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Let's Talk About the Study Abroad Experience with Foreign Exchange Student Viktoria Kupka
If you've ever been curious about how a foreign exchange student program works, thought about hosting a student, or even want to be a foreign exchange student yourself, this one's for you! We're chatting with member of Lanier Property Group and the Inspiration Lab and former foreign exchange student and ambassador Viktoria Kupka and sharing all about the experiences of both hosting and being a student studying abroad. We'll talk about the experience has a whole, what it's like living in a new country with a host family, and answer some questions you may want to know!
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Viktoria is a former study abroad student and ambassador at UNCW from Germany, who is now working with Lanier Property Group and the Inspiration Lab on both the admin side and now as a licensed realtor. She is passionate about helping others pursue study abroad opportunities, so we’re excited to dive into this episode talking about both hosting and being a foreign exchange student.
Stephanie: When did you first have the idea of coming to study abroad in America? And was it always America for you or was it like Australia or somewhere else?
Viktoria: It was always America for me. And I hear that regret a lot, actually, because it is a jump in the cold water. It is scary to go abroad, especially when you're at a young age going on a different continent. You don't know anything. You maybe don't speak the language perfectly. It's very intimidating. So I completely understand where people have this regret of maybe not taking that jump and doing it. So I always really wanted to go to America, and I used to watch High School Musical, the movie, and I thought it was so cool how everything is in America with the lockers, the high school, the cheerleaders, the football teams. I thought this must be really great place to be. And then I really fell in love with New York City, and I still love New York City so much to this day. And 16 year old me thought that all of America is like New York City. I learned really quickly, this is not actually the truth. It is very different. So, yeah, I just came up with this idea. I saw it on an advertisement one day that there's a study abroad program, and I think at the dining table one day, I was like, “Mom, Dad, I think I want to go to America for a year and just experience the American way of living” and it didn't shock them. We're a very loving and transparent family. Obviously they knew I liked America, I liked New York City, and that was my number one travel destination. So it wasn't surprising to them that I wanted to do that. But I can tell it's scary for parents, too. When I came to Virginia and attended my high school year, I was 16 years old, and that's a really young age to let your child go abroad on a different continent and essentially live with strangers. I mean, my family didn't know the host parents I ended up with. So, yeah, still very grateful they let me do that.
S: So you get to America and you match with a family in Virginia, so now you're not in New York City. What was that experience like? And what part of Virginia were you in?
V: I was in Guchlan County, which is outside of Richmond, so it's a little more on the countryside, which is something I just at 16 years old, didn't really know what that meant. Even in Germany, I grew up in a city. But they told us very early on that it's very unlikely, almost impossible, that we're going to be placed in Los Angeles, Miami, or New York City, simply because it's too unsafe, and the likelihood of us having a better experience and making better friends and being safer is more on the countryside. So there were students placed in the desert of Texas or Las Vegas or California. It was quite interesting when my host parents picked me up from the airport and we drove to their house and I just saw trees and fields. I was like, “Wow, okay, this is really nowhere.” I mean, it's hard to get around, and there wasn’t a store for a really long time. So that was a very unique experience for me because even at 16, I was very independent. I had my bike. I could bike everywhere in Germany. I had public transportation that you can use at a very young age. So I essentially never really had to ask my parents to drive me anywhere, and that changed really quickly getting to Gushland County, where my host parents had to drive me to friend's house, and I had to drive like 45 minutes with the school bus every morning to school. So it was quite the change. With my bike at home, it took me four minutes to drive down the road.
S: Being so young and coming to America, what do you think was the biggest transformation for you when you left and went back home? It’s just crazy to think of being so young and I’m just picturing you on the first day of school and trying to made friends and it’s all so brave. Did your host family have like a host brother or sister that you were with?
