Norwegian student adapts to Redwood community after experiencing Santa Rosa fires

Sydney Hilbush

Within the first few weeks of adjusting to a brand new life in a country across the world from her family, experiencing a natural disaster was not on senior Sandra Fredriksen’s to-do list.

In early August, Fredriksen decided to pack her bags and experience high school as an American teenager for her second-to-last year of Norwegian upper secondary school. Originally from Kristiansand, the Southern edge of Norway, Fredriksen joined the American Field Service (AFS) Intercultural Exchange Program in an attempt to gain a fresh perspective on a different culture through living with a host family in California.

Through this exchange program, Fredriksen initially lived in Santa Rosa, yet after just a few weeks of settling in with her host family, the Northern California fires destroyed much of Sonoma and Santa Rosa counties.

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Senior Sandra Fredriksen has involved herself in the Redwood community through engaging in clubs and other activities.

“I was scared, because I can’t drive in the U.S. so I felt like I couldn’t get out even if I wanted to. I was with a family, but it was scary, because we didn’t know what was going to happen and there were fires all over the place,” Fredriksen said.

Fortunately, the family she was living with did not lose their home, yet the small community she had adapted to experienced destruction and suffering. Many homes belonging to close friends of the host family were destroyed as well, resulting in a tense and panicked situation.

Before the fires hit, Fredriksen was attending Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa and was becoming accustomed to her new life there. However, with the state of emergency in Santa Rosa, Fredriksen’s host family was under large amounts of stress trying to find living arrangements for their family friends who had lost their homes. According to Fredriksen, the host family thought relocating her to Marin would provide a more relaxed environment for Fredriksen. When relocating to Marin, she was assigned a temporary host family who she would live with for three weeks. The family had worked with AFS in the past, hosting an exchange student last year, and was able to accommodate Fredriksen’s needs quickly. On Dec. 3, Fredriksen relocated to a permanent host family in Corte Madera where she will be housed until the end of her program.

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Fredriksen, left, smiles after completing a hike in Norway. Fredriksen loves the outdoors and plans to take advantage of Marin’s natural beauty.

Fredriksen knew relocating to Marin would relieve her of the tension surrounding the fire situation, yet she was still nervous about making the transition to Redwood as Montgomery High had just started to feel familiar.   

“I had just started to adjust and get to know people, but now I’m the new kid again,” Fredriksen said.

Although the first few weeks of Fredriksen’s journey as an exchange student were filled with unexpected surprises, cultural similarities between Norway and Marin made the transition to American high school easier for her. The school she attended in Norway was roughly the same size as Montgomery and Redwood, and her friends in Norway share similar interests to students in the United States. Just as students here celebrate the end of school and finals, students in Norway partake in Russefeiring, a famous Norwegian tradition among teens where they buy a bus to decorate with their friends and ride it around town to celebrate the ending of the school year.

Although Fredriksen was already accustomed to working diligently during school, the biggest adjustment she had to make to adapt to Redwood was the nightly homework.

“I was used to just paying attention in class and then studying for tests. I didn’t really have work every single night. In Norway, it’s much more independent and you have to be much more responsible for your own learning,” Fredriksen said.

According to Frederiksen, her temporary host family presented a welcoming and safe atmosphere for her, easing her transition into Corte Madera. Judi Ratto, the mother of the host family, said she has experience in hosting foreign exchange students and knew what to expect with Fredriksen.  

“We instantly connected with her and welcomed her into our home. She’s a wonderful kid who is very respectful and warm. She might have been nervous at first, but I think it went away after the first couple hours,” Ratto said.

According to Ratto, Fredriksen never complains about being homesick and has already familiarized herself with Marin. Ratto has tried to make the most of her time with Fredriksen by exposing her to American culture so she has plenty of experiences to take back to Norway.

“On the weekends we have been to San Francisco, we have been out to dinners, we go hiking, we watch movies together…we do it all,” Ratto said. “I think that the best part for her is just realizing that we are friendly and we are fun and we want to show her the most we can of the American culture.”

Fredriksen was surprised by her instant welcome into the community. Her biggest shock was discovering the newly created Norwegian Culture Club. According to club founder Jake Hanssen, his goal with creating the club was to provide a welcoming community for all students, regardless of nationality, who were interested in joining.

“I was surprised it was set up because no one else from Redwood is from Norway. Someone from my English class told me they had a Norwegian Culture Club and I was like, ‘What? Why?’” Fredriksen said.

During club meetings, Hanssen organizes a plethora of activities that range from playing Norwegian lingo games to watching episodes of a popular Norwegian television series, “Skam.” Junior Madsen Sparler, club president, is already fluent in Norwegian and most of the club members are familiar with a few Norwegian words.  

Hanssen said he hopes the club will provide a place for Fredriksen, and all students, to build friendships while being welcomed with open arms into the club’s community and beyond.

“It would be pretty difficult and scary to leave behind the little amount of comfort you already have in a new place and work hard to make friends, and then have to leave them all. The only thing we can do is help her adjust to Redwood as much as we can,” Hanssen said.

The supportive atmosphere of Redwood has helped Fredriksen with her homesickness. According to Fredriksen, she no longer feels out of place in the community.   

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“I miss my family and my friends. I miss walking into school and then knowing everyone. But I wouldn’t want to be home, because it’s just the same old thing going on in Norway, ” Fredriksen said.

Fredriksen plans on remaining with her new host family until the end of her exchange program in June.

“I’ve been getting pretty used to not knowing what I’m heading for. I try not to set up any expectations for myself so I can be excited about anything that new opportunities bring,” Fredriksen said.