PHS senior Ana Claire “AC” Munger is getting ready to return to Perrysburg High School after her semester abroad in Finland.
Munger says that she has always been interested in doing a foreign exchange semester, even since elementary school. “I would watch vlogs of people who were living abroad and being like ‘day in the life with me as an exchange student in Spain,’ or ‘a day in the life of an exchange student in Germany,’ and that seemed really cool,” she said.
“I wanted to originally do exchange in Spain because I know a little bit of Spanish, but I don’t know enough Spanish to do that,” she said. “When I first approached my guidance counselor asking if that was something I could do, the original idea was that it would be going to Spain and because I was not very good at Spanish, the idea got shifted into ‘oh maybe I can do it in college.”
Munger then became inspired, by her Finnish neighbors, to shift her plan.
“I had neighbors that moved into the house next-door to me in 2018, and they were from Finland. It was a mom, a dad and two kids and the kids were pretty young and didn’t speak almost any English at all. My family—we just became very quick family friends,” she said.
“When [COVID-19] happened, they moved back to Finland and we kind of still stayed in touch. And then, when I was talking about how I wanted to do an exchange semester, I was talking to my mom and—I don’t remember who started the idea but it was kind of like, ‘well what if you stayed with the Kartanos, that’s the family name…and I was like, ‘oh my gosh, that would be such a good idea,’ and they’ve just been so welcoming and like generous with everything and they agreed to it.”
Munger explained that, because she didn’t opt to complete her exchange through an organization, the process was fairly arduous.
The Kartanos helped Munger with logistics and some of the academic aspects over video calls and text conversations.
“I had to be prepared to be able to miss a semester of school because, since I’m not doing it through an exchange organization, I am like unenrolled technically for a semester because you can’t be enrolled in two schools at the same time,” she said.
To prepare to miss the semester, Munger had to figure out a way to complete all of the credits she would miss. She ended up taking CCP classes: one over the summer and three during the first semester of this school year, to get everything done before her exchange.
After finding a school that would accept her for the semester, Munger had to apply for a visa in Finland.
“We drove to Chicago to the office that certifies the visas and we had to wait so long…You have to have like all these documents ready and you have to fill out this application. And I ended up getting the visa which was great and then we got the plane tickets—so that was like the exchange part of it.”
“It’s been, in large part, my host family and how willing they are and were and currently are to help facilitate the whole process and answer any questions that we had.”
She made her trip to Finland in December 2022.
“I left Ohio on December 16 and we stayed a couple days in Amsterdam, just to like, as a little bit of a travel break and also because I’ve also wanted to see Amsterdam—also for jet lag purposes, because there is a very big time difference in between and Amsterdam is like a little bit of a halfway point. We thought it would be easier to adjust…”
She said that the experience so far has been amazing. “It really is just an experience that opens your eyes a lot. You’re aware of the world that exists outside of you, but until you’re outside of the bubble you’re not really fully aware of it.”
Some highlights of her exchange have been holidays, like Vappu which is May Day celebration in Finland. For the holiday, there are large celebrations in marketplaces and traditional pastries and picnics.
“Aside from like holidays, I would say one of my favorite things has been meeting so many people with different perspectives. I’m not just meeting Finnish people, which I am meeting Finnish people, but it’s Europe,” she explains.
“That also means that there’s like people from all over that you get to meet, which is pretty cool. So I have a couple exchange student friends who are from a bunch of different countries and then just regular friends who live in Finland that either grew up in another country or they’re half Finnish and half something else. But it’s just really cool to see and just compare cultures—not even just cultures, just the way that different people have different attitudes, the way that they call different things.”
Another highlight was Wanhat, which is a dance that Munger says is like a Finnish prom.
“It counts as like a class credit, at least if I’m remembering correctly. You pick a partner and you go to these rehearsals, it was every Monday for two and a half hours after school. There was, I would say maybe thirteen dances that we had to learn to different songs and most of them are like ballroom dances,” she explains.
After the dances, there is an after party which is more similar to an American prom.
While she says there haven’t been any major culture shocks, there have been many noticeable differences between life in America and life in Finland.
For example, Munger mentions, rootbeer floats. “I didn’t know that those were only American. But looking back on it, that is an extremely American idea. Like putting ice cream and sugary soda together, of course that’s gonna be American.”
“I made a rootbeer float once, but not with rootbeer because they don’t have rootbeer here—I made like a Coke float once at my house and my host dad walked by and was like ‘what is that?’ and he was kind of like scared…So that’s kind of my little party trick when I met new people who weren’t from America. We would make ice cream floats when they came over to my house and they would be like, ‘this is so weird!’”
Munger says that the most shocking thing about living in Finland was the level of safety. “I am very fortunate to live where I live in a safe area in America and I recognize that there are people in America who are in a lot more dangerous situations than me, but it’s still crazy to interact with people who have grown up in such a safe environment and realize just how different the brain gets wired when they have different things to worry about.”
When she first got to Finland she was taking Finnish lessons that ended in the evening, when it was pitch black outside, even with the street lights.
“I was nervous about walking alone in the dark to the bus stop, so I was asking my friends like, hey where can I buy pepper spray or something? It is not legal to own pepper spray here…There’s less of a need for it because it’s Finland.”
Additionally, she shared that her experiences with other American exchange students has made her realize things about the American culture as well.
“I do have two exchange student friends who are from the U.S here and one of them I go to school with. It’s crazy just to see how collectively traumatized American kids are from school shootings,” she explains. “I knew that it was a big problem obviously, but I didn’t realize how much of a lack there was of school shootings everywhere else but America. I knew that America had an unreasonably high number but I didn’t really realize how contrasting that was to everything else.”
There was an incident during one of her classes where younger students were making noise in the hallway and she thought it was a gunshot.
“They slammed the door and then they screamed because they thought it would be funny but the door sounded like a gunshot. It was a loud noise, a loud bang. Obviously, someone screaming after that, it sent me into fight or flight. And all of my Finnish classmates were like laughing, like ‘oh they’re causing disturbances, this is so funny,’ and I was not right for the rest of the day.”
“I didn’t realize how it much it affected me and I haven’t even been in a school shooting. I can’t imagine the trauma that comes from actually being in one of those.”
For those wanting to take a similar path:
During her time in Finland, Munger has experienced a different culture in ways beyond imaginable and she recommends the experience to anyone.
“I think that the biggest lesson I’ve learned while being over here is that time keeps moving, and I know that that’s such a cliche statement, but it really is like true and I didn’t really understand—I didn’t really get it. Now I get it. If I’ve been over here and I was going through like a day where I felt really homesick or something like that, the day will end eventually. The time keeps going on.”
If a student wants to participate in an exchange semester, Munger says to “go for it if you have the resources to do so. It is really such a great experience and you really get to grow as a person.”
She advises potential exchange students to learn as much as possible about countries of interest, advocate for themselves and reach out.
“I would also say don’t stress too much about it because the whole point about it is to have that experience. If you stress a lot about it, that’s going to take the experience.”
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