V: So the year my host parents were hosting me, they had this amazing idea to host two foreign exchange students. So I actually had a Spanish sister. She was there for the exact same time span as I was. We shared a room, which was amazing. By far the most interesting experience. I mean, she truly was my sister during that time. And I will say one thing that maybe parents don't like to hear, but regarding your question, what was the biggest impact? I mean, I really did grow up. I became a lot more independent, which, if you really think about it, it just makes sense. I left home really early. I had host parents, but when I came, I didn't know who they were so I had to create a rapport and create a relationship with them and just learn to trust them, and also watch out for myself because nobody is going to take care of me, like myself or my parents. So I learned really quickly that my host parents are loving and amazing people and they had my best interests in mind, but I think the biggest thing it did for me is just help me grow up, learn to be independent, learn to take care of myself, and then just also experience a different culture. And with my sister being from Spain, I got another experience by not only experiencing the American culture, but also living with a Spanish sister and sharing a room. My host family doesn’t have kids, but they had hosted an exchange before, and then that year, they just said, “okay, it worked great, let's have two this time.” And it was interesting.
S: So one of the things that I also thought would be helpful for people to hear and maybe would be key is can you go home? Do you ever go home? The idea is you spend the whole experience, the holidays, Christmas, you're here the whole year, right?
V: Yes. So during my exchange here back then, I was tied to a very strict program. So there were certain requirements that I had to meet in order to be able to keep staying here. So I had to have a certain grade average and just good behavior overall because it was part of the agreement. They could have sent me back. Part of the agreement was also that it is limited contact to your family, which some people hate, and I get it, and you can become really homesick if you constantly talk to your family back in your home country. That also meant that for the entire year I was not allowed to see them, so they couldn't even have come to America to visit me and I couldn't have flown to Germany for like Christmas time. Which for me, I loved the year and I can say to this day that it was the most amazing year of my entire life. It didn't bother me as much because I also had the end in sight. I knew this was only temporary, so I was going to use my time very wisely and make the best out of it, but I just enjoyed it so much that I simply didn't have time to be homesick at all. I mean, of course I missed spending time with my family and I missed them, but it was never to the extent where I was crying in bed because I needed to be home. It was truly an amazing experience and I highly recommend it to everyone. But I do understand, back to the point we had earlier, it can be very intimidating to be going away like I did for a whole year. Looking at a whole year, 12 months can seem so long, but when you live it, it doesn't feel like 12 months. It doesn't feel like a whole year. So yeah, it was just an amazing experience and I would do it all over again if I could. And I mean, I'm kind of am, I'm kind of still living it.
S: When it comes down to it, it's just that human connection. And I'm hoping that someone who's listening to this, it will spark their interest in the program. You're so young, but wouldn't you agree that it's, even for someone who's so young, it's like, you've spent a lot of your resources on travel.
V: Yeah, and it certainly is true. I mean it takes a lot of energy. It can take a lot of time and money to it. It is an effort to go on that trip besides doing a whole exchange here, but just taking that trip to Europe or going somewhere that you've always really wanted to go to. It is certainly, especially now, after COVID, I think we can all agree that traveling has become maybe a little more difficult which is really sad to watch because unfortunately, I'm dependent on traveling in order to see my family. But in the end, it just teaches you new situations. I mean, otherwise, you wouldn't have encountered a canceled flight and like worked around it. And that's what I mean by it develops your personality, regardless of what age a person is, it makes you more independent and more confident. Just like leaving your comfort zone and just experiencing new challenges in life outside of your home country.
S: I think you're right. You learn self reliance, which is such a powerful thing to know, to trust yourself, to know that you can figure it out. And you started learning that at 16, which is so powerful. And I think that all of these experiences help us figure that out. And when we're host families, when we're foreign exchange students, when we travel, we learn that human spirit and the things that connect us are there, whether we're in Switzerland, Germany, wherever we've traveled and we need that after the past few years in our world, we need to be remembering that. So I hope that we've inspired and encouraged people to travel, to host people, and I'm so glad that you're on our team and part of my life and I really appreciate you coming on and sharing your experiences.
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