Petersburg sophomore, Kara Newman is back from Sweden three months earlier than planned. She was on a year-long international exchange program through the Rotary Club but the worldwide coronavirus outbreak changed her schedule. Newman decided to head back to the states early after hearing that international borders would close. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports:
Kara Newman left Sweden, March 22. She had been in the country since last August and had planned to stay until the end of this summer but she says those plans changed very fast.
“One day I was at school and then the next school was shut down until at least summer,” Newman said. “All of my trips were being canceled, most of which I’d already paid for.”
That included a thousand dollar trip to an ice hotel that she had been saving money for. Instead, her parents and her Swedish contacts recommended that she return to America. It was a race against time before the U.S. temporarily banned international travelers from returning home. For Newman it meant an abrupt departure.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone…my friends, and everything, it all kind of came crashing down,” Newman said.
Still, spending eight months in a foreign country was quite the experience for Newman.
Rotary Exchange students do not get to choose where they go. Newman was hoping to travel to a Spanish speaking country so she could practice the language she had already been studying. So, when she learned she was heading to Sweden she wasn’t thrilled.
“I was very disappointed that I got Sweden,” Newman said.
She had also heard unfavorable stereotypes about the country. We’ll get to those in a bit.
The Rotary program looks to match students with a place that will challenge them; where they can grow the most. Newman says it was pretty clear from her initial interviews that she was self-assured and social.
“I was so talkative and confident that they had to send me to Sweden because I would struggle socially there….and I did,” she said.
Newman felt a bit like a fish out of water.
“I literally cried when I got to Sweden because everyone told me that people there are so unfriendly… and it’s true,” Newman said.
Now, before you start feeling sorry for her, know that Newman thinks this past year in Sweden was the best year of her life. She liked learning the language, being in urban areas, taking public transit, and meeting new people.
But it didn’t come easy.
Newman learned that Swedes are a little less emotional and more reserved than Americans. They also have large personal bubbles. They give each other plenty of space.
“It’s very socially unacceptable to look at people when you see them in the street. Even your friends, you wouldn’t say “hi” to them,” Newman said. “And when you’re on the bus and on the train–any public transport–there’s always at least one seat in between every person. And it’s very wrong socially if you sit next to someone. Even on crowded trains people will choose to stand for hour-long bus rides.”
Newman says this social distancing is an act of politeness.
“They’re so polite that it hurts,” she said.
There were 2,000 students in the high school Newman attended. She thinks she stood out because she was so smiley and friendly. She had intensely studied the Swedish language long before she arrived in the country but she didn’t know if she was speaking it correctly because her friends were so polite that they wouldn’t correct her.
“It’s along their politeness thing,” Newman said. “If they notice that Swedish is not your first language they’ll switch to English because it’s polite to speak your language.”
She did speak Swedish at home with her host family and she loves the way that it sounds.
Through her stay, Newman learned about the Swedish way of doing things. Culturally, there is a specific way to be–how much you talk, sleep, eat, even work out—all happens in moderation.
“If you think about anything, if you think like a Swede—and this applies to all areas of life, like personal life and friends and things—there’s a concept called ‘Lagom’,” Newman said. “That means being perfect or being just enough, not too much, not too little. And that’s pretty much what I had to learn.”
Newman says that when you’re a part of a student exchange, life becomes an adventure. In the end, she couldn’t have been happier with the country she lived in.
“Being in Sweden, they’re focused on their blessings. They take only what they need and that sort of thing. It was very eye opening for me,” Newman said. “Even though sometimes I don’t feel like it, I did change a lot. I’m just really honored that I was given the opportunity to grow and learn.”
Newman plans to return to Sweden next summer and this time she hopes to take her American family along with her.
KFSK news also spoke with Petersburg sophomore Abi Anderson who is still on a student exchange in Germany. She’s waiting to see if COVID restrictions lift so she can discover more of the country.