Victoria Gesell
2011-12 Outbound to Finland

Hometown: Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Ponte Vedra High School
Sponsor: Ponte Vedra Beach Sunset Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Rotary Club of Lappeenranta-Leiri, District 1430, Finland

Victoria's Bio

Terve! Minun nimeni on Victoria Gesell, I am 17 years old, currently attend Ponte Vedra High School as a junior and next year I am going to Finland. I stand at a tall 5’11 and ½’’, have hazel eyes and red hair. One of the perks to being so tall is that I’ll always know when it’s raining before everyone else does.

I live with my mom in Ponte Vedra Beach and visit my dad very frequently. Both my parents live in Ponte Vedra, but not their whole lives. They have traveled abroad and just hearing their stories has instilled in me a craving for adventure and new experiences.

When I am not at school studying U.S History, Chemistry, Latin and Art, I love to be drawing and painting. I started sketching poor excuses for stick figures not too long ago but with practice and time I can now proudly state that I am an artist. If I’m not drawing, then I am out laughing and enjoying the days with my best friends. I am a very independent, carefree, open minded person and fully support individuality and self expression. Why, because there should only be one You!

When I first attended the Rotary assembly I had an overwhelming, positive feeling and knew right then and there that I had to be an exchange student! After what seemed like a big blur, one night the phone call came and I will remember these words forever: “Victoria, you’re going to Finland.” I was immeasurably excited! To be honest, I knew very little about Finland at the time and must have researched for 3 hours that same night learning all about Finland’s culture and what a beautiful country it is. It’s a country selection that is a perfect match for me.

I know the next year of my life will be filled with wonderful experiences and knowledge that will forever be a part of who I am. I cannot thank Rotary enough for this excellent opportunity that I have been given, and can’t wait to begin my experience as an Outbound Exchange Student to Finland!

Näkemiin!

Victoria's Journals

August 6

I am sitting in the Jacksonville Airport terminal waiting for my flight to arrive. My heart is racing with anticipation, my mind is exploring all of the possibilities that await me in just a few hours’ time and it seems almost impossible to describe this moment, but I will try my best.

  I have just said farewell to my parents and friends with a bittersweet goodbye. It’s always difficult to part separate ways with family, but I know what is waiting for me just across the ocean, and boy am I ready for it. For ten months I have been building up to this moment right here in the terminal. I have been very well prepared by Rotary through orientations, meetings and could not be here without all who have supported me within the RYE Florida organization. I want to thank everyone who has helped me get to this seat in the terminal totally confident and prepared with a special shout out to the BAOB’s and Ms. Paula!

  After I walked through security it finally caught up with me; this exchange is real. Not only is it real, but it is the best decision I have made so far in my life. Hands down.  A very wise person told me that each exchange is unique and is completely my own and that is completely true. For ten months I have been talking about leaving, but now the time has come where I must take the first steps to changing the rest of my life. Once I step onto the plane I am an Inbound to Finland.  Officially.

So it’s time to say nakemiin to Florida, and moi to Finland! See you all in a year!

  After I walked through security it finally caught up with me; this exchange is real. Not only is it real, but it is the best decision I have made so far in my life. Hands down.

September 22

Moi!

As I am sitting here writing this journal I am amazed at how drastically my life has changed in just a little over a month living in Finland, and how I am changing too.

After my first week in my city I really didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t understand what anybody was saying and for my first week of school I thought to myself, ‘Today is going to be the day I get lost’ but I somehow managed to make it back to my house unscathed. A month later and I can proudly say that I haven’t been lost once.

I would venture to say that school is considerably different in Finland than it is in America. Here, the students choose the classes they want to sit in for 75 minutes three times a week. There are 6 periods throughout the year, which are like semesters in Florida. Classes aren’t called “periods”, they are called courses. The periods are the semesters. If this makes any sense, you should feel accomplished. When the periods change and so do the courses. A fun little thing about Finnish school is that you can always have a free lunch. You get glasses, silverware and plates to eat with, unlike the Styrofoam trays and milk cartons you get in Florida. It’s quite nice. There are certain days where I have free periods for 75 minutes in between classes. Students are free to come and go to school as they please, no questions asked. My school is only a short walk from the city center so my friends and I regularly just go grab a coffee and chat.

