The Move That Made All the Difference

By Audreanna Dunton

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Sarita sits in class, focused on taking a journalism test. She is determined to do well. Photo Credit / Audreanna Dunton

To be honest, my decision to come here this year has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” said Loy Norrix senior Sarita Nieminen.

Nieminen made a bold and courageous choice to move to Kalamazoo as a foreign exchange student from Finland for the 2016-2017 school year. Nieminen has now been in America for six months, going on seven.

Nieminen came to Kalamazoo in early August of 2016 and officially joined the Loy Norrix family as a senior in September. Nieminen said that she thought life wasn’t all that different here, until her one month mark of being here hit. Once Nieminen became more accustomed to life in America and started noticing more and more differences as each day passed.

Nieminen has been drowned in sea of new people since moving here. Often times, people will come up to her and ask her questions about her decisions and life.

“Wow, you must be so brave” and “Isn’t this scary” are among the questions she is commonly asked.

Nieminen explained that many people have a fear of leaving home and traveling so far away due to things such as homesickness and anxiety.

“There have been days that I have been more homesick and there have been days that I don’t want to go back home at all,” said Nieminen.

Traveling far away all by yourself, especially at such a young age, with minimum experiences in traveling independently, can certainly take a toll on your mind and social life.

“It’s easy to meet people, but it’s harder to make them your friends,” said Nieminen.

Nieminen had a large friend group at her high school that she attended in Finland. Here, she says that everyone is so interested in her life and welcoming her, but it’s harder to create the same type of bond. People are very intrigued by her life at home, but she can’t express herself the same way that she does with her best friends and family in Finland.

This is understandable. Many teenagers make their closest friends in elementary school and early middle school and they usually last at least all the way through high school.

But Nieminen says that attending Loy Norrix and moving to Kalamazoo is a great experience. The transition to a different lifestyle can come with obstacles, excitement and, of course, missing her family and friends in Finland.

Life for Sarita over the course of six months has changed drastically, but especially with school.

“High school in Finland is hard, but it’s more chill,” explained Sarita.

In Finland, schools have higher learning levels, and are based off of a different kind of curriculum. Sarita has never had to complete a standardized test, but the tests that she did have to take, did not have any multiple choice. Test taking days for Sarita were very stressful and demanding for academic success, and often, she didn’t look forward to completing a test even if she was fully prepared for it.

It is required for KPS students to take two years of a foreign language, but it has been mandatory for Sarita to study the English language ever since third grade. Sarita said that her first ten days here in America were the most difficult, due to still getting used to the language, but mostly, all of the slang that Americans tend to use. In fact, 98 percent of the population in Finland speak Finnish. Getting a proper education, managing good grades and tackling extra-curricular activities all at the same time can be quite an issue for most students.

“Cultural factors can play a crucial role in perpetuating fears faced by students from other countries. They can feel confused about the dynamics of American classrooms, a condition sometimes called ‘Fear of Foreignness,’” stated the website Faculty Focus.

In the United States, the majority of all of the students’ fear not passing a class. The letter grade “D” or higher being a passing grade, the best being letter grade “A.” For Sarita, however, she and the rest of her Finnish classmates are graded out of the number range four to ten. Four being a failing grade, and a ten being like an A+ in our grading scale.

Not only are the education policies different in Kalamazoo than they are in Finland, but the methods of transportation differ too. Sarita’s high school is actually located in a different town, so she takes the train instead of a bus like the majority of students at Loy Norrix do.

Every school day, once Sarita departs from her hometown on the train, she arrives to her train stop where she then walks to her high school even on the coldest of days.

“I live in Finland, it’s kind of cold there, but we never have snow days. And I have to walk there,” Sarita said.  

Out of all of these major and minor differences that Sarita has faced since becoming an exchange student, something she has noticed is how different school lunch is. At Loy Norrix, students are used to the norm of a bag of chips, a cheeseburger and a milk or juice. In Finland, their cuisine varies daily, including proper, healthy and nutritious meals such as: sausage, potatoes, meatballs, rice and chicken, and soup.

Besides school life, Sarita has quite an interesting personal life. Sarita spends her time participating in sports, drawing, hanging out with friends and watching Netflix. Sarita explained how she used to read a lot in Finland, but ever since she has moved here, she has not had the time to read as much.

Sarita became a part of the Loy Norrix Lady Knights Swim Team during the fall and is thinking about joining a soccer team in the spring. In Finland, Sarita had an enormous love and enjoyment of cross-country skiing. Sarita filled the majority of her free time with this time-consuming sport, for she went skiing six times a week all year round. Other sports, such as Nordic skiing and downhill skiing are also very popular in Finland.

Sarita stated that she enjoys being in Kalamazoo because she can make more decisions for herself on what extra-curricular activities she chooses to participate in.

“We don’t have any sports related to school, everything is outside of school,” explained Sarita.  

Sarita thinks that the concept of having sport teams in school is very interesting and can help people make new friends.

Sarita has had the time of her life in America as an exchange student so far. Specifically at Loy Norrix, even for the short span of time that Sarita has been here, she has met new people, made new friends, gotten involved in a handful of great activities both inside and outside of school, and gained an experience like no other.

“People are so open and nice to you in general. Everyone is always nice to me first, it’s different, it’s great,” stated Sarita.

Sarita explained how whenever her high school in Finland gets an exchange student, everyone is usually very shy towards them. At Loy Norrix, however, Sarita absolutely loves how kind, witty and welcoming the whole student body has been to her since she has become a Knight.

Unfortunately, Sarita will have to depart back to Finland in July of this year. She will have made her mark at not only Loy Norrix, but on her host family here in Kalamazoo. Sarita will go back home to her mother, father, two older brothers, her older sister, dog and beloved friends. Although she looks forward to returning home, she will miss Kalamazoo tremendously and hopes to visit again later in life.

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