A week ago I had to wave goodbye to the town I have called my home for ten months and my family I have been living with for 8. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. I remember me and Maddy hugging and crying in her room right before I left, going out to the living room hearing the words "she gotta leave", the worst possible words we could hear, and then looking back crying while driving from the driveway seeing my family slowly disappear... Even though we all knew this day would come, we weren't prepared at all. How can you really prepare for leaving your home and family?
Being an exchange student has been everything but easy; it has truly been a roller coaster ride with ups and downs, but it has also been the best year of my life. The downs are what I've learned from and the ups are what have kept me going. It has been a life filled with troubles and challenges, language and culture difficulties and homesickness, but also a life filled with new knowledge and fun experiences and so much more. Someone once said that an exchange isn't a year in your life, but a life in a year and honestly, that couldn't have been more true. Even though a lot of people know me as "Lisa, the foreign exchange student from Norway", I haven't only been an 'exchange student' this year. Other people know me as their friend, best friend, daughter or sister. I got a completely normal life here in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and the worst thing about leaving is knowing that I'm never going to get it back.
I started out as a pretty insecure girl arriving in Dallas, Texas waiting for my host family. Imagine meeting someone you have never met before, giving them a hug like you know them, and stepping into the car driving to your new home, a place you have no idea where is. The first few days were hard, I didn't quite settle down immediately. I remember my host family saying "if you're hungry, just take whatever you want from the fridge. What's ours' is yours", but it just wasn't that easy. It took me a while to get familiar with everything and I remember me actually having to take a "2 to 3 weeks off" from talking to family and friends in Norway because of the difficulty. On my blog I posted "I still have a part of myself in Norway, I need to take a break to get the whole me here to America..." I needed to just focus on my American life for a while. Not only did I have problems settling down I had some problems with the language as well. I knew English because of my Norwegian school but it is a very big difference between knowing English and KNOWING English. Because of my strong accent a lot of people had trouble understanding me. A simple sentence like "can I have some water" had to be repeated three or four times for people to understand, I had to think before I spoke and also translate every single word in my mind... it took forever.
Time passed by and soon a new challenge came along; it was time for the first day at school and I was n-e-r-v-o-u-s. I didn't know anyone, I was afraid I had to eat lunch alone and also, my language hadn't had much time to improve... fantastic I thought. The first two days I spent at the school library without a schedule and time passed by slowly sitting in one chair from 8:15 to 3:45. My third day, when I finally got a schedule, I was hoping things would get better but unfortunately it was the worst day of them all. The challenge with being an exchange student is that a lot of people are real interested in you because you are foreign, but I soon realized there is a very big difference in being interested in you and being interested in being friends with you. It gave me no other choice than stepping out of my comfort zone and work a little bit, and it took me a while before I got someone I actually could call my friend.
One of the first people I met that was interested in "Lisa" and not just "the foreign exchange student from Norway" was Maddy. I was lucky meeting Maddy, it was pretty much all a coincidence. Getting my schedule the third day at school I soon realized it was as messed up as you could get it; my schedule looked like a piece of paper where they just had thrown together some classes. In my second hour I had the class Parenting & Child Development, what in the world was this? I later found to highly appreciate this class, because it was the one class where I got one of my first friends Maddy. I still remember the first time we hanged out. We went to Maddy's house before the first Ardmore football game to get something to eat and painted the famous "war stripes" on our faces. We were ready for the game; Go Tigers!!! Coming from a country with no High School Spirit to an Ardmore High School game was simply amazing. Gosh do I wish we had sports and spirit at our schools in Norway... it is going to be highly missed.
While I was starting to get friends, know the teachers, having a good time joining the Cross Country team and soccer team etc., pretty much enjoying Ardmore and my High School all together, things at home unfortunately weren't going as well. As an exchange student you have to accept that you might not get along with everybody and I seemed to be facing this very problem. Usually it has nothing to do with you as a person or your host family; it is just that you do NOT match. I had one of the hardest months of my life. I have never experienced not feeling like I have a home or that the people I live with look at me as disrespectful or rude. It went so far that because of the challenges I was facing with my host family, the organization gave me something they call a "Warning Letter". This is basically a letter saying that if your actions and problems continue you are in danger of getting sent back home. This letter was a very big deal for me; going on an exchange had been my biggest dream for 8 years and now I was in danger of losing absolutely everything. It was hard being a 17 year old girl living in a completely new world with a different culture and language realizing you now had no one to lean on. I couldn't do it anymore, I was breaking down...