Which brings me to my next topic. In Finland, there is no such thing as “small talk” and I like it. Finns just get straight to the point of the conversation and you will hear the shortest phone calls of your life here. But don’t mistake their frank approach to talking with being brief. I was having coffee with a few of my friends one afternoon and I finally noticed that we had been sitting there talking for well over 2 hours.

Many times I have caught myself talking to a friend back in Florida and not realizing that I was about to type in Finnish as a response thus totally confusing people. My Finnish is getting better every day. It helps to have Finnish class, but I also study on my own trying to take it one step at a time. I can understand half of the conversations around me and sometimes read along with the morning newspaper with my host family. It’s coming to me very easily and I really am not stressing about learning the language. I know that I am putting in enough effort to learn it and eventually it will naturally switch over.

Some people have told me that it’s hard to make Finnish friends but I will strongly disagree with that. My first night in my city my sister (I’ve dropped the ‘’host’’ part because I consider her my actual sister now) took me to a movie night at her friend’s house where I was already meeting new people and making plans to hang out. Finns typically don’t approach you, so you have to be very extroverted and go up to people and introduce yourself.

To be totally honest I can’t see how you wouldn’t want to be an exchange student. You can experience a totally new perspective on life and the world at a time where you are most impressionable. Every day I am excited to see what happens next in my life. Sometimes I feel as if my exchange is moving too fast, other times it feels too slow. I can feel myself becoming more and more adapted to the lifestyle here that everything feels normal. When someone brings up how things are in America, it almost feels foreign to me.

I know that becoming an exchange student was the best decision that I have made in my life. I was sitting in Florida feeling something was missing from my life; some kind of adventure, travel and new experience. The day I attended the Rotary Youth Exchange assembly at my school was the day I changed the rest of my life. I cannot thank my family, my Rotary club and all of Rotary for allowing me to be here in Finland. This opportunity means the world to me and there isn’t enough times I can say thank you that would express my full gratitude. Seriously.

Some things I have noticed are:

-If you see a person asleep in the park, leave him there. In America people would think a person passed out in a park was homeless or drunk. In Finland people think ‘’Oh that’s a good idea, I hope there is a spot for me in the sun.”

-You will get funny looks if you put jam on toast for breakfast in the morning. Sweets aren’t eaten for breakfast. I normally have raw salmon and a slice of Gouda on toast here, and I think this has replaced sugary breakfast foods forever for me.

-If you give a Finn a Poptart, they’re going to want a second. And if you give them a second, they will want to try them all.

-Going to sauna is possibly the best cure after a cold and rainy day in Finland. Or just the cure for everything.

-There is no “typical” Finn. Some are shy, and some make you wish they were shy.

-The coffee here, even if it’s from a cheap dispensing machine, is automatically 10x better than anything you can get in America.

-That a sauna is considered cold at 150°F, and you should probably throw some more water on the hot rocks.

-I really need to know the metric system. Nobody knows what I’m talking about and vice versa.

-Nobody really cares how you dress here. Some people look as though they just came from New York Fashion Week, others look like they dressed themselves in the dark.

To be totally honest I can’t see how you wouldn’t want to be an exchange student. You can experience a totally new perspective on life and the world at a time where you are most impressionable.

Monday, December 19, 2011

So have I really been in Finland for over 4 months now? It was very unusual to realize how long I have lived here. It no longer feels like a foreign place anymore. I understand how and why most everything around me works and happens. I’ve had good days and bad days, but never terrible days. This shows that I now consider life in Finland as normal.

I can see myself changing already. Most people don’t mention this to you, but you think a lot on exchange. You think about how to go about eating the strange food, you think in the host language, you think of what bus you’re going to have to take home and most importantly you think about yourself. Sometimes it’s exhausting to think so much. This is probably the reason why exchange students are notorious for enjoying a good nap.

There is no longer a language barrier for me. I can understand what mostly everybody is saying and it just comes naturally; meaning I don’t have to pause and think about what someone just said. Even speaking the language is easier than when I first arrived now that I have been around it longer. I never lost sleep because I wasn’t understanding the language. I just studied enough and practiced it often and it just clicked over. The concept of language in general is a weird one. Even reading English sometimes makes me confused.

