.

Christmas and Thanksgiving were also a very excited time of her stay.  Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Denmark so she was happy to celebrate a new holiday and tried eight different kinds of pie.  

As for Christmas, Thea showed her host family what a traditional holiday season is like in Denmark and learned about American customs as well.

The trip is halfway over for Thea and Francesco but there are still many adventures to come!  These students will never forget the culture, traditions, friends and memories that they experienced while here in America.

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