DASSEL, COKATO, MN Last year, the Cokato-Dassel Rotary Club resurrected its youth exchange program after more than a decade.
This year, a second set of students participated in the international program designed to foster peace and understanding of other cultures.
This year’s outbound student, 17-year-old Kara Thielsen of Dassel, is spending the year in Paraguay, a third-world country in South America, while the inbound student, Neea Nieminen, is a 17-year-old visiting Dassel-Cokato from Finland.
Thielsen provided a snapshot of her year thus far in the city of Coronel Oviedo in Paraguay.
Though she said the population is quite immense, there is both city and country.
Things are quite different than in Minnesota, she noted, especially the weather and the stray animals.
“One often finds farm animals just wandering in the road,” Thielsen said.
“As far as the experience goes, I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person, and find myself looking at our world from a different perspective,” she explained, noting how she used to see the world as a giant place with little hope remaining.
“I knew little about politics and the affairs of other countries. Coming here made me realize that the world is indeed an immense place, but full of hope and culture and beauty to be seen,” Thielsen said.
For her, the difficulty in being an exchange student in a third-world country, such as Paraguay, has been the gender gap that is “strikingly clear,” as well as the language barrier, making friends, and communicating with loved ones back home.
“Exchange has had its ups and downs, as life should,” she said. “Overall, I enjoy my experiences immensely . . . The people and the culture here are beautiful.”
Back in Minnesota, Nieminen is currently living with Peter and Kristin Bortnem in rural Dassel.
She will have stayed with three families before she leaves in June. Her first family was Jason and Sara Rufer, and she will end her stay with Kevin and Jackie Wilson of Cokato.
Peter is the club’s youth exchange officer, and as part of that role, he wanted to get the perspective of the host family. Now, he has a much better understanding of the rewards and challenges, he said.
Hosting Nieminen was also an opportunity for their two boys to be exposed to another culture a world beyond Cokato, Minnesota, and the US, Kristin said.
They were able to share Christmas traditions together, such as the Finnish cemetery lighting and baking a tiger cake; both traditions in Niemenen’s family back home.
“It’s been really fun for the boys to have an older sister,” Kristin said of their sons, 9-year-old Soren and 7-year-old Charlie.
“It’s awesome . . . because she never says no,” Charlie said, referring to Niemenen’s adventurous personality. “She goes with the flow,” Soren said, adding that it’s been fun having a sister.
Her English has also been excellent, Peter said, noting she’s always spoken English well, but now she has gained more confidence conversationally.
Nieminen has always loved traveling, and wanted to learn to speak better English, which is why she decided to be a Rotary exchange student. Though English has been a part of her school’s curriculum since third grade, she wanted to become fluent speaking.
Although she was surprised to find she would be coming to Minnesota, she was really happy.
“I love winter,” she said.
She is also comfortable with Dassel-Cokato, coming from a small town in Finland, herself.
“It wasn’t a big change, but it was good,” she said.
She was also surprised to find there are a lot of Finnish people in the community.
Sara Keskey-Rufer recalled taking Nieminen to a program on Finnish immigration.
“She thought it was strange to come all the way to the USA and be at a program about Finnish history,” she said.
Although Nieminen has liked the school overall, what she has enjoyed the most is being able to participate in sports.
Finland doesn’t have extracurricular activities, and so she decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
For the first time, she joined gymnastics, along with cross-country, and now track this spring.
Another aspect of the US culture Nieminen has found to be quite different from Finland are the politics.
“They are everywhere,” she said, which isn’t the case in Finland, where there isn’t a large emphasis on politics.
What she will take away from her experience will be the friends she has made through it all; particularly the 65 other Rotary youth exchange students she has met as part of the program in Minnesota.
Currently, the Rotary Club is seeking host families for next year’s youth exchange student from Brazil. If interested, call Peter Bortnem at (320) 286-5529, or ask any Rotarian.