It’s December now and the holidays are rushing in it seems. It feels like New Years was only a few months ago. Where is the time going? Its 5 days until Christmas and there are no decorations up in my house. Finns wait until maybe a day or two before Christmas Eve, or in some cases, on Christmas Eve to put up their trees and decorations. I’m experiencing a wide range of emotions right now. Of course I missed my family on my birthday last week, and I know I will be thinking of them come Christmas but it couldn’t be farther from being homesick. In 4 months I have never been homesick. Sure I’ve missed people, but there is a difference between missing family and friends and being homesick. I’m very excited to experience a Finnish Christmas. (it would be even better if there was some snow outside) Celebrating holidays in your host country, along with learning the language, is one of the best ways to be exposed to that country’s culture.

I have been told the new Florida Outbounds have been chosen and have found out their countries, and to that I say paljon onnea! (Congratulations!) I will always remember the moment I found out I was going to Finland. It doesn’t seem like that was a year ago. Things certainly do change.

“By changing nothing, nothing changes.” -Tony Robbins

February 24, 2012

I feel like time is playing tricks on me. I have been living in Finland for almost 7 months. That can’t be right; I only just got here a few weeks ago! I always thought time passed by slower as you grow older. Clearly I was very wrong. If anything, it moves faster each day. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and even Valentine’s Day have all come and gone. The snow is showing signs of melting and the winter days are trying hard to hold on as long as possible. The sun shines more and more each day. Floridians think I am kidding when I say at one point I didn’t see the sun for months.

I think exchange has already taught me many, many things. It’s taught me that it's okay to be alone. It’s helped me learn a lot about myself, how I feel about issues, and what kind of different things I can be interested in. It has also taught me what my limits, weaknesses and strengths are. Sure, I would have eventually figured all of these things out. But by jumping into a foreign environment surrounded by absolutely nothing familiar, I believe the process was quickened.

Every day has been a chance to learn something. New words or phrases in the language, new things to learn about myself and others, new foods to try, new areas of the town to walk through and enjoy along with so many other things. Small details that when left unnoticed, still appear small. But when looked at again, can become the biggest and most important details of the whole experience.

Nothing makes me happier than knowing my friends are also enjoying their exchanges just as much as I am and to hear about the new exchange students coming into the greatest year of their life thus far. Before coming to Finland I had made sure to not set any expectations. This helped me come to this country with an open mind free of anything that might cause disappointments. I would advise the new Outbounds to try and do the same. I was asked a question here once, ‘What is one of the things you are disappointed with on exchange here in Finland?’ they had asked. I answered with “Nothing. I haven’t found anything I haven’t liked or have been disappointed with.” At the time I wasn’t just trying to be polite, I was being honest. I tend to be like that. I say things openly and honestly, even if you aren’t ready to hear it. As I look back, I should have answered with how I am disappointed that so many people are missing out on this wonderful country. This journal and my pictures can only stretch so far. You really have to be here in order to understand. The same probably goes for everyone and everywhere else.

I have talked to a few other exchange students about this, and we all agree on it. We love out host countries, our exchange year, our families, our friends and our new languages with all our hearts. It’s still a painful subject when talking about going home in just a few months. However, I am ready to be back home when the time comes for it. I have plans and goals I am anxious to start accomplishing. Being on exchange has opened my eyes to many new possibilities I want to explore. You can be sure that this is the first of many travels for me.

June 1

With summer arriving in Finland I am getting asked many times about when I am leaving Finland. When is it time for me to go back home to Florida? But what does ‘home’ really mean? Of course it’s where your family and friends are, but I have family and friends here now too. I have put my life in Florida on hold to come spend a year on exchange. I have made a life in my host country in just 10 months. I would have never guessed that going on exchange means expanding your family to people from all over the world.

10 months ago I left everything familiar and boarded onto a plane heading to a new, exciting and completely different country. I didn’t realize at the time just how much I was going to change, grow, learn, love and experience. It’s something that Rotary can’t teach you or other exchange students can tell you. You have to be open minded and let the full experience come to you.

Being an exchange student is about understanding different cultures and ways of viewing the world. It’s about meeting new people, getting lost in your new school or city, trying seriously bizarre foods and learning a new language. It’s about sharing your opinions and culture with your new friends and family, and realizing that we all aren’t so different after all.

Exchange is not a year in your life, but a life in one year. A life that nobody wants to ever let go of. I know that the new Outbounds must be seriously excited and maybe a bit nervous about leaving soon to start their exchanges. It seems like just a few months ago I was feeling the same things about leaving Florida. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the beginning of the year and start the whole experience over again. The saying is that “Time flies when you’re having fun”. You have no idea how true that is until you are sitting at your desk and writing your journal with just 2 months left of your exchange year.