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After a Wild Welcome, Finnish Student Settles In

When Mariela Forsman first came to America from Finland at the end of August last year, she was probably expecting the mild weather of New England in late summer. What she got was a hurricane that knocked out much of Wilton's power for a week.

Introductions to her new neighbors soon included requests to use their showers. "We don't have hurricanes in Finland," she said in an interview this past weekend. Her home in Helsinki has never lost power for more than half an hour. "I haven't been bored," she added, laughing.

Hurricanes and warm winter days aren't the only changes Mariela has come across this side of the Atlantic. The 17-year-old high school junior has noticed plenty of differences between her life here and back home. "There's more small talk here," she said, observing that people here are less reserved, "but I like it."

Mariela is here as part of the Ayusa exchange program, which connects students, schools and host families all around the world. "I've always wanted to live in a foreign culture," she said of her choice to study abroad. "I wanted to try something new."

Also looking to try something new were the Kaeyers, the family that is hosting Mariela for the year. "We wanted to introduce our kids to a new culture," said Gillian Kaeyer, of Olmstead Hill Road. They became interested in hosting a foreign exchange student, and found out about Ayusa online.

Their children include Megan, a nine-year-old in fourth grade, and Molly and Finn, both six and in kindergarten. Mariela has a 13-year-old brother and a 19-year-old sister, so it has been a while since she has lived with younger kids. Despite the age difference, Mariela said she and her host siblings have fun together. "With younger kids, you don't have to worry so much about making mistakes when you talk," she added.

She and the Kaeyers have exchanged language, traditions, cooking, and even songs. At Christmas, Mariela taught her host siblings how to sing "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in Finnish.

Her other attempts at teaching her friends and family her language have had mixed results. "It's a hard language to speak and learn," she admitted.

Mariela herself speaks five languages: Finnish, Swedish, English, Spanish, and French. Though fluent in English before coming to the U.S., she has found her language skills improving since coming here. "Sometimes it's hard to get the words out of your mouth," she said, "but it's been easier than I thought."

Living in an English-speaking culture has forced her to practice more, which is one of the reasons she chose to come here.

"She still makes a face if I ask her to order from the deli," said Mrs. Kaeyer. "But she's gotten much more confident."

Mariela also does her best to answer questions from her classmates on where she comes from. Sometimes this means pointing out Finland on a map or explaining that it isn't Sweden, and sometimes it means reassuring everyone there are hot dogs and hamburgers there.

Mariel and her host family have taken trips to Vermont, Maine and New York, where they visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. She especially enjoyed seeing New York for the first time. "It's so famous," she said, "and it's a city — I love city life." Raised in Finland's capital city, Mariela is more familiar with an urban lifestyle, but has enjoyed the different experience Wilton has provided.

When she's not hanging out with friends at Starbucks or spending time with her host family, Mariela has been taking full advantage of Wilton High School's sports programs. An avid skier since she was three, Mariela was quick to join the high school ski team, which had an undefeated season for a second year in a row. Her school back in Helsinki doesn't have clubs or teams the way American schools do, so she plans on doing as much as she can while she is here.

Though she's been keeping busy, Mariela finds time every Sunday to Skype with her family back home. "We're very close," she said. She is the first of her siblings to travel abroad, and her parents are "very proud" of her.

Mariela will return home again after school ends in June. Though she is not sure what she wants to study after high school, she knows she loves languages and traveling, and she hopes to continue going to new places. She wants to return to the U.S. when she is a little older, and wants to see the West Coast, though in the end, she admits she would probably end up in New York. "There are so many amazing people here I want to stay in touch with."

To read the original article from the Wilton Bulletin, click here.