Finnish Student Feels At Home In Payson

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Alexis Bechman/Roundup

Foreign exchange student Laura Aaltonen, 16, loves hanging out with her American host family, including “little brother” Jason Hacker, 10.

For one globe-trotting Finnish foreign exchange student, there isn’t one thing she doesn’t love about the states. From the warm climate to the nice people, Laura Aaltonen is convinced America is where her home base should be.

After being in America for only five months, Aaltonen realized she loves the sights and sounds of the U.S. so much and her host family loves having her, that both have decided to renew their commitments for another year. Now all Aaltonen has to do is convince her parents in Jamsa, Finland to let her stay.

“I hope they let me stay,” she said. “I would like to finish out high school here.”

Aaltonen said she simply loves “this country,” and would like to make this her home base when she becomes a flight attendant.

“It feels like home,” Aaltonen, 16, said.

Attending Payson High School as a sophomore is amazing, she said, pointing out that although American schools are easier than schools in Finland, they offer sports and a social life she is unaccustomed to.

And the added plus of staying with a large family is awesome. Aaltonen’s host family includes Laura and Carl Hacker along with their three sons, Jason, 10, Jake, 16 and Clint, 18. Regularly, the family hangs out, plays board games together and goes to the movies.

“It is so much fun hanging out with brothers,” she said. In Finland, Aaltonen has one younger brother and sister.

Aaltonen said she decided years ago she wanted to study in the U.S. to improve her English, make new friends and travel. When she first arrived in July, the Hackers had a hard time understanding Aaltonen because her English was rough. Now that she has spent time with them, her English is dramatically better.

Although Aaltonen said she never felt homesick since she arrived, she did question what she was doing in Arizona with its extreme heat and dry air.

She said when she first got off the plane in Phoenix after leaving rainy, cold Finland she thought, “Oh my gosh, what am I doing, why am I here?”

After re-hydrating with what felt like gallons of water, Aaltonen said she adjusted to the warm climate.

Adjusting to American life, however, was surprisingly easier. Although America has more hotels, shopping and generally larger everything, Aaltonen said; the people are also nicer and the food is good.

“Finnish people are not as nice,” she said, in America, people ask how you are and smile more.

The only thing Aaltonen noticed out of the ordinary was people carrying weapons. In Finland, guns are rarely carried, but on a trip to California, Aaltonen noticed several people carrying them on their hip.

Beyond that, her time in America had been great and her host family is thrilled to have Aaltonen.

This is the second time the Hackers have hosted a student. Last year, Kirsti from Norway lived with the family for the better part of a year.

After she left, Laura said the empty room (formerly her oldest son’s room) beckoned for another student.

“We built the house and needed to fill it up,” she said. “It is also a way of helping other students and it has been nothing but a positive experience.”

The Hackers’ three sons have also enjoyed having a sister in the house.

The Hackers oldest son became so close with Kirsti that he was visiting her family in Norway at the time of this interview in late December and the Hackers have already decided to host another student next year as well as Aaltonen if her parents agree.

If Aaltonen gets her wish, she will finish out high school in Payson and then travel the world as a flight attendant.

So far, she has already visited Sweden, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Bulgaria, Spain and Greece and hopes to add a few more countries to that list.

Edie Miller, international exchange coordinator for Education First Foundation for Foreign Study, coordinated Aaltonen’s stay.

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