Travel, trials and lessons learned

Emily M. Hobbs Staff Writer

October 15, 2013

A Sampson Early College student stepped out of her comfort zone last July, and has, in turn, learned about a different culture, herself as a person, and a new language. After spending almost a year in Denmark, Avery Blankenship has gone to school, taken extra language lessons, and stayed with host families in a community she says is not too different from home.

Denmark, a country just north of Germany, is comprised of a peninsula and an archipelago. Blankenship stayed in Jutland, which is the only part of the country connected to mainland Europe. The people of Denmark speak Danish.

Before she embarked on this journey she had never flown and did not have a passport, she said.

“It was scary,” Blankenship recalled. “I had to face a lot of fears on this trip, including my fear of heights, all the while dealing with the separation from my family.” That separation from her family became extremely noticeable to her when she was stranded in the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. She had to find someone to assist her in using the pay phone because all of the prompts were in German.

When Blankenship went to the school in Denmark, she had to learn everything in Danish. She was expected to start learning the language as soon as she set foot in the country, as that was the primary goal of the program that she was participating in. She did not know any Danish at all when she went over to Denmark, and she had to have a high level of fluency of the language by her fourth month. It was not easy for her at first, she said, but she enjoyed the challenge. Every day she had Danish lessons, both at school and after school, and her host family even put labels on everything in the house with Danish words to help her learn. This program was considered a full immersion program, and Blankenship said it was lonely being the only student from the southern part of the United States. Most of the other students were from New York and California.

“It was basically boot camp for Danish,” Blankenship said in a recent interview. It was challenging for her to learn Danish there because many of the people who live over in Denmark speak some English, and they would sometimes switch over to English instead of talking to her in Danish. Often she would have to politely encourage the people to talk to her in Danish so she could work on strengthening her skills.

Her trip was sponsored in part by the Clinton Rotary Club, but she explained that that was not something that they normally do. This was the first time they have had a local student apply for one of these trips in a long time.

The Rotary Club took this up as a special project and the application process for this trip is extremely competitive. This sponsorship helped Blankenship cover the flight.

“The people in Denmark were not that different from the people here,” she said. “They were a little bit kooky, but they were the most genuinely nice people I met.” The school where she attended in Denmark and the host families that she stayed with did not receive any financial compensation for their part in this student exchange.

The Rotary Club International allows the students to pick five countries from a list and the students usually get one of their top three choices; however, the one caveat is that it cannot be a country that speaks your native tongue. For example, a student that lives in the United States would not be able to choose the United Kingdom for their excursion.

The Sampson Early College was also “super” in helping Blankenship raise funds for her trip by facilitating fundraisers specifically geared towards this trip. Her family was also very supportive of her going on this exchange; however, she was discouraged from contacting them constantly during the first few months of the trip to facilitate the adjustment and to further her immersion into the culture and language. That initial immersion was particularly important for the students because if they did not satisfy the language learning criteria of the program they may be sent home, which happened to a Taiwanese student while she was there.

While she was in Denmark she also had the chance to explore Prague, parts of Norway to ski, Oslow, Berlin and the Frankfort Airport. She found the weather in Denmark to be very different than here at home.

“Their winter clothes are very different from our winter clothes,” she said. When she arrived over there she had to buy a winter parka and much warmer clothes since the weather was much cooler, rainier, and super windy. She explained that the country was very flat and did not have any natural wind breaks from the air coming in off the ocean. She said there was a joke that said “You know that you are Danish if you walk with a hunch in your back from the wind.”

She even became sick in September after arriving and it took her a while to make the physical adjustment to the change of environment. Her host family took her to the doctor and she was told she was going to have to wait the virus out.

“They don’t give you medicine unless it is absolutely necessary,” she stated. She explained that the health care is free for everyone, and so is their schooling, and when a student turns 18 they receive incentive money to continue going to college. If a student lives away from their parents the check that they receive is much larger; however, for the people that work in Denmark, 54 percent of their check goes into taxes. She said that if you asked any of the Danish people about the taxes no one would complain considering all the benefits that they receive.

Anyone can go to college and get these school benefits, even someone who is retired or does not have the best grades. When her friends found out that she has to pay to go to college they were shocked. The Danish believe in the investment of education to benefit the people.

“I definitely felt it was the land of opportunity,” she said. Looking back, Blankenship said that she would have done a bit more research to prepare for her trip, but that she has grown a lot from the experience.

“I felt like I gained more street smarts,” she said. “I was always book smart, but that alone does not always get you far outside of school.” Her experience taught her the value of patience, she said. Her teacher at the school in Denmark said she was the best student she ever had because she picked up the language quickly. Blankenship’s determination lead her to win the “Most Outstanding Exchange Student Award” for her district.

When Blankenship graduates she will not have enough hours to graduate with an associates degree but she will have her high school diploma and college credits. She feels it was worth the sacrifice of the associates for the experience. She is looking into the Simple Gifts Scholarship and hopes to attend Kenyon College in Ohio to teach English abroad.