Winter is a lot colder in Sweden than on Vancouver Island, says Ben Pettinger. The Sidney teen recently returned from the Scandinavian country after spending the last school year on a Rotary Club exchange overseas.
It was cold, he explained, adding that locals told him it was probably one of the worst winters in recent history in the community where he was staying.
Ben stayed with a series of three host families in and around Varberg, Sweden, a city of some 50,000 people. He was sent there by Rotary International and by local Rotary Club members after they put out a call for students who wanted the chance to experience life in another country. It’s Rotary’s Youth Exchange Program and for the last 75-plus years, they have been sending 8,0000 students to around 80 countries each year.
While not Rotarians themselves, Ben and his family were very appreciative of the opportunity Ben had to take part.
“It’s a good organization,” Ben said, “and I am glad I went when I did. I am happy with what I learned and for getting this opportunity.”
Ben had responded to a call by local Rotary Clubs for students wanting the chance to learn overseas and to act as ambassadors for the country and for Rotary. At the time, Ben was in Grade 11. He applied and was eventually chosen for an exchange.
“I have a friend that had gone on one to Mexico,” he said, adding another family member had been on an exchange to Poland a few years ago, so he was aware the opportunity existed.
When he was selected to go, Ben said he attended lots of meetings, had two big interviews with Rotary members and went to a big camp of district Rotary exchange students. They were given instruction on the program and were given pins, shirts, jackets and more for their exchange.
Ben learned Sweden was his destination and he has no complaints about his experience there.
“Rotary did tell us what to expect there,” he said, “and there were other people in the program already there. They were the veterans and we were the newcomers.”
Ben spent his Grade 12 year in Sweden, living with host families and riding a bike to school from his new home.
To overcome the language barrier, Ben said he learned as much Swedish as he could — it also helped that most people in Sweden also speak very good English.
Enrolled in a music program, Ben’s courses were tailored for arts students. He learned bass, singing and piano and found his classmates were a tight family who had been in school together for years.
“It was a smaller town, so I made a lot of friends from there. You become like a family.”
He would often get help from his English-speaking friends and teachers, but added he wanted to learn the language and share new experiences in a new country.
By last February and March, Ben knew enough Swedish to get by quite well.
One of his big adjustments, Ben said, was a decided lack of breakfast cereal. Having grown up on it, he said his host families didn’t have it and had different mealtime habits.
“Not having cereal in the morning really kicked my butt,” Ben said.
Dinner and lunch were generally much later than he was used to, with a large emphasis on seafood. Ben said he’s not a big fan of seafood, but would try it anyway, for the experience.
While in Sweden, Ben would visit their local Rotary Clubs, an ambassador for Canada and for the Rotarians back home.
Over his final three weeks overseas, Ben said Rotary organized a European trip for the exchange students in the region. They took a bus tour with 60 students, plus chaperones, to various cities and sights in Europe — from Germany to Slovenia, and from Italy to France.
“It was a nice ending.”
Ben returned home July 20, bringing with him great experiences and memories — as well as a desire to one day travel again.
“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve done in my life,” he said.
When he arrived home, he said he had almost forgotten what his house looked like.
“It was a really weird experience to be back in the kitchen and getting used to things again. But it was great to be back with my family again and hug them.”
His biggest shock when arriving back home, he added, was the fact English was being spoken everywhere.
“It was a shock, but it was a bit warm to see that as well.”
Now that he’s home, Ben has a few weeks off and will return to school at Parkland Secondary in the fall. He has to complete his Grade 12 year here in B.C., as the year he spent in Sweden doesn’t count towards graduation here. Ben, however, said he doesn’t regret having to spend more time in school and is looking forward to taking on subjects such as history and science.
“Just do it,” he said, recommending the exchange trip to other students. “It would be the best thing you can do and Rotary has the best exchange program.”