When Olivia Stieler von Heydekampf was a sophomore at Edina High School in 2013, her parents asked if she’d be interested in a summer study abroad program in Madrid. Olivia’s immediate response was no. It wasn’t that Olivia was intimidated by international travel. She was born in Germany to a German father and American mother, and lived there until she was 5 years old. She’s spent most summers and holidays overseas visiting relatives and is fluent in German. But Olivia was reluctant to study abroad because she felt engrained in the EHS community and believed it might be difficult to adjust to life in Edina after an extended absence. But everything changed once Olivia embarked on her international adventure, one that would lead her beyond six weeks in Spain to Germany and now Sweden.
After that summer Spanish immersion program with Education First in Madrid, Olivia decided she wanted to extend her study abroad experience into her junior year and she traveled to Bremen, Germany, to study at Kippenberg Gymnasium in Bremen through the Greenheart Travel Abroad Program.
“Olivia has always been independent and mature for her years,” says her mom Kelli, who wanted to give her confident and capable daughter an opportunity to grow outside of her comfort zone. “I was an exchange student, and the experience changed my life and expanded my world,” Kelli says. “You learn about yourself. It’s an inner journey. You say to yourself, ‘Can I do this? Yes I can.’ ” Plus, students encounter different foods, extraordinary locales and newfound freedom.
Olivia stayed with host families in Madrid and Germany, but says public transportation makes life for young people in Europe more accessible. “In Germany, I could go into the city for a day without my host parents,” says Olivia. “But in Edina, most host parents would have to transport exchange students everywhere.”
Olivia’s freedom expanded even more when she transferred to the Kungsholm Gymnasium school in Stockholm where she’s decided to complete her senior year. She’ll live in an apartment much like a college student living a university lifestyle and be responsible for getting herself to classes on time each day. Why another year abroad after initially believing she didn’t want to leave Edina? And why Sweden? “Our children take us on journeys we don’t expect,” Kelli says. Olivia traveled to Stockholm during a fall break from school in Germany and fell in love with the city and the Swedish culture. “I felt like I could fit in there,” Olivia says. “And the language is very close to German.”
At first, Olivia’s parents were reluctant to send their daughter abroad for another year. This wasn’t part of their plan. But then, Kelli says, she had a flash of insight. “I realized we want our children to figure out what they want and how to get it,” she says. “Plus the rigor at the Swedish IB school is good for her.” And when visiting Olivia in Sweden, Kelli noted with a smile that her daughter’s dirty dishes were no longer hers to clean up.
For students and parents considering study abroad programs, Olivia says, students should have specific goals but not specific expectations. “Students must integrate with a host family and need to be flexible regarding eating certain foods or doing chores,” she says.
Kelli cautions families about getting roped into specific education timelines, particularly when it comes to gap-year travel opportunities between high school and college. She believes workplaces are looking for employees with different types of experiences and that international travel can help young people discover their strengths and weaknesses.