Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking back on 2015 and the experience of hosting an international exchange student

This has been a busy year, and it has flown by! It would take far too long to write about all the highlights, so I will focus on the most interesting experience of my year.

This year I had the opportunity to host a Polish international high school exchange student, Ola. She stayed for the 2014-2015 school year, and she returned to Poland during the summer. 

Ola and I after she arrived in Minneapolis
Having traveled internationally a fair amount, I found it interesting to host someone from another country, bring her to a variety of events and show her the American culture. And I appreciated seeing her reactions and hearing her perspectives about the American culture.

I enjoyed bringing her to visit many places around Minnesota, as well as a few other places in the United States. During the time Ola was here:

Ola at the Mall of America
Ola and I at Gooseberry Falls
  • We visited the Mall of America (several times!).
  • We attended the Minnesota State Fair and tried many "fair foods." 
  • We carved pumpkins at Halloween.
  • We drove up to Duluth in northern Minnesota. We drove along the North Shore of Lake Superior, a scenic drive along one of the Great Lakes (check out the North Shore Visitor to read more!). And we made a few stops along the way at Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls and more. We couldn't miss having pies at Betty's Pies in Two Harbors, which had a wide variety of awesome homemade pies!
  • We visited friends at their lake house "up north" in northern Minnesota a couple times.
  • We drove to Lake City, a  charming small town not far away, to see Lake Pepin and the scenic bluffs in the area.
  • I hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner with friends and family to give Ola the “American Thanksgiving” experience, complete with lots of food and great company.
  • We went to an excellent production of “The Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie Theater and visited a holiday market in downtown Minneapolis.
  • We visited family near St. Cloud over Christmas. We even found a town nearby with a Polish name!
  • We escaped the frozen tundra of Minnesota to visit sunny Florida in February.
  • Ola and I in Diagon Alley
    • We explored Universal Studios (the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was Ola's favorite! It really looks like I had imagined. The train ride between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade was awesome, and the other rides were worth checking out too. I also enjoyed the butter beer!)
    • We visited Walt Disney World – spending a day in the Magic Kingdom and a day in Epcot, where we visited many “countries” (Ola was disappointed there wasn’t a Poland). We ate at an Italian restaurant in the "Italy" area. And Ola tried her first funnel cake in Epcot.
    • We took a drive to visit Cocoa Beach and see the ocean along the east coast of Florida, although we thought it was a bit cool to swim. Cocoa Beach also had a lovely downtown area with a wide variety of shops that we enjoyed walking around.
Downtown Chicago
  • Ola had wanted to visit Chicago while she was here. I took some time off during her spring break from school so we could go to Chicago. We grabbed the train in Winona, and ventured down to Chicago. Staying in a downtown hotel, just blocks from Lake Michigan and near Michigan Avenue, it was a perfect location to explore the city. I always think seeing the city by foot when possible is the best way to see it, and our location allowed us to walk most places. We had many fun experiences including:
  • The Bean in Chicago
    • Eating Chicago style pizza at Giordano’s (an experience not to be missed!)
    • Visiting the Bean (and taking many photos)!
    • Meeting up with a friend of mine and her exchange student for some of the adventures
    • Getting a birds’ eye view of Chicago from the Willis Tower
    • Checking out Navy Pier
    • Shopping on Michigan Avenue 
    • Exploring the Art Institute of Chicago
    • Walking around a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, which had Polish bakeries, restaurants and shops. Ola found many Polish items in a Polish sausage shop, and the workers even spoke Polish!

Ola outside Kurowski Sausage Shop in Chicago
  • And so much more! We had many adventures throughout the year. And Ola had the experience of attending an American high school, which I think she really enjoyed. She participated in a couple sports, went to football and basketball games, attended homecoming and prom dances, and even participated in the high school graduation ceremony.
    Ola and I before the graduation ceremony
While the time Ola was here flew by, I was thankful for the experience to host her. It was a memorable and great experience. She became like a member of my family while she was here. I consider her my “Polish daughter” now. 

Ola and I on her last day in Minnesota
I haven't visited Poland yet, but I look forward to visiting Ola in Poland someday. And I hope she’ll show me around to all the historical and cultural sites in Poland when I come visit!

Happy new year!

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