by Kristen miller
COKATO, MN Before Ella Wuollet embarked on a year-long Rotary youth exchange program to Finland, she didn’t have any expectations of what might lie ahead. “Even if I did [have expectations), they wouldn’t have been as good as it actually was,” said the 2014 Dassel-Cokato graduate of her time abroad.
Wuollet was the first exchange student the Cokato-Dassel Rotary Club has sent since the program took a 12-year hiatus. The club had a fairly active exchange program beginning in 1976, but the program came to a halt following the death of the program’s coordinator at the time, Rick Beckman, according to club records.
Last year, the program was revitalized after Ella’s mother, Sheryl, contacted Rotarian Peter Bortnem inquiring about Rotary’s youth exchange opportunities. Though the local club hadn’t been actively involved in the international youth exchange program for more than a decade, Bortnem began the groundwork that would make Ella’s upcoming trip a reality.
Ella, who is of Finnish descent, spent six summers learning the Finnish language at Salolampi, Concordia’s Finnish Language Village, in hopes it would prepare her for a trip like this one day.
Upon arriving in her host city, Espoo, Finland, Ella quickly found that even with her education in the Finnish language, the “spoken language,” which she described as broken Finnish, would be a barrier for her to overcome. The spoken language was also different throughout the entire country. “It was very confusing,” she commented.
Ella was also unaware of how shy the Finnish people would be, and how the concept of “Minnesota nice” doesn’t apply there.
“They don’t affiliate themselves with strangers at all,” Ella said, explaining that simple greetings aren’t uttered in public as she had grown accustomed to in America.
As part of the Rotary youth exchange program, Ella stayed with three different host families during the 11 months she was in Espoo, the second largest city in Finland after the capital, Helsinki.
Rotary prefers exchange students have the experience of living with two to four families, said Al Gerdin, a member of the North Star Youth Exchange Program for districts 5950 and 5960, which includes Cokato-Dassel, who spoke with the Enterprise Dispatch for an article on the program last September.
“The student has a broader experience, since there are no two families alike,” said Gerdin, who had his first experience with Rotary Youth Exchange when his daughter was assigned to Brazil in 1975-76.
According to Ella, having three different host families was one of the highlights to the Rotary Youth Exchange program. Not only was she welcomed by each of the families, but they were also of very diverse dynamics, giving her a broader perspective of the Finnish culture.
Ella noted how the culture is very different from the Finnish culture in the Dassel-Cokato area, in that the Finnish people participate in a variety of extracurricular activities, wear makeup, and dance. “Everything is completely different,” she said.
Though the country’s predominant religion is Christianity, Ella said she rarely heard or witnessed people attending church. “Church isn’t a priority there,” she said.
Another highlight of being an exchange student in Finland was seeing the world from a different viewpoint, Ella said. Because she attended Finnish high school as a senior (after graduating from DC), Ella gave the example of learning about World War II from the Finnish perspective.
One thing she also had to get used to was the lack of sunlight, which during the winter only amounted to four to five hours. It was also cloudy most days, with the sun appearing only once every three weeks, she said. Though she wasn’t terribly affected by the lack of vitamin D, Ella would notice a difference in others as they went from “glum” to happy when the sun shone. “The whole town would light up,” she commented.
Ella also had to adjust to public transportation, especially after getting on the wrong bus late at night and having to find a different mode of transportation home. “Once I understood the system, it was very easy to use,” she said, adding that it was also inexpensive in that she could ride the train eight hours for only $30.
As part of the international Rotary Youth Exchange program, Ella was among 140 exchange students from around the globe. “They were a huge part of my year,” she commented. Through Rotary, Ella attended monthly Rotex meetings, where she was able to connect with former Rotary exchange participants in a fun, social setting. Through Rotary, Ella was also given an allowance, which helped pay for further language classes along with a four-day trip to Lapland, in the Arctic Circle, where she went snowboarding, husky-riding, snowshoeing, and learned the culture of the “northern people.”
The ultimate highlight for her, however, was the Eurotrip, during which she traveled to 10 countries, including making stops in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Monaco, Italy and Austria. Her favorite place by far was Amsterdam. She also enjoyed seeing the Alps.
When asked how this whole experience has changed her, Ella replied, “The biggest thing is that I’m more independent . . . I don’t like relying on other people.” She has found that she likes supporting herself and making her own decisions.
It has also given her the travel bug. “It makes me want to travel more and see more of the world,” Ella said. “Not only the developed parts,” Ella added, noting friends she met who were exchange students in Estonia and Lithuania and had very different (but good) experiences.
Having had such a great year in Finland, Ella wasn’t ready to come home, noting that summer had just begun. She had such a great experience that she also encourages other students to consider studying abroad.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Ella, who is starting her freshman year at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Studying abroad at the high school level allowed her to immerse herself in the culture, compared with at the college level, where much of the student’s focus is on academics. “You get a broader perspective and understand the culture and language,” she added.
Youth exchange program continues; DC to host Finnish student
The Cokato-Dassel Rotary has committed to the youth exchange program for the 2015-16 school year and recently sent Kara Thielsen to Paraguay, where she will spend the year.
With each outbound exchange student, the club also hosts an inbound student. Last year, Cokato-Dassel Rotary Club hosted Chris Kim from South Korea. This year, the club will host a student from Finland, Neea Nieminen. She will be spending her first three months (approximately) with Jason and Sara (Keskey) Rufer of Cokato.
“The support that Rotary provides is tremendous, and the generosity of our host families has been outstanding,” commented Bortnem. The Cokato-Dassel Rotary Club is “eager to continue the program and [is] looking for ways to make the experience of our outbound and inbound students more remarkable,” Bortnem added.