From their fashionable outfits, elaborate life goals and frank discussion on drinking and boys, you’d never guess Sarah Omar or Mia Nikolajsen are high school students and technically they aren’t — at least not American high school students.
Omar, 17, is from the Netherlands and Nikolajsen, 16, Denmark. For the last five months, the teens have studied in Payson as foreign exchange students with the EF Foundation for Foreign Study.
The teens will tell you outright they didn’t come to America to meet boys or party, they came to study a country they have only idolized from films and music.
And what better place to study American culture than Payson — err, maybe not.
When Omar and Nikolajsen first arrived in Payson, they were a little surprised by the size of the town, with Payson not exactly having the fashion or culture they were expecting. However, although Payson lacks glitter and glam, the teens say they have learned more from their host families, friends and residents than they ever expected.
For example, neither teen said they knew much about religion, especially Christianity. Attending services for the first time, both girls were moved to watch parishioners raise their hands and sing along or cry during mass.
“I learned a lot about religion from friends. It helped me to be more open minded,” Omar said.
Both teens said it is rare for people to go to church in Denmark or the Netherlands.
More rare is for people to be nice, the teens said. The hospitality from all Americans has been astounding.
“People stop and say ‘Hi’ and chat,” Nikolajsen said. “Even complete strangers will say ‘Hi.’”
“Shop owners will talk to you and people are just so nice,” Omar added.
In their countries, “people usually just ignore you,” Omar said.
At school, friends stop and hug, another new sight for the teens.
Both girls are studying at Payson High School this semester.
Although Omar already graduated from the Netherlands’ form of high school last year and Nikolajsen won’t receive any credit toward her studies back home, both girls say they are learning a lot about American culture at school, even though the classes not challenging.
Omar said she finds drama, culinary arts and choir classes especially interesting, since these types of courses are not offered at her school for credit.
As for core classes, like math, Spanish and science, Omar said these are easy since she has already taken them.
Both girls say their career plans are already detailed and wonder why more teens don’t have plans as well.
Nikolajsen said she plans to finish high school when she gets home and then study journalism in London. With a degree, Nikolajsen anticipates going into TV reporting.
Omar plants to attend law school and wants to eventually become an international judge.
“I have my future planned out right now,” Omar said. “Our school (back home) pushed us to decide what we want to be.”
In America, people seem less driven, especially in a small town, to plan their future.
Many teens, especially girls, seemed focused on being in a relationship in high school.
Most surprising was seeing pregnant girls in school.
In Europe, it is rare to see a pregnant teenager.
With more teens focused on relationships, Omar and Nikolajsen said they are not surprised parents keep them on a shorter leash.
In their home countries, both teens are considered “adults” at 16 and are allowed to drink and set their own schedules.
After arriving in the U.S., both teens felt shocked when they were treated like an American teenager.
Omar said she is used to getting around by herself and having free rein to do what she wants.
With that freedom, Omar said teens in her country act more maturely.
In fact, looking at Omar and Nikolajsen, they could easily pass for college students.
Both speak perfect English along with several other languages.
So why did Omar and Nikolajsen come to America?
Nikolajsen said she always dreamed of leaving her relativity small country for the grandeur of the U.S.
“It is so big, at least from what you see in the movies,” Nikolajsen said of the states.
From age 10, Nikolajsen told her parents she would visit the U.S. Finally, her parents agreed and shelled out at least $20,000 to send Nikolajsen to Payson.
Omar didn’t think of visiting America until she spotted a poster for EF at her school. “I thought, sure, why not.”
After arriving in Payson, both teens were placed with families — Nikolajsen with Ramona and Dr. Luis Coppelli, and Omar with Joe and Diane Scott.
Both teens live near each other in Chaparral Pines and spend their afternoons together.
When not hanging out or at school, both teens travel a lot.
Omar recently returned from a trip to New York City and Philadelphia.
“I love Times Square,” she said. “It is just amazing, there is really nothing like Times Square.”
Omar has plans to visit Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Chicago before leaving. Nikolajsen is scheduled to take a cruise, visit Hawaii and attend PHS’s ski trip.
Asked how they have changed since arriving, Nikolajsen said she has become more mature, self-sufficient and confident.
“Learning independence is the No. 1 thing for me,” she said.
Omar realized she could travel by herself and do so with confidence.
“I got over my fear of planes,” she said.
For more information on EF, contact Edith Miller, international exchange coordinator, at (928) 476-4871.