After spending almost two and a half months with my host family we decided that the best thing for all of us was me moving out. Changing host family is a very natural thing when you get a mismatch and in most cases, as mine, it is crucial for the situation. The only problem with moving is the high possibility of moving to a different town. For the exchange student this means going through the beginning all over again and I personally was desperately crossing my fingers that I did NOT have to move, just the thought of it scared me. I knew that exchange students had the possibility of finding their own host family and thankfully I had Maddy in my life. I felt like Maddy was one of the few people in Ardmore I could ask for help, and I asked if they ever had been thinking about having an exchange student. They hadn't really thought about it but she was going to think about it and ask her parents. A week later I moved into my new home consisting of host mom Babette, host dad David, and host sister Maddy Seals. At that time I was amazed by Maddy's quick decision and I still am today. Sharing your home and family for 8 months is a very long time and an unselfish decision for a teenage girl. No "thank you" can ever be enough to thank Maddy for making that decision, if the decision hadn't been made I would for a for sure have changed school and town, and my exchange would have looked completely different today.
From the day I moved in with my new family things changed for the better. They say it takes a big person to become an exchange student but gosh does it take a special kind of family to become a host family too. It didn't take long before I fell in love with my new family and I can't thank them enough for letting me be a part of their family. They took me in as a stranger but fully opened their hearts and home for me and treated me like I was one of their own. Never ever did I think I was going to call anyone else for mom and dad, but I did. I have a mom, dad and sister in Ardmore and calling them anything else felt and will always feel weird; they are my family and always will be.
At this point everything was great. I had a home, family, Maddy introduced me to some more people so I got more friends, and I had a soccer team, Cross Country team, enjoyed Bible Study and accountability groups every Wednesday. I also got tons of new experiences like pumpkin carving, trick or treat, more football games, thanksgiving, more of the American culture, and so much more. But we all know as the roller coaster goes up, it has to come down at some point too. I am a teenager on the other side of the world, away from everything I have always known, challenges will come; that is inevitable. The big difference now was that it was easier dealing with the difficulties because I had a home, a family and people to help me through and lean on. I didn't tell a lot of people about the difficulties I had in my first home while it was happening, because I felt it was important to always keep that smile on. When I moved, it felt amazing actually getting a true reason to smile.
The hardest time I had after moving to my new home was definitely around Christmas time. They say that Christmas usually is the hardest time for exchange students and I can do nothing else but agree. It was the hardest time being away from family and friends in Norway and it wasn't that I didn't enjoy my time here; I think it had something to do with the difference in culture and tradition from what I'm used to in that special time. As much as I tried not to, I ended up getting a little bit homesick. I am very thankful for having a host family that understood this was hard for me and tried to help me in every way they possibly could, they were always there for me.
Time passed by very fast after Christmas, way too fast in my opinion and a lot of things happened. I met some new challenges where I truly had to show who I was and what I meant, even though it meant losing people in my life. My exchange has taught me that you can't satisfy everyone around you and sometimes hard decisions have to be made for the better. There will always be people that dislike you or your decisions, in life that is inevitable. I have learned it is your choice to take it in or let it go, and it is your own choice to stand up for what you believe in or to give in. I feel like this is one of the most important things I learned from this exchange.
When February came around it couldn't have been a better time to get away from my busy days in Ardmore; it was time for my trip to Hawaii. Hawaii was one amazing week, one of the best weeks of my exchange. Not only did I get to meet one of my best friends from Norway again but Hawaii is just paradise. I also got attached to some more exchange students that I still keep in touch with. Throughout my exchange I have found that exchange students easily make friends with each other, simply because no one else knows or understands exactly what we are going through.
When I came home from one amazing week in Hawaii things got even better when I saw a giant sign in my room saying "Welcome HOME, we missed you!" Knowing the amount of time and thought put in that sign made me realize how close I was with my sister and family. When my birthday came (February 28th), Maddy, Lauren, my family and other friends did something I would never have thought they would do; they threw me a big surprise party! I was so thankful, it made me realize how much I loved this life and how much I actually was going to miss it... I wasn't ready to leave.
Experiencing American High School was very interesting. It is so many things that differ from my school in Norway, like High School Spirit, what classes you can take and the level on them. Also how the students and the staff act. I am going to miss having sports and spirit at my school in Norway. I am going to miss having some easy classes where you don't have to work your butt off... I am also definitely going to miss the people. I made some good friends at Ardmore High School and my teachers were awesome. A lot of the teachers and the principal have been supporting me throughout this year and I am very thankful for it.
