Ronja Drahanska had never been to America. Yes, having grown up in the Czechia (the Czech Republic) she’d vacationed to Switzerland and London, but never America; she said the world seemed bigger than ever before upon arriving at Gull Lake High school on August 31st, 2021. She adjusted to cultural differences, joined clubs and experienced everything from homesickness to joy. Now, after acting in PAC’s fall show, Drahanska reflects on her journey here and how different America is from home.
In 2020 Drahanska realized she was growing bored of day-to-day school life in the Czech Republic: she got up at 8 a.m. and rode the bus to school. Czech school curriculum is heavily science and math-based, and according to Drahanska, is taught in an unflattering way devoid of context, perpetuating a stigma against creative fields. After school was done in the morning she walked around the city center with her friends or attended extracurricular activities before getting ready for school the next day.
“Somehow I grew tired of my old high school, and I felt like it wasn’t good enough for me anymore. I can’t stay in one place for too long I need constant challenges and studying abroad has been on my bucket list ever since I can remember. Moreover, I used to feel jealous whenever I heard about somebody else being an exchange student, which was the ultimate sign that I should start doing something about it, so I applied for the FLEX program,” Drahanska states
The FLEX program, or Future Leaders Exchange Program, is a foreign exchange program that provides Eurasian high school students with a scholarship to spend a year in the U.S and vise versa. It was founded after the breakdown of the Soviet Union to promote healthier relationships between America and Eastern Europe. To Drahanska, whose Czech high school experience consisted of not being able to choose her classes or schedule, FLEX provided that needed break in monotony she craved. She said that even applying to Flex was unexpectedly difficult. There was one time where she scheduled a doctor appointment for a tuberculin skin test as part of her application. She walked into the hospital alone yet confident, demanding what she needed.
“A minor walking into the hospital asking for such a thing is not really common, but I turned out to be assertive enough. So the process of maturing that is connected to traveling abroad really starts before you even leave the country,” Drahanska said.
Her maturity and strength carried her through the desolate moments of quarantining in Czechia. For two weeks she stayed indoors, having said goodbye to her friends, and waiting to board the plane to America.
“…I wasn’t in the US yet, so it was a weird phase of being stuck in between. I was also extremely stressed about getting a negative PCR [Covid] test result required by the airlines and my organization, but everything went smoothly at last,” Dranhanska remembers.
After her first plane ride over the Atlantic Ocean, Dranhanska arrived in the country she said that she’d been dreaming of for months, and admittedly, there was a bit of culture shock at first. The land was expansive, the food was sugarier, people were more religious than in Czechia where atheism is the dominant belief, there wasn’t public transportation, and homesickness and alienation set in. Her host family, although Christian and users of numerous plastic plates, were sympathetic enough, but Drahanka felt stranded. It wasn’t until school started on August 31, 2021, that she felt at home in this foreign land.
She said joining similar clubs as Gull Lake that she did at home made the transition easier. At first, she wanted to try sports because they were familiar to her but participated in Model UN and theater. Being around like-minded people in PAC was comforting and after playing Miss Dora Lumley in Picture at Hanging Rock, her desire for theater reignited. She was part of a team. Her passion for singing was also enhanced because her host family has guitars and a piano that she uses frequently. However, she notices American students are less used to presenting in front of the class. She loves presentations.
All in all, though, “It [Gull Lake] honestly fulfilled my ‘American movie high school’ expectations and I am super grateful to be here” Drahanska said
After attending Gull Lake for a trimester Drahanska said talking with Americans has become like talking with friends despite our cultural differences, and she encourages others to stick with their foreign exchange program.
“It made me feel like I was up to great things and it still makes everything so exciting,” she said, “the thing is that regardless of whether your exchange year goes terribly or well, it is such a valuable learning experience that it outweighs all the moments of homesickness or alienation.”
Hi, my name is Aleah Heffron, and I’m a Junior at Gull Lake High School. This is my first year on the Newspaper staff, but I strive to bring creativity and heart to everything I do. My dream is to move out of the U.S. and pursue a career in creative writing. When I’m not working on schoolwork, you can find me acting, baking, reading, listening to Greenday, and watching anime and British panel TV shows like QI.