RANTOUL — While East Central Illinois isn't seeing much snow this winter, the same can't be said for 18-year-old Alisa Greene.
The Rantoul teen, the daughter of the Rev. Jeffray and Lorene Green, is a foreign exchange student living in Finland this school year, where there has been plenty of snow.
Greene, though, is seeing much more than snow. She's seeing a part of the world most Americans never get to view. And she's seeing herself in a different light.
Following is a question-and-answer that she participated in with the Rantoul Press via email.
How did you become interested in the foreign exchange program?
My dad is an active Rotarian member in Rantoul's local club. He found out about the exchange program and introduced the idea to me when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after graduating high school.
Were you nervous and at times did you wonder beforehand whether you should make the trip?
In all honesty, I was extremely nervous. Unlike many others, going on exchange wasn't something that I had been dreaming of my entire life, so often I would ask myself, "Am I going to be a 'good' exchange student?"
Leaving your country and all that is known is a big step, and although it can be frightening, I was open to a new chapter of life.
Has it been better than you thought it would be?
Extremely! I came to Finland having absolutely no idea what to expect. It's been everything that I've dreamed about and more. I hadn't realized how much I would learn and grow from all of my experiences made here.
I've made so many lifelong friends from all over the world, learned an entire new culture and way of life, as well as learned a lot about myself, and with that has come a lot more maturity than I had before departure.
Please tell me about where you're staying, the school you're attending, some other experiences over in Finland.
I am living in a city called Turku, Finland. Turku was once the country's capital until Helsinki (was named the capital). It is the fifth-largest city in Finland as well as one of the oldest. There are many historical buildings that have been restored and are still active today.
Although Turku is primarily Finnish-speaking, there are many parts of Finland that are Swedish-speaking (such as the land Islands, located next to Turku).
I am attending Turun Klassikon Lukio (high school) located in the city's center. Since I have graduated high school and received my diploma spring of 2012, I don't receive any credits from the courses I take. Attending Lukio is simply for the experience.
There's been many different experiences that I've had the opportunity to take part in since arriving. Although Finland is a part of the EU (European Union), it varies very much from different countries in Europe; it's a very independent country. I've taken part in many different "Finnish" cultural experiences like skiing and ice skating, sauna, ice swimming and camping. Finns love their nature. Also, I've had the opportunity to travel not only across different parts of Finland, but also to Sweden and Estonia. This summer I will be taking a three-week tour across Europe with about 85 other exchange students who are also currently studying in Finland.
How is the country different than the United States?
In both small and large ways, Finland is very different when compared to the U.S.A. Although Finnish is the main language spoken, parts of Finland are Swedish-speaking. Along with these two languages, most all of Finns succeed in English and perhaps even study a fourth language. Men and women are very equal, and often the woman will be working full-time along with the men.
School is free (including college), and therefore school is taken very seriously. Often, Finns will go to college, receive their degree and start work almost immediately. It's more common to get married around age 30, compared to the States where the age seems to be much younger. Families are generally started around the age of 35.
What year will you be in school when you return? How is the schooling different than this country?
Like I mentioned before, I recently graduated high school in spring 2012. Once I return I have plans to attend Parkland College in Champaign-Urbana to receive my associate degree, later transferring to a university to study photo journalism.
The entire school system is run very differently when compared to the U.S.A. For instance, children start primary school, also known as "elementary school" at age 7, continuing on until ninth grade, where they will then apply to their Lukio (high school) of choice. Lukio is not mandatory in Finland, so those students who decide to go have to apply to the schools, and depending on their previous GPAs (grade point averages) and test scores will determine what school they get into.
Lukio lasts for three years — 10th, 11th and 12th grades. The class system is run much more like our college in America, with block schedules of different classes each day at separate times. Some days you might only have two classes, another perhaps five. School lunch is free, and extracurricular activities are provided by the city instead of the school.
What is your day like? When do you get up in the morning, what does your day consist of and when do you retire for the evening?
Each day is always something new. I think a lot of this has to do with not only being in a foreign country, but also from being an exchange student. Generally though, I attend school Monday-Friday with a schedule much like one would have in college.
After school, sometimes I'll go out with some friends to a caf for coffee. (Finland has one of the highest per-capita coffee consumption rates in the world.) Or perhaps I'll take part in different activities that are going on that day or week. During the evening, I usually come home by bus — the main way of transportation — and will have dinner with my host family.
In the evening, I'll either participate in activities with my host family, read a book or catch up on photo editing/writing, something I actively do.
How do you see this benefiting you in later life?
Going on this exchange changed my life around completely, but in the best way possible. Before leaving I was clueless about all the possibilities the world has to offer. I hadn't known much of what I wanted in life, studies, careers, etc.
Since leaving through many triumphs and troubles I have learned so many new things — from learning a new language and culture, adjusting to host families and new foods, and then learning life lessons and figuring out who I truly am. When you leave to live in a foreign country you are forced to view your home country as an outsider. Such as reading a story from a book, you learn about characters old and new. You see the place for what it is and the people for who they are.
Through this, a lot of realizations are made, and with that comes a lot of clarity. I see the world in an entire new light and am no longer afraid to go after my dreams and make a difference in this world.
Please add anything else that we haven't touched on that you think readers would find interesting.
Overall, I think deciding to go on exchange was one of the best decisions ever made. If anybody has an interest or the possibility to do this themselves, I highly encourage it. You learn so many things about the world, people and yourself.
By studying abroad you realize that people from different countries are just like you — we're all equal. It allows you to reach for your dreams and not hesitate to hold yourself back from what you truly want to achieve. Even if the road can be rough at times, you learn and grow so much that in the end. ... It's all worth it.