Petra Montonen from Orivesi, Finland, had never met the Peterson family from Lansing, Michigan. Yet she signed up to be an exchange student with Youth For Understanding USA (YFU), agreed to live with the Petersons and become their “exchange” daughter for an entire school year. Once strangers, Petra and James and Dani Peterson now consider each other family.
Petra enrolled in the YFU program because, “there lives a small explorer inside of me.” She also wanted to learn more about this world and see what kind of life exists outside of Finland. "As a girl coming from a small town in the countryside, almost everything in the US seemed big....In my Finnish school there were only 150 students but in my US school there were 1800 students. I knew no one and I didn’t know my way around the place. But as time passed by I got used to it and made new friends."
There were also fears about being a foreigner in the United States. Those fears were quickly put to rest when Petra realized the Petersons accepted her for who she is and were genuinely interested in learning about her and what she thought about the United States.
Petra also discovered that her host family and people in her community were eager to learn about life in Finland. "...People were interested in Finland and how everything works there. We had long conversations during which I explained the Finnish education system and Finnish culture. To make [understanding] easier, I showed pictures related to our discussion topics. In school, I had the chance to make a couple of presentations about Finland."
Petra says that her English grammar was not perfect, but people still understood her, and that helped her feel more secure. "My exchange year in the U.S. has been one of the most meaningful years I have had thus far. Being more independent is amongst the many things I learned during my exchange year."
"My year was unbelievable. It was not easy, but I do not want change anything. All my experiences made me stronger towards the person who I am at the moment. The US made me grow so much. I faced some difficulties, but I learned I will survive, if I trust myself enough."One unexpected result of her exchange year is that Petra's appreciation for her home country grew. Petra now believes that in Finland, "...things are actually quite good compared to other places."
Each year, YFU brings dozens of Finnish students to the United States through its exchange programs for high school students. By opening your heart and your home to an exchange student, you change the course of an individual life and become a catalyst in making us all citizens of one world. You are also supporting cultural exchange and soft diplomacy between the United States and Finland. Consider hosting a student from Finland today! Call Rebecca at YFU at 202-774-5206 or go to www.yfuusa.org/host to fill out an application.