Leaving one home for another


Laura Veldhoff

Pictured left to right is Aaro Tikkanen and Blake Barrios, fresh from their track meet.

Owen Foster

Former West Ottawa exchange student Aaro Tikkanen hits up the kickstand of his bike, pushing off into the busy Helsinki morning. He wonders what Blake Barrios, a former West Ottawa Sr. and member of his host family in the United States, is up to this morning. Maybe he’ll text him when he gets to school.
  Pedaling through the city, he reflects on those quick, early morning drives to school with Barrios; waking up before seven, getting there feeling dead-tired. With school now starting at 9:30, he doesn’t consider waking up that early on school days. 

   Locking his bike up, Tikkanen opens Snapchat to text Barrios. Just before sending the text, the realization hits. Barrios is not even up; he won’t see the text for until mid-afternoon. He’s still asleep back in the U.S.

   Pressing send anyway, Tikkanen walks through the school doors. It’s not the same, but times change. He has a class to get to. 

   The transition has not been easy for Tikkanen since arriving back in Finland. He left a lot back in the United States. New friends, a different lifestyle, a school experience unlike Finland. A hard experience for anyone to deal with. 

   “I miss the sports, the people. Really the community. Not the classes though, those were boring,” Tikkanen said with a chuckle. 

   There was a marked shift coming back to school in Finland versus in the U.S. for Tikkanen, “It’s a lot different. Over there it’s two semesters, [here in Finland] it’s five semesters. We get five schedules that we get to choose. It’s around seven weeks each semester. After every seven weeks we take an exam for that semester,” Tikkanen said. 

   Tikkanen continues, “You have middle school like in the U.S., but you choose your high school in Finland so the classes get way harder. You choose what you want to study, so you take more classes based on what you want to study,” Tikkanen said. 

   High school for Tikkanen compares more to a college experience in the United States. A contrast in difficulty that only AP classes or dual enrollment could compare with in American high schools.

   With school being such a challenge, soccer provided normalcy to keep Tikkanen active and involved. However, one difference stood out with playing sports in Finland for Tikkanen, “Sports here are mainly clubs, so you’d just join a club and depending on how competitive you want to play you’d have 3-4 practices a week and then games,” Tikkanen said. 

   The clubs operate similar to club soccer or baseball teams in the U.S. but are extremely competitive . Tikkanen didn’t have the opportunity to compete for his school like in the U.S. since schools there mostly don’t have any sports other than soccer, if that. Club remains the primary option for anything athletic. 

   Just to note how big of a difference there is, West Ottawa had 29 varsity sports available for students while Tikkanen was attending last year. 

   Due to clubs being the main option, most sports in Finland go all year round. Tikkanen found that many people specialize in one sport, something he didn’t have to do during his time in the United States. There wasn’t a football season, track season, or soccer season, “The sport you play, you play year-round,” Tikkanen said. 

   While here, Tikkanen took advantage first-hand of the awesome opportunity that is being an exchange student, experiencing a new culture and place nearly unknown to him before. But like many great things, the chance had to come to an end.

   “I felt sad obviously, and I felt like the good times with summer were just beginning,” Tikkanen said. “Leaving, knowing that I won’t see these people for a while, that was hard at first.” 

   Departing the new friends he made was onerous, “You don’t feel like it’s going to be hard to leave, since you don’t even know people at first, but the worst part about leaving was all the friends and great people I met,” Tikkanen said. “You can still stay in touch, but instead of seeing them daily or weekly, you basically don’t see them at all.” 

   The time change only adds to the disconnect. When school dismisses here in Holland, Tikkanen is eating dinner and starting to get ready for bed. All contact is seriously limited, but Tikkanen knew this would eventually happen. 

   “You get so close with some people for this little amount of time, but that’s just how it is,” Tikkanen said. “Life goes on.” 

    Leaving after being in the U.S. for nine months, Tikkanen affected many people. In his time here, he created numerous connections that can last a lifetime. Someone particularly affected was Blake Barrios, a member of Tikkanen’s host family, who still struggles with his absence. 

   “Aaro not being here makes school feel different, like something’s missing,” Barrios said. “It feels different living with someone other than Aaro because he felt like a brother to me.”

   Tikkanen described similar feelings, “When you live with the person, you see everything, the good and the bad. We were friends, but we lived like brothers.” 

   Barrios attends North Central College in Naperville, Illinois where he plays soccer. Both Tikkanen and Barrios played together on the Varsity soccer team last fall. It was a commonality that brought them closer.  

   “He also played soccer [in Finland] and wanted to play a lot with me this summer so I would be ready for college,” Barrios said. 

   Now, Barrios is playing collegiate soccer at the NCAA Division III level on his own in a new environment, something difficult to begin with, but even more complicated without Tikkanen around. He can’t help but feel that Tikkanen helped him get to where he is, even with the short amount of time they had together. 

   “Living with someone brand new is just something I am going to have to get used to in college,” Barrios said.  

   The two still stay in contact through Snapchat and text, but it’s difficult due to the seven hour difference between the U.S. and Finland. A drastic change compared to just bedrooms away before. 

   “When Aaro left for his flight, before the flight we all sat down for about 45 minutes just to have one last chat all together,” Barrios said, recounting when Tikkanen left for Finland last June. It was a tough departure for both of them.

   “As soon as Aaro walked through the gates at the airport and gave one last goodbye I knew things would be different because I never had a friend who felt like such a brother to me,” Barrios said. 

   “It was a weird mix of feelings,” Tikkanen said. “I was excited to see my family again after being away for so long. But saying goodbye to so many great people, including Blake, was tough. I didn’t know what to think.” 

   Exchange students have the ability to both experience and influence while abroad. Tikkanen not only got to experience American culture, school, and friendships, but impacted numerous peers along the way. He made new friends, tried different sports, and was a part of lives he would have never have affected otherwise. 

   While the difficulty of leaving will continue to sting, thankfully, Barrios and Tikkanen plan to meet again when Tikkanen comes back to the U.S. for a month this summer. Separated for now, but not forever.