During her trans-Atlantic nine-hour plane trip, then junior Saj King worried she’d just made the biggest mistake of her life.
Her dream of travelling across the globe on her own to spend a year as an exchange student in Sweden had suddenly become a reality; and it was exhilarating and terrifying.
“I remember just feeling very alone on the way there,” current senior King said. “The first day I arrived I thought ‘Maybe I should just go home.’”
King’s journey began with a strong desire to learn Swedish, which she did using websites such as Mango Languages and Memrise.com. After she discovered the South Austin Rotary Club, part of one of the nation’s largest exchange programs, she began making inquiries as to how her dream of visiting Sweden might be accomplished.
“I’ve always wanted to travel,” King said. “It just never occurred to me before that I could.”
On August 1st 2013, she said goodbye to her family, her friends, and her comfort zone before stepping on a plane bound for Goteberg, Sweden. Once she landed, she was met by her first host family, who then took her to Falkenberg, which is about an hour south of Goteberg.
“When I first left home, I thought I knew Swedish pretty well,” King said. “But when I got there, I realized I didn’t know nearly enough.”
King only got a month of conversation practice with her first host family before it was time for her first day of school. Thankfully, King was enrolled only to learn about the culture through her fellow classmates. She didn’t have to worry about grades.
“Swedish kids have a lot more freedom in school,” King said. “The teacher-student relationship is a lot more equal because the teachers trust the students to do what they’re supposed to.”
King became more comfortable with her ability to speak Swedish, as well as being away, the longer the year progressed. Winter, however, brought another setback.
“I didn’t think the lack of sunlight would depress me during the winter,” King said. “But at that time I felt very isolated. It was so dark and cold.”
What always did cheer up King was the Swedish cuisine.
“Everyone drinks milk at every meal,” King said. “It’s the norm for them. They also eat lots of potatoes and fish-related dishes. It might seem gross to us, but to them, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are disgusting. It depends on how you look at it.”
Being involved with the Swedish students taught King a lot about their mannerisms and unique culture. She was somewhat stunned to find that all the kids at her school dressed smartly for class each day, no exceptions.
“One girl was shocked when I told her girls wear Nike shorts to school in the States,” King said.
Despite initial fears of not fitting in, King was able to settle into a routine in school. She enrolled in a Science program at her school. Programs in Sweden are designed so that students spend all of their high school years focusing on a certain area of their choice. Despite her love for Science, King’s favorite class, though, turned out to be Mandarin Chinese.
“I’ve always had a fascination for Asia and Asian languages,” King said.
She was in for a big surprise. In April 2014, she found out she and her classmates had the opportunity to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to China.
“It was like a mini exchange within my exchange,” King said. “I was so excited.”
King’s trip to China turned out to be where she’d become close to the best friends she made in Sweden.
“I bonded with my class so much on that trip,” King said.
To close out her exchange year, King and her classmates, which included several other exchange students from around the globe, went on a EuroTour, visiting several countries across the continent in June 2014 for 18 days.
“You connect with exchange students in a very special way,” King said.
The group traveled to Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, Austria, and Hungary, touring landmark sites and museums.
On July 17th 2014, King finally packed up and said goodbye to her exchange family.
“I was ready to go home and be with my real family,” King said. “But it was like I was leaving another family.”
Despite all the roadblocks she met along the way, King said her exchange was the best year of her life.
“If you can, do it,” King said. “Whatever you have to do to make it happen, do it. It’s all worth it 1000-fold. It changes you as a person in an amazing way.”