In a few days, Sarah Dodamead will be roughly 4,000 miles away from home. The Marathon high school senior is taking off for Klaukkala, Finland as part of a five-month student exchange program. She expects to see the Northern Lights, join the cross country ski team and enjoy the snow! snow! snow!
But first, she’s got to figure out how to fit enough cold weather clothing into a pretty small suitcase.
“So far, I’ve got three jackets in it and there’s not a lot of room left over,” Sarah said, smiling and flicking her long braid over one shoulder.
In truth, the hard part is already over. She’s filled out the lengthy application that includes letters of recommendation, medical evaluations, essays and more. Plus, she’s already put in all the hard work to save for expenses and a visa working almost full time for the last two years. Now, she just has to follow the AFS guidelines and procedures. AFS — formerly American Field Service— is a cultural exchange program in more than 40 countries around the world that has been in existence for 65 years. Sarah said she’s already attended one pre-departure orientation and she’ll have another in New York City before flying to Finland and meeting her host family for the first time. She already knows a little bit about them.
“They seem really nice. Their daughter is an AFS student in Canada and they have a 7-year-old son at home,” Sarah said.
She’ll be back in the Keys in time for the second semester of her senior year at Marathon High School and able to graduate with her classmates.
“I think that was important to her. To be able to graduate with her friends,” said her mom, Melody, adding that she hopes her daughter makes a lasting connection with the country and the people.
Klaukkala is just six hours south of the artic circle. In the summer, the average temperature is in the high 70s, but during the winter months it can be 20 degrees below 0. When choosing a country, Sarah said it came down to Argentina and Finland. She chose Finland, she said, not only because of its radically different climate, but also its cultural offerings.
“It’s a really progressive culture. The education system is different and they seem to have really good social policies,” Sarah said. “I want to learn as much as I can and bring it back here.”
Sarah’s mom is excited she’s has this opportunity, but a little apprehensive too. Melody said, “Five months isn’t that long, right?”