As I watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics last week and saw country after country parade in, smiling and waving, and carrying their flags, it struck me that unless there was a sign announcing what nation the athletes represented, viewers wouldn’t necessarily know where they were from. I mean, someone from the United States team looked pretty much like someone from the Australian team or the Russian team (with the exception of those tacky sweaters our Olympians wore).
We are more alike than we are different. We may be separated by miles of oceans and various land masses, we may speak different languages, but, as research has shown, between any two humans their genome is 99.9% similar. I guess that’s why you might look at the young ladies above and not see much difference from the typical River Hill student. However, both Francesca Varesse and Rikka Reponen are International Exchange students spending the year at RHHS. I sat down with them this week to find out how they were enjoying their year abroad and here’s what they shared:
1) Where are you from?
Rikka hails from Oulu, Finland Ooul which is the 5th biggest city in Finland. There are about 5 million people in the country and approximately 193,000 live in Oulu. She lives in the northern part of Finland near the Arctic Circle.
Francesca is from Bologna, Italy which is situated in the northern part of the country near Florence. With 1 million inhabitants, Bologna is roughly as big as Florence. It is also home to the oldest University in the world, the University of Bologna, established in 1088.
2) How does it compare with Howard County?
Being a city girl, Francesca has been a bit taken aback by living, what she sometimes feels, in the middle of nowhere. She is used to getting places rather quickly, so the lack of public transportation has been a challenge for her.
Although Rikka lives in the countryside in Oulu, she is used to having buses run practically everywhere. Like Francesca, she has struggled with feeling a bit isolated or relying on people for rides.
3) What made you want to study in the United States?
Rikka picked the United States because she wanted to experience something very different from Finland and felt that the U.S. could give her a good experience of what high school spirit felt like.
I found out from talking with Francesca that the U.S. was actually her 2nd choice. She picked a bunch of countries (including top choice Canada), but was pleased with where she ended up.
4) What do you like about the United States?
Francesca was quick to share that she likes that the clothes are way cheaper. Shopping is definitely a favorite activity for her. Since Bologna is filled mostly with historic buildings, she has loved seeing the skyscrapers, especially when she went to New York and saw Times Square.
Rikka agreed that the shopping malls have been awesome and enjoys the fact that Howard County is close enough to go visit great cities like Baltimore, DC, and New York. She has also been impressed with how open and social the people— something quite different than back in Finland.
5) What do you miss most about home?
Rikka expressed a longing for the natural landscapes of Finland, being able to go out hiking, and go snowboarding every weekend. Although she has tried various cuisines here, she definitely misses the food of Finland-a diet filled with lots of fish.
Francesca agreed that food is not the same here and has been disappointed with what passes as Italian. She misses the people (family and friends) and being able to walk everywhere.
6) What is school like in your country?
According to Francesca, schol is completely different in Bologna. There are three levels of high school and you choose which one you attend based on whether you plan to attend college, train for a skilled job, or be preared for a manual job. Students stay in one classroom for the day while the teachers move from room to room and students stay together in the same class of students for 5 years. School hours are 8-1pm, Monday through Saturday.
Rikka shared that, in Finland, mandatary education ends when you are 16 and that students pick which high school they want to attend. There are no AP classes or Honors classes, except in higher level math classes. You only spend 3 years in high school and hours are either 9-2 or 11-4 depending on which courses you choose to take.
8) What is one thing River Hill could learn from your school?
Both Francesca and Rikka agreed that there seems to be a lot of homework at RHHS. Rikka shared that she had never done a worksheet in her life until coming to River Hill and worries that these handouts are too prescriptive and based on only one way of learning. In Finland, students are able to have more choice about studying the way that works best for them. Francesca added that students should be given more independence about finding their own way. Teachers here go out of their way to help students to pass; in Italy, teachers share their expectations but will let you fail if you want to. She believes the Italian way is better because it motivates students to work hard.
9) What are your plans after finishing this year at River Hill?
Francesca plans to stay in Europe (she still has another year of high school left). She plans to attend high school, but is still figuring out what she wants to do with her life. Rikka also plans to stay in her home country (and she has a great incentive). College is free in Finland as long as you get in, so she plans to study for entrance exams and attend university to become a lawyer.
10) Do you watch the Olympics at all?
Both Francesca and Rikka have been watching the Olympics and rooting on the athleted from their respective countries. Rikka is a huge snowboarding fan and actually knows the girl who won the silver medal for Finland. Francesca prefers the Summer Olympics, but still likes the opportunity to show her patriotism as she cheers for her countrymen.
It’s so awesome talking to these young ladies and getting a view of what life is like outside of our little world here at River Hill. Talking to them for only about half an hour makes me want to pack my bags and discover what Finland and Italy have to offer. If I’m not here next year, you know I’ve found a principal exchange program!