Exchange student shares Clayton Ridge experience

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Clayton Ridge foriegn exchange student Ella Vihanto enjoys outdoor winter recreation in her home country of Finland. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

Becoming a foreign exchange student is the perfect way to travel the world, meet new people, learn a new language and experience a different culture. 

Clayton Ridge High School exchange student Ella Vihanto of Sotkamo, Finland, is embracing all of the above during her yearlong hiatus from her educational studies in Finland. 

Vihanto told The Press, "I live in Sotkamo, Finland. It is a community of about ten thousand. My experience traveling abroad, as part of my three-year education in preparation for university studies, is very common in Finland. Students can go anywhere in the world to study for a year. When I return I will have to make up this year I lost while studying in the United States."  

Vihanto's hometown of Sotkamo is a municipality of Finland and is located in the Kainuu region. It is well known for its sandy beaches and Vuokatti, a popular ski resort situated west of Sotkamo. 

Vihanto, who is an accomplished violinist and trained figure skater, shared her accomplishments: "I have been playing the violin for about 13 years. I started taking lessons when I was five years old. I began taking figure skating lesson when I was eight. I practice with a small club in a town about thirty minutes away." She added, "It is not a very successful club. I have a passion for skating so I attend camps all over Finland and compete regionally. I have podiumed several times in Finnish regional competitions, as well as in smaller international competitions. I represented Finland in figure skating during the Barents Winter Games in 2018. That has been my biggest competition so far."

Outdoor winter recreation is a popular pastime in Finland. She described, "There is an indoor skating rink in my hometown. Almost every town has an indoor rink and an outdoor rink. It is a very popular sport in Finland. Most families skate together. Skiing is also very popular. My hometown is famous for our ski resort. I love to snowboard and downhill ski!" 

Vihanto's father is a commercial manager in a mining company and her mother is employed as a special education teacher. "My older brother is studying in university and my younger brother, who is 16, is starting his first year of preparatory school. He is also a baseball player. Sotkamo is famous for our Finnish baseball team. It is played differently than here in the United States," she said. 

An American experience

Vihanto has experienced her first Clayton Ridge Homecoming, Halloween, Thanksgiving and "big American Christmas." She has also been introduced to the game of American football. "The super strong support by fans of certain teams, that shows pretty much everywhere you go, really surprised me!" she remarked. 

"The food has been very different. In Finland our food is plainer. In America there are more sauces and fats. In Finland we eat a lot of fish, no salt or fancy stuff. The food seems to be also bigger in size. It took me some time to get used to this, and not feel like my stomach was about to explode after every meal!" She continued, "I am so amazed at the wide variety of food that is offered, especially in a small town. We would have to drive to Helsinki to get this much variety. I love ice cream! There are so many flavors available here!" she said with a big smile.

Clayton Ridge School

Vihanto's host parents are Carolyn and Neil Hofer of Guttenberg. She is enjoying her experience at Clayton Ridge High School and has participated in cross country, drill team and basketball. 

"The drill team experience has been really cool. I am really happy to be a part of it and we have so much fun! The girls and the coach took me as a part of their team right from the beginning. And for my surprise, I was able to compete at the state competition with this winning team! Now that the drill team is not focusing on the state performance I have started to focus on playing basketball. This is my first experience playing basketball," she commented. 

Her experience at Clayton Ridge has been very positive. "I was surprised how normal I was. There was not that big of a difference. I felt like I could relate to everyone. I started studying English when I was in the third grade so there wasn't much of a language barrier. Teenagers here are more social – way more social and having fun," she observed

Vihanto enjoys a more relaxed dress code and chill attitude. She explained, "In Finland we are more serious about our studies. We dress up for school. It is more formal. I like being able to come to school in sweats, and I enjoy the more relaxed teaching style." 

Vihanto further noted, "In Finland teenagers don't have cars. We are not allowed to drive until we reach age 18. It is so weird that a fourteen-year-old can get a school permit to drive a car! We all walk to school or ride our bikes. There are no snow days. We get there no matter what." 

Vihanto concluded, "I highly recommend teenagers to consider an exchange year abroad. It is a real eye-opener. It allows you to learn things in a way that you will never experience elsewhere. You will create friendships and even family across the world. It's all about living and learning, trying new things and getting out of your comfort zone. My experience here in Guttenberg and at Clayton Ridge has been all good."

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