“I loved geography and reading books about other countries. The first geography lesson in fourth grade magically opened the whole world to me”, Cynthia Seelhammer tells me. She grew up in Minnesota as the oldest of six children.
“Sometime in the ‘70s I became aware that the Rotary Clubs had an international exchange program. I really wanted to join that club. I even finished high school in three years instead of four so I could participate as an exchange student. The program included a 10-month stay in another country, living with local families, and going to school with teens of the same age.
“The Rotary club paid for the travel expenses and local families would take care of the accommodation, food and schooling.” Cynthia was called to an interview by the local Rotary-club, which went successfully.
“I learned I was accepted when Rotary delivered a letter on Christmas Day and my parents hung it on the Christmas tree. It stated that I was elected to go for an exchange to Johannesburg in South Africa. There I would attend a private all-girls school. I was excited but a bit scared too.”
South Africa at the time was infamous for political unrest and violence due to its apartheid policies. Reading about it Cynthia learned that people were clearly divided based on race, gender and class.
“My parents and I talked about it and decided we had enough concerns that we would contact Rotary about it.”
The alternative offered was Finland, a country Cynthia knew very little about, except that a lot of Minnesotans had ancestors who had emigrated from there. Nowadays one can find tons of information about Finland, but this was before the Internet.
“There were nineteen Rotary students who arrived at the same time from the US and Canada to Finland. Several of them were to become my life-long friends.”
After a weeklong orientation course at Viittakivi International College in Hauho, the students were sent to various families in Finland.
“I was lucky to end up in Kerava, a small town in southern Finland, about 30 km from Helsinki.”
The location was popular with Cynthia’s peers and she received many visits from the other exchange students when they wanted to experience the capital. The rest of Finland was more provincial.
“During my stay in Finland I lived with three families in Kerava. They all knew each other since not only were the men active Rotarians, but also several of them has grown up together. They all had two cars and a dishwasher, which was unusual in Finland. As far as I understood only four percent of households had a dishwasher in the 1970s, while almost everybody had one in the US at the time.
“In the first family I stayed for only three weeks. The husband was a director at Nokia and the wife was a homemaker. The second family consisted of a Finnair-pilot -husband, a Home Economics teacher -wife, three young children and a live-in intern who cooked and took care of the household.
“The third family with two kids was my favorite family. Riitta-wife was a busy professional woman, took time to cook, ski and do other activities with me. The husband, who was the headmaster of my school, was more distant and always seemed to be in a bad mood. But maybe that was my perception because he spoke no English.
“Academically, the school was not the best fit. I was placed in the language ‘line’ where all the other students had studied Swedish, German, French and English for years. Coming from the American system, my focus had been on natural sciences and humanities. The English teacher did not let me speak, because she wanted the students to learn British English and my American pronunciation might have infected them.
“What did I do? Most of the time I sat through all my classes and read books written or translated into English. I read many of them, even though it was not easy to get ahold of English books in Kerava.
“However, I was able to attend classes of basic French and German at the high school, and the Rotary Club paid for me to take two train trips a week to Helsinki, where I took a course in Finnish for foreigners. However, I was never encouraged to use much Finnish and in my families we communicated in English.
“The families took me along when they went to visit their relatives and friends. There I sat smiling politely, not understanding what was spoken. I drank a LOT of coffee and ate a LOT of pulla (a mildly-sweet dessert bread flavored with Cardamom). That was an entirely new flavor to me.”
“Coffee and pulla were important elements in Finnish socializing, as important as potatoes in almost all of the Finnish meals.
“Of course there were times I felt lonely and homesick. Especially over the Christmas holiday, when I was sick in bed and felt nobody took care of me. But I could handle that. At the age of 11, I bought a horse with the savings from babysitting and I spent much time alone with my horse in the nature. And I was used to spending time reading. These past experiences helped me through the few difficult periods in Finland.
“And I became good friends with Sirpa, who was in my class. She helped me a lot. In her home I saw a different style of Finnish living. They were a blue-collar type of family with a smaller space and fewer modern conveniences. Once I was invited to celebrate a wedding anniversary at Sirpa’s home. After eating, the furniture was moved along the walls, carpets were rolled up and moved away and dancing started.
“My Rotary exchange year gave me many new experiences and perspectives on life. My visit in Europe wasn’t limited to Finland. I was lucky to travel with other Rotary students to Leningrad in the Soviet Union (now St. Petersburg in Russia) and Stockholm in Sweden. In the Finnish course in Helsinki I met foreigners from all over the world. They all managed to make it through the short winter days with few hours of daylight and with the local people with few words.
“I found Finnish people to be more standoffish than Americans and they all thought I smiled too much. But I won them over just by being myself, and being persistent.
“That year in Finland made a big difference in my life. I learned I am brave enough to take big chances, to adapt to the unfamiliar, and to take people as I find them. Remember – this was way before the Internet and cell phones. A year away meant almost entire separation from home.
“I still love Scandinavian design, the woods and lakes, and mushrooms. When I returned home to Minnesota, I saw it through entirely new eyes. And a few years later, at the university there, I was the only one who understood the Finnish in the linguistics class.”