Other things I did after Christmas/Hawaii was going to a Thunder game which was huge. I got to play more soccer with my soccer team, I have absolutely enjoyed soccer this year, my team and coaches has been amazing and I cannot thank them enough. I went on a successful camping trip with my sister. I got to go support my sister and her/my friends playing tennis. I continued to enjoy Bible Study and accountability group which has taught me a lot. I continued to eat some American food and Starbucks, which hasn't been too good for me. As most of the exchange students my body hasn't dealt too well with it... I also got to experience Prom, the one day all exchange students look forward to because we do not have it ourselves. Prom was amazing, definitely a good experience to take home. I also got to go horse back riding with my sister, Pam and Celia, and I also got to try golf. This list is just a handful of the things I got to experience after Christmas; it could have been so much longer but writing it all would have taken up several pages. During my exchange I have done plenty of regular things too, like spending time with my family, hanged with friends, going out to eat and to the movies, going to school etc., just like a normal teenager.
May 23rd, the day my family went to West Point, New York to see their son and brother David graduate. They went without me because while they were in New York I was going to graduate from High School myself. It was a hard night for both me and Maddy, because we knew it was almost the end and we had grown so close this year. After my family leaving it was time to meet my Norwegian family again which was a great feeling but also strange. Suddenly I was introducing them to my second home where I had been living for 10 months without them. I am very thankful for them coming up; it was showing them around Ardmore. Graduation the 25th was an amazing day. I have never experienced anything like it and I know my Norwegian family enjoyed it too. I walked across the stage, the thing we seniors had been talking about non-stop since everybody's senior year started. I felt lucky being the first exchange student ever graduating Ardmore High School, a lot thanks to the great principal Mr. Holland. However, looking at my diploma I also knew "this is it". My exchange was over, this was the last time I saw a lot of the people I had been going to school with for ten months. It is just a strange feeling, looking at all the people and then introducing them to my Norwegian family. I got to introduce my family to a lot of friends and people in Ardmore, and of course eventually my host family when they came home from West Point after graduation. Gosh that was strange; suddenly I had two moms at the same place. I am so glad they got to meet each other; I know both of my families really appreciated it and I did as well. It was important for me that my Norwegian family got to know my host family, my family I had been living with, and also that my host family got to know my Norwegian family.
The only thing about having the best of both worlds colliding is knowing that the day to leave has come. As mentioned before; it was the worst day by far, none of us were ready. I cried, my mom cried and my sister cried. Maddy and I cried as much as we never have before, I remember Maddy saying "I can't do this" and I couldn't do it either. Maddy and I have not only been friends or best friends this year; we grew to become true sisters. We have seen each other on our best and worst, been there for each other when we needed someone to talk to, hug or cry with and we have laughed so much together. They say that sisters are a "safety net in a chaotic world" but we have been so much more to each other than just a simple safety net. Maddy has taught me more than anyone else during this exchange about things like life, Christianity, myself, how to step out of your comfort zone and so, so much more... I know we will always be sisters, but it is hard leaving because I know it will never be the same. We are so used to going to the room beside each other for anything, if it's an advice or just boredom we are always there for each other. I could have written pages after pages about my sister, she has grown to be one of the most important people in my life and I truly love her as my sister. It is hard knowing that now we are going to be a whole world apart from each other, me in Norway and Maddy here in Ardmore, Oklahoma...
"My exchange is over", the words I now got to face. Honestly, I am everything but ready to say them... This year has been the best year of my life. As an exchange student you learn more than you ever can imagine. I have learned to get to know who I am, how to step out of my comfort zone without all the time caring what other people think. I have learned to follow my dreams. The lows and challenges I have had here have taught me if I am strong enough and hang in there, I can go through the difficulties. I have learned so much from all the Americans and the exchange students from all over the world. They say that your exchange is not about what place you come to, but it's all about the people you meet and I couldn't have agreed more. I am thankful for getting placed in Ardmore, Oklahoma because I got friends and a family that I know I will keep in touch with. I have gotten a different view on a lot of things after being here, and I have definitely learned how to be independent. I have also learned a lot about my Norwegian life that I never knew. I have gotten to know who my real friends are; friends I have kept in contact with even though I have spent a year on the other side of the world. When people at home write to me about how they miss me and how they cannot WAIT to get me home, it makes me feel that I really do have true friends in Norway. It also makes me know that even though leaving Ardmore is the hardest thing I have ever done, that I have people at home in Norway who loves me and are waiting for me. I am so thankful for all of the people in Norway supporting me throughout this year; you guys are amazing.
I really do have the best of both worlds and couldn't have been more thankful. I will never forget my exchange in Ardmore; I will always have a piece of my heart here. I have so much to take home to Norway and I have gotten so much life experience. I have an awesome family and good friends that I know I will come back and visit. Even though nothing will be the same again, and I know tears will come after leaving, I can do nothing but smile because I was so lucky I got this experience. I wouldn't have changed it for anything.
Thanks to everyone who participated in making this exchange one of the best years of my life. It wouldn't have been the same without you guys.
- Lisa Sørensen, 06.06.2012