By Mickey Winfield, PNT Staff Writer
Like any true New Mexican, 18-year-old Shawn Bird said the thing she missed most about home during a one-year stay in Sweden was good Mexican food.
But the Kenna resident worked through her craving and went on to have a very special experience, she says.
“It was wonderful,” Bird said. “It was one of the best years of my life.”
Bird spent nearly a full year in the Swedish coastal town of Gothenburg, attending a Swedish high school as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange program. She says being invited into a new and different culture was an experience she’ll never forget.
“Being away from home really gives you perspective on your normal life and your home and where you come from,” Bird said. “And it really makes you appreciate things a lot more. I appreciate my family and where I come from a lot more now. So I think it gave me a more mature outlook on those things.”
“We missed her a lot but I never really regretted sending her because I knew it was an adventure, and I just wanted her to have every opportunity that she could have,” Shawn’s mom, Claudia, said.
Sweden was one of three countries Bird listed as the locations she would most like to visit in the exchange program.
“I heard about it in a very unconventional way,” Bird said. “I actually just went into a store and I started talking to the woman that worked there and she told me about it. I made a phone call and here I am.”
Bird also said that Rotary made the process much easier and more affordable than she thought was possible.
“I’ve been trying to do exchange programs for years … and I couldn’t do it because they were always really expensive, and so I had kind of given up hope on it. But I heard about this Rotary program and I heard that it was free. I just had to pay to get there. And so I was really excited at the prospect of being able to do it.”
While in Sweden, Bird stayed with three host families.
“All of the host families are volunteers,” Bird said. “So they’re really excited to have an exchange student and they were always very welcoming and very nice to me.”
“I’ve noticed since she got back she’s very mature,” Claudia said. “She had to be pretty independent over there and do a lot of things on her own. And it takes a lot of independence just to go and stay with another family.”
According to Bird, Swedish high schools allow you to chose a course of study — and Bird chose music. The high school curriculum also has three years of study, and Bird attended classes in each.
“Everybody calls the teachers by their first name,” Bird said. “I never even learned most of my teachers last names.”
One potential cultural barrier was the language. But Bird said many of the Swedes she met already knew English.
“Swedish people start learning English in school when they’re really young,” Bird said. “Everybody speaks very good English.”
Bird said she attended Swedish language classes two nights a week for six weeks but says she learned most of the language by just soaking it up and asking questions.
“I learned quite a bit (of Swedish),” Bird said. “I wouldn’t say I’m fluent, and I’m definitely not grammatically correct most of the time. But I can hold conversations and I understand everything.”
Food was another cultural difference for the teenager.
“They’re really, really health conscious,” Bird said. “And so there’s always a healthy balance in every meal. There’s always like a salad and some kind of meat and potatoes. Potatoes are one of the most common Swedish foods.”
But Bird’s host family did try to go out of their way to make her feel at home at dinner.
“They think they do (have good Mexican food),” Bird said. “But they do it really differently. They have what they call tacos which is just lettuce and a tortilla. They try, but I missed real chili. They did not have chili at all. That’s what I really missed.”
“I kept telling her dad, ‘I don’t even think she’s home sick,’ and she wasn’t until the very end,” Claudia said.