A Detroit Lakes girl in Denmark
On a whim, Ali Sauer attended a meeting on the Rotary Exchange program. She knew about the program and being an exchange student but hadn't really thought about going abroad herself.
"It kind of happened out of nowhere," she said.
Nowhere brought her to Denmark for a year July 2010-July 2011.
Sponsored by the Detroit Lakes Breakfast Rotary Club, she applied and was told in January of 2010 that she would be going to Denmark, her first choice of countries.
"I didn't have any preference. I just wanted to go," the 18-year-old Detroit Lakes student said of locations.
She had to rate from 1 to 42 what country she'd like to live in for a year. She sat down with her parents and they decided safety wise, the Scandinavian countries would be a good bet. So she listed Denmark, Sweden and Norway as top choices.
Before she left for Denmark, Sauer met several weekends with a dozen other Rotary exchange students throughout Minnesota and Canada to discuss the program and the experience they were about to embark upon, though going in opposite directions.
"We were all nervous together," she said.
But it formed a bond between the students, and Sauer said she is still friends and keeps in touch with those exchange students who may have all gone to different countries but shared a similar experience.
While attending school in Kolding, Sauer lived with three different families, a part of the Rotary program, exposing kids to more people.
Difference in schools
In Denmark, students attend school from early August until the end of June. Though the summer break is shorter, she said they have longer breaks in between with more holidays and study breaks.
Sauer said she really enjoyed the school she attended, which was a semi-private one. Parents donated money to the school, but there was no tuition to attend.
"I was the first English-speaking exchange student there," she said of the school.
Before she left for Denmark, Sauer said she had listened and worked with the Rosetta Stone language program to learn Danish, but in reality, "I didn't speak any before I left," she admits.
Well, she thought she could speak some -- until she got to the country and realized she really couldn't keep up with the language change.
Once in Denmark though, she was sent to language school, but the way she learned the most was living with her host families.
"I owe them everything for learning Danish," she said.
Most people in Denmark speak fluent English so it wasn't difficult, she said, but one of her host families had three small children who hadn't learned any English yet. Taking a 6-year-old for a walk and not having a clue where he wanted to go or how to communicate was good incentive to learn the language.
Sauer said she can now carry on a conversation, but said she's thankful the school was lenient on her when it came to assignments in Danish.
"The school wrote me off as fluent (in Danish), but I think they were being very generous with that," she said with a laugh.
At Sauer's school in Kolding, students -- she had a class size of 26 including herself -- stayed in one room and the teachers rotated classroom to classroom. She said it was nice because she got to know her classmates better, and there didn't seem to be the social cliques and stereotypes among students as there are here.
Everyone was equipped with laptops, and all assignments were posted online immediately. That way, when someone was sick or missed school for some reason, there was no reason for them to fall behind on assignments.
She took English, social science and math classes while there. She also took a Spanish class. Try to imagine the difficulty of learning another foreign language through one she already had difficulty with.
Last year, Sauer would have graduated from Detroit Lakes High School, but since she was abroad -- though her credits transferred -- she was one credit shy of graduating. And while she's already at school taking that one credit, she decided to take a couple other classes to brush up on subjects -- government and college algebra -- that she hasn't used in a while.
She will be graduating in January, and then next fall she plans to attend college to become a teacher of English as a second language.
"I'm really happy with it," she said of the Rotary program. "Everywhere I went people knew about what Rotary was and the exchange program."
Transportation and other differences
The three families that Sauer lived with in Denmark all lived outside the town her school was located in so she learned all about public transportation.
When she lived with her second host family, she'd ride a bike to the train station, take the train into the city and then take a bus to her school.
"Public transportation was really strong there," she said. And although she can drive everywhere here -- exchange students aren't allowed to drive abroad -- she said she misses the public transportation that she relied on there.
Riding bike is very popular in Denmark. Vehicles are expensive to have, and it was a rarity for young people to have a car.
Kolding -- with a population of 30,000-40,000, she estimates -- is located about an hour north of the German border. Sauer said the cost of living is so high in Denmark, many people drove the hour to Germany to go grocery shopping because it's much cheaper.
Though the cost of living was higher, she said, wages were also higher.
"It's similar to here but up a little higher," she said.
Denmark is about one-fifth the size of Minnesota, but it has the same population as Minnesota.
She said it didn't have the lakes and unpopulated countryside like Minnesota does, but it doesn't seem congested either. It took only four hours to get from one end of the country to the other -- including islands.
The television shows and theater movies were all in English, so "I liked when we went to the movies." She didn't have to worry about following along in Danish or reading subtitles.
Sauer describes the weather in Denmark as mild. There's less snow and cold than Minnesota and more rain and more dark hours. And though it's warm in Denmark, it's not humid.
While in Denmark, Sauer got to take a three-week trip around Europe with 60 other exchange students from the area.
Her third host family also took her to Spain on vacation.
"It was a blast. I had a lot of fun. I was just so happy there. I was so lucky with my experience."
Though it started as going to a meeting on a whim, Sauer is certainly glad she spent a year away from home, learning a new culture and gaining new friends she wouldn't otherwise have met.
"I'd like to go back next summer," she said. "My class is graduating and I would like to go back for that."
Advice for others thinking about becoming an exchange student?
"Have an open mind once you get there. Sky's the limit."
Sauer admits she got a little homesick while she was there, but it wasn't nearly enough to even think about cutting her year short and coming back home.
She said just to look at it in a different perspective: A year away from home sounds like a long time, but only having a year in another country seems like a very short period of time.
"You meet so many people and make friends from all over the world." And with social media and the Internet, "it's so easy to keep in touch."