By Jennifer Von Ohlen
DASSEL, COKATO, MN As another year at Dassel-Cokato High School gets underway, the hallways fill once again with the sound of slamming lockers, sneakers squeaking on polished floors, and voices joyously rising in recognition of familiar faces. Among the reuniting student body, however, are some students who are not familiar, or even local to the area. In fact, they often travel thousands of miles to enroll at DCHS and be a Charger for a single year.
Carola He, 17, of Stockholm, Sweden, is one of five foreign exchange students attending DCHS this year, embarking on an adventure she has planned to take for 10 years.
“I’ve always wanted to go on an exchange year in the US, since I was 7,” said He.
He arrived in New York Aug. 26, along with several other foreign exchange students. Not expected to arrive in Minneapolis until Aug. 30, the group used their time to explore New York, learn about the American lifestyle, and prepare to meet their host families.
As she started her American adventure, He compared what she thought she knew about America with what she was experiencing, and also with her own culture.
“I expect myself to know more about America, because of all the movies and the TV series. Some of them are really similar, and others are different. Like the biggest difference [between America and Sweden] is you guys know how to drive around everywhere here, and that you guys can drive at 16. So that’s really different, that I’m so dependent on cars. Or having someone to drive me around, because back home, I usually just take the subway.
“And people are a lot friendlier here, and talk to strangers,” she added.
During her stay, He is living with Kevin and Tracy Hanson of Dassel. This is their first year serving as a host family.
“The last couple of years, our kids have been friends with a lot of the exchange students that have come through Dassel-Cokato,” Tracy stated. “And so, because of those experiences and how we kind of grew close last year with a lot of them, we’re like ‘you know what, this would be a really cool opportunity.’ So we threw our name in the hat, and there you go.”
Some of the places the Hansons have taken He during her two months in Minnesota so far include the Mall of America in Bloomington, the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee, and Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store in Jordan.
He also had the opportunity to visit Chicago, IL with the other foreign exchange students and her host sister, Bailey.
After school, she has been participating in cross country, and has been regularly attending youth group at Dassel Evangelical Covenant Church.
Other events the Hansons have planned during He’s stay include spending the holidays with extended family, tapping trees at Tracy’s family’s maple syrupping operation in Aitkin, and traveling to Omaha, NE.
He said she ultimately “just want[s] the American teenager experience.”
“This is like a second life,” she stated. “Most people can’t have two lives, but I kinda do. So that’s what I want to experience really, because this is so different from my life back home.”
He said witnessing DC’s school spirit has been her favorite experience so far.
“All the games, and homecoming week was really special when everybody dressed up and everybody’s proud of our school,” she said, adding that Sweden does not have anything like it.
Another unique experience will be celebrating Halloween today, Monday, Oct. 31, an event that is not very big in Sweden.
“Trick-or-treating, that’s very American, because we don’t really talk to our neighbors. You’d probably be seen as really weird if you knocked on your neighbor’s door,” explained He.
Tracy said it was fun watching He carve her very first jack-o’-lantern as they prepared for the holiday.
“Just little things like that, that I think we take for granted, to see it through her eyes, is pretty cool,” she said. “It’s like having young kids for the first time. Not that she’s young, but just like, ‘Whoa, this is really different or really neat,’ you know. Kinda brings back the nostalgia.”
Tracy stated that hearing about Carola’s life in Sweden has also been a “neat” experience, recognizing the difference in lifestyles and even experiencing nature.
“The Northern Lights are just spectacular there,” stated Tracy, “and you know, that’s something we don’t get to see. But the first night when we drove all the way out here, [Carola] was like, ‘Look at all the stars!’”
“I haven’t seen more than one star,” explained He. “And they’re not very bright in Sweden. [Or at least] where I live in Stockholm, but they’re really bright here, and I was like ‘are they real stars?’”
Tracy added that solar systems between the two countries are “so different,” and that the “stars that we see are completely different” from what Scandinavian countries have.
While He misses her family back home, she said she does not talk to them every day and considers it to be a good thing.
“So I don’t have one foot in each county, and I can fully be here,” she stated.
She added, “I miss my friends and family, and all the small things sometimes, but it’s good to be here, and not just think about what I miss. So when I am a bit homesick, I always remind myself to think about what is good here, and see the positive things here which is a lot.”