Tua Hytonen had never shopped in a Walmart or attended a football game. She’s never been camping in an RV or studied U.S. government.
That’s all going to change this year for the exchange student from Helsinki, Finland.
“I wanted to do something different. I just wanted a change in my life,” Hytonen said.
Hytonen came to North Georgia as part of the Youth for Understanding exchange program, a global organization that has brought more than 20 international students to Gainesville in the past 20 years.
Students must pass an English exam in order to come to America, said Neil Routman, communication specialist for the program, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
“We were founded in an effort to heal the wounds of World War II,” Routman said. “A community of churches in Michigan, our founders, brought German teenagers into Michigan to attend school and college, with the blessing of the state department.”
Routman said students such as Hytonen come to America to live as Americans.
“They don’t want to be a tourist,” Routman said. “They want to attend football games and go to the mall.”
Hytonen is staying with Lydia and Phillip Sartain and their three daughters, Callie, Susanna and Carey.
“She and my girls had been communicating via Facebook for the last two or three months. The first thing they did (in the car) was talk about what music they had in common. She’d been to a Lady Gaga concert and we’d been to a Beyonce concert,” Lydia Sartain said. “I think it’s a really rich experience for my children to see not only how other people live but most importantly how we’re alike.”
Lydia and Phillip Sartain met Hytonen’s family through a mutual friend on a trip to Helsinki several years ago. The Hytonen family visited America a few years later.
At the first of the year, the mutual friend contacted the Sartain family and said the Hytonens’ daughter wanted to be an exchange student. After much debate — and remembering the time when Lydia participated in an exchange program in Brazil — the Sartains decided to be the host family.
Hytonen has been with them for a little more than a week now. Her first experience in America, after a bit of airport confusion, was to eat at The Varsity in Atlanta.
Lydia Sartain said Gainesville High School was very accommodating for Hytonen starting school a bit late due to her summer schedule. She’s taking classes including U.S. government, chemistry and Spanish.
“We had to get her school supplies in Walmart, and it’s so big. She was kind of shocked,” said Carey Sartain, 15, a sophomore at Gainesville High. “We’re going to take her to the mall this weekend.”
Though she’s old enough to be a senior by American standards, Hytonen still has two years of high school left when she returns to Finland next summer. She said she wasn’t sure of her college plans just yet.
The Sartains want to give Hytonen the opportunity to do as many things as possible with the family, including going on trips later in the year to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and RV camping in Sante Fe, N.M., and the Grand Canyon.
She already met their extended family and saw the Red Elephants play. She also plans to go on college searches with her oldest “sister,” Callie, 17, a senior at Gainesville High.
“She goes with us to church at First Baptist and we took her for her first time to El Sombrero,” Lydia Sartain said. “I had sent her parents an email and asked what her favorite comfort foods were so that I could make it when she got homesick. They wrote me back and said, ‘American hamburgers.’”
Routman said the host families learn just as much as the students do during the yearlong program. He said not only do they learn their student’s culture, they also learn about themselves and their perceptions of the world.
Hytonen said she was most looking forward to things that aren’t done in Finland — Thanksgiving, for example.
“A lot of them aren’t quite sure what to expect. All they know of America is what they see on television, so they think every place is like New York or California,” Routman said. “It takes guts to do something like this.”
Hytonen said she has enjoyed Gainesville so far. She likes the small-town feel of being able to walk into a store and see people she knows.
“It’s really fun. It’s different having another sister in the house but we got to know each other really quickly,” said Susanna Sartain, 13, an eighth-grader at Gainesville Middle School.
Hytonen said she was surprised at how close she already is with Susanna, Callie and Carey. She already refers to them as her sisters.
“She fits in really well. As soon as we picked her up at the airport it was like we already knew each other. We really like her. She’s got a great sense of humor,” Callie Sartain said. “I want her to do things that are traditions in Gainesville — paint the rock, go out to the lake, eat at Longstreet.”