Coming to small-town Wayne America from a city of more than 200,000 people a half a world away was something of a culture shock for foreign-exchange student Emilia Hartikka.
Fortunately, she is staying with a family that has not only helped her get used to life in a small town, but has seen her world as well.
Cindy and Scott Abraham are Hartikka’s host family and have been looking forward to hosting the native of Oulu, the fifth-largest city in Finland. And while they have been her host, they were able to visit her home country and see what it’s like in her home land.
Cindy’s family regularly hosted foreign-exchange students when she was growing up, and she has maintained contact with those “exchange siblings” over the years. So when her parents gave her and Scott a chance to go on a trip anywhere in the world with them, Finland was the easy choice.
“My parents had taken our kids on similar trips, and so we went to Finland to see my exchange sister,” Cindy Abraham said.
It was the first time she and her exchange sister had seen each other in 22 years, and an exchange brother living in Denmark also came to visit from the trip for something of a “family reunion.”
“My exchange sister and her husband had lived in Denmark about 20 minutes away from my exchange brother and had even run in the same circles, but had never met each other until we got together,” she said.
While in Finland, the Abrahams also met Emilia’s parents and spent a day with them, which was a great experience for both families.
“From a parental standpoint, I’m sure it had to be so reassuring for them because you’re blindly trusting complete strangers to take care of your most precious gift when they do something like this, and her parents were just awesome.”
Emilia admitted she was a little hesitant at first with the thought of leaving home at her young age to spend a year in the United States.
“I’d heard about it when I was in ninth grade and thought it would be a cool opportunity, but then I thought I was going to be away from my friends for so long,” she said. “Then one of my friends decided to go and so I talked with my mom about it and she said I could go.”
The Abrahams had already had their trip to Finland planned out before they connected with Emilia through the Council for Education Travel USA (CET USA), but Cindy was hoping they could connect with a student from Finland.
“I was excited about having someone from a Scandanavian country because of my past experience, and we were able to choose an exchange student from Finland,” she said.
Abraham remembered the process being a lot different from when her family hosted exchange students in her youth, so they knew a lot more about Emilia by the time they chose her.
“There was a 27-page profile on her, which was completely different from when we chose our student 30 years ago and had a half-page of information with a small black-and-white photo,” she said. “It was really a crapshoot back then, but now we had her medical profile, school grades, family . . . everything we needed to know.”
Being an only child, Emilia had the chance to not only learn about life in a foreign country, but “inherited” siblings to live with for a year. Cindy said she took to it without any troubles.
“Watching her and Shea get along the way they do, they may not be sisters by blood but they are sisters,” she said. “She has a very caring and genuine personality that has fit so well with our family.”
The families first connected in April, and there were numerous conversations via WhatsApp, Skype and other social media channels before Emilia’s arrival on Aug. 12, four days before the start of school in Wayne.
“That first video call was awkward,” Cindy said. “They were both kind of shy but there was a lot of contact prior to her arrival. I remember Shea was worried about meeting her at first, but with all the communication we had already had through social media, they already knew each other pretty well.”
The two girls have connected well during her first few months here and were teasing each other frequently as they sat on the living room sofa talking about the experience.
“She helps me out with my makeup and my hair, because I can’t do either one and my brothers don’t, either,” Shea said.
Emilia wasn’t sure what to expect when she came to Nebraska, but she’s experienced a lot in her short time here in Wayne America, from attending a Husker football game to joining her exchange sister on the school’s cheerleading team.
“When I came here, they asked me if I wanted to do cheerleading and I said no at first, because why do you need to cheer for basketball players? They can do that themselves,” she said. “But it’s actually fun. I didn’t expect that.”
“She’s definitely been pushed outside her comfort zone,” Cindy said with a laugh.
And while most of the new experiences have been fun, some have taken a little getting used to.
“We carved pumpkins for Halloween, but we don’t celebrate it like you do here,” Emilia said. “We do have some people (back home) who do it, but those people are weird.”
The Abrahams took her to her first Nebraska football game, and she said she just followed along with the crowd.
“It was really loud there,” she said. “I didn’t understand what was going on. I just clapped when everybody else was clapping.”
Shea, a senior and one of the cheerleading captains, has loved the experience of having an “exchange sister” in the house.
“It’s better than having two brothers, because brothers don’t understand girls and now I have someone I can talk to about girl things,” she said.
But, as Scott Abraham pointed out, just because they’re girls doesn’t mean there isn’t a little rough-housing going on in the house.
“Raising boys, you get used to a certain amount of it and I didn’t think that would happen with the girls, but they can be just as rough with each other and as loud as the boys,” he said.
Emilia said she enjoyed the warm weather Nebraska experienced this fall and into the early stages of winter, but was excited when the first big snow finally fell last week.
“She was excited for a White Christmas,” Shea said. “She showed us pictures back home where they already had 6-7 inches of snow, and when it snowed here she was so happy.”
The Abraham family — including older brothers Jacob and Logan — will have Emilia with them until June when her parents make the trip to the United States to spend time with the family. The Abrahams are hoping to take Emilia on some other sightseeing trips, including a visit to the Henry Doorly Zoo and the mountains in Colorado.
“It’s been a great experience and it’s been fun to see Shea open up the way she has,” Cindy said. “They have a lot of fun together and we’ve really enjoyed having her here with us.”