Local student shares memories of year in Denmark
Elizabeth Schousek, 17, Houlton, spent last year abroad in Aalborg, Denmark through the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. She is the daughter of Brian and Theresa Schousek, and plans to attend a four-year university to study a variety of subjects including history, biology and international relations.
Schousek answered a few questions for the Star-Observer about her year in Aalborg.
How did you decide to go on a Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE)?
My freshman year of high school I saw a poster up at Hudson High School that invited all interested students to a meeting that introduced me to the program. I filled out the application, but decided that it would be better for me to go on exchange my junior year instead of my sophomore year.
My sophomore year, I reapplied, went through with the district interviews, and was accepted.
I wanted to go on exchange to widen my worldview and also to see new and exciting places. I was able to meet some amazing people from all over the world.
Why did you decide to go to Aalborg?
I did not choose to go to Aalborg, Denmark, but was assigned there through the RYE program. I couldn't have had a better place to live. It is the fourth largest city in Denmark with a population of 100,000. It is located in the North.
Through the RYE program, you are able to pick five countries that you would like to go to and you will most likely go to one of them. My case was a bit special in the fact that I was placed in a country that was not in my top five. My top five were Russia, Norway, Sweden, The Faroe Islands, and South Africa. Although Denmark was not on my list, I do believe it was where I was meant to be.
Did you speak any Danish before you left?
No I did not. I wasn't even able to count to ten before getting on the plane. It it difficult to learn a language by yourself that only about 5 million people speak. I did later learn about the amazing language learning app/website called duolingo.com.
The amazing thing though is that I did end up fluent by the end of the year.
Did you take Danish language classes or just learn as you went?
I attended Danish classes twice a week for 2.5-hour sessions with the other exchange students in my area. They were at Sprogskole (language school), which is a government-funded project for people to learn Danish. I attended these until February. I learned a lot about grammar here, but most vocabulary and pronunciation I learned from my families and friends.
For my first and second host families, I spoke mostly English with them because my Danish was not advanced enough to speak only Danish, but by the time I moved into my third family in March, I knew enough. I am very proud to say that I spoke only Danish with my third host family.
What other European countries did you visit, and what did you do there?
I was able to visit so many different countries during my year abroad. My first host family took me to their cabin in Sweden during our fall break.
My second family drove down to Luxembourg to celebrate Christmas with some family down there. They also took me Norway for a skiing vacation. My second host dad was one of the coordinators for the Danish National Cross Country Skiing Competition, so I was able to explore that.
I flew with my third host mom, her friend, and her friend's two teenage daughters where we visited Harry Potter Studios among other things.
My families were amazing, and I was so lucky to visit so many places with them.
Most RYE students in Europe are given the opportunity to go on a Eurotour with other exchange students. I was able to go on this trip that traveled across Europe by bus for 18 days. We visited so many incredible places in Germany, Czechia, Austria, Italy, Monaco, France, Belgium, and The Netherlands. This trip was even more incredible because I was surrounded by 41 other exchange students for the entirety of the trip.
What was the name of your school in Denmark?
Aalborg Katedralskole; there were around 1,000 students and it is a traditional Danish Gymnasium. The school was located near downtown Aalborg. I was a first year student (out of three grades). The school was over 500 years old and had an amazing library. It even housed some books from the 1500s that I was able to look at.
What are some of the biggest similarities and differences you noticed between Danish and American schools?
The equivalent of American High School in Denmark is called Gymnasium. There are three different grades, but the students vary in age from 15 to 20. Students stay with the same class for most of the day, which reminded me of Elementary school.
My schedule in Denmark was different every day and my classes were an hour and a half long, similar to the block schedule at HHS. When a teacher was sick, a class was cancelled and rescheduled for another day as opposed to having a substitute teacher try to teach the material.
Most classwork was in groups and we were given a lot of time to work on our assignments in class. There would only be homework if you were unable to complete your assignment during class time.
We both learn about the same things, but in Denmark you start to specialize in high school as opposed to college. The class that I was in was focusing mostly on Biology, Math, and Chemistry.
What is your favorite memory from your time in Aalborg?
One of my favorite memories was near the end of my year abroad when one of my exchange friends, Kaitlyn from Illinois, came over to visit me from a town two hours away by bus, Viborg. We had a nice dinner with my family and ended up speaking to each other and my family almost entirely in Danish. It was an amazing feeling to be surrounded by some of my favorite people in the world and able to speak this language that I barely knew existed a year before
What was the biggest challenge while you were in Aalborg?
All of my classes in Denmark were in the Danish language. Many teenagers in Scandinavia speak English, so they were able to translate for me at times, but not always. School was difficult for the first six months or so because my Danish wasn't far enough along yet to actually be able to work on the assignments. During class, I worked on learning Danish and sometimes looked at colleges too.
What are some things you learned about Denmark and Danish culture?
During my year abroad, Denmark was considered the happiest country in the world according to the United Nations. The most common reason the Danes believe this to be true is because of the Danish word "hygge." It means in a way to be cozy and just spend time with your friends and family. It can be used somewhat interchangeably with the English word "chilling," but with a much warmer connotation. They also have shorter workdays and more vacation time than most jobs in the USA. They do have a large income tax, but it is well worth it to have free healthcare.
Please tell me a bit about each of your host families.
Through the RYE program, we have, on average three host families. No one family is the same, so we get to experience more of the culture with three instead of one. I loved all of my host families.
My first host family includes my host mother, Louise, her husband, Anders, and her two sons Rasmus (14) and Jeppe (16). Louise was a Rotary exchange student in her high school years to Adelaide, Australia. Jeppe is spending the 2017-2018 year abroad through the RYE program in Monterrey, Mexico.
My second family consists of my host dad Carsten, his wife, Mette, and their son Ditlev (13). Mette worked all over Denmark as a dental surgeon and one time I was even able to fly into Copenhagen with her.
My third family sent their daughter Ida Christiansen to Buffalo, Minn., through the same program, at the same time that I was in Denmark. It was a lot of fun to be hosted by Ida's mother, Rita, her father Per, and her brother Niels (20).
What did you learn about yourself through this trip?
I did learn a lot about myself, but as you know, these things are often difficult to put into words. The way I like to put it is that I grew a lot throughout the year, but I am still the same person. I am more "me" than I was a year ago.
Would you like to travel abroad again?
I most certainly would! There is no question about it!
What advice would you give anyone who's thinking about doing an exchange year?
That they would never regret it! It will be very difficult at times, but that means that you will also have some of the best experiences of your life during your year abroad. I 100 percent recommend the RYE program to anyone who is considering exchange (do it!). The program is much cheaper compared to other high school exchange programs that are out there. To apply for RYE, go to northstaryouthexchange.com and just start filling out your application! Students aged 15-18 may apply, and applications for the next school year are due in November.
Do you think going on this trip has changed your perspective in any way?
It really truly has. I am confident to say that I am now a bicultural human and am able to think in the same way as a Dane. Coming back from this year has made high school much more exciting because I am able to make so many connections that were impossible for me to make two years ago.