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Visiting Swedish students find cultural contrasts


For a month, they are trading Swedish for English, ABBA for Nine Inch Nails and herring for hot dogs.

A dozen students from Goteborg, Sweden, are staying with families in Columbia as part of an exchange program at Howard Community College.

Their strongest impression so far? "People are people everywhere. . . . It's the traditions that are different," said Ellie Andersson, 22.

Their Howard County hosts have introduced them to American culture: baseball, amusement parks and New York City.

"Our host families have shown us so much while we've been here," Lena Bjorndahl, 32, said, "and we wanted to show them some of our foods and culture."

So, on Thursday night, they introduced their host families to a Swedish tradition of welcoming the summer season with songs, dances and a feast of marinated herring, potatoes and, yes, meatballs.

"Just like Americans have traditions of baseball and the like, it is customary that we celebrate the summer season after having a long, cold winter," said Nives Skaro, 30, as she filled her plate with herring and salad.

In their five weeks at HCC, the students from Vasa Vuxengymnasium have spent about 20 hours a week in their public speaking and introductory business courses.

Most of the students will leave July 7, taking memories of Ocean City, Kings Dominion and Baltimore's Inner Harbor with them. Three will remain for three weeks for internships with local companies.

Although they are receiving no educational credits in Sweden for their time spent here, many of the students said the experience has been rewarding.

"I took one of the last spots that was offered to come to the United States," Ms. Bjorndahl said. "It was not just good for my education to be able to study here, but it gave me a chance to experience things like seeing the beach and a baseball game that I had never seen.

"It was an opportunity that I am so glad I didn't miss," she said.

The Orioles game that the group attended Monday night left quite an impression.

Lennart Eriksson, 25, said he had never heard of -- much less seen -- the Baltimore Orioles. And the name Cal Ripken meant little to him.

"You can tell that going to baseball games is a big tradition in this area," he said. "The way people yell and cheer at the game is really interesting."

The "all-American" tradition of baseball wasn't what they expected, the visitors said.

"You can tell it's an all-American sport by watching the people and their enthusiasm for it," said Lillemor Ohman, 36. "What's so funny is how much time they spend eating hot dogs and talking to their friends, instead of actually watching the game."

The Swedish students came to the United States through HCC's International Business and Education Center to study American business practices and English. Administrators at Vasa Vuxengymnasium had contacted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to find a college most like theirs to which they could send a group of students.

HCC was among the top three chosen, and after a group of Swedish administrators visited the campus, they decided to send their students, said Laurie Sears, assistant director of the exchange program.

The classes have been harder than they had imagined, the students said. Not only is there a language barrier, they said, but the summer session is shorter than the usual 15-week semester in Sweden.

"You have to concentrate on everything that's being said," said Mr. Eriksson, who is taking a computer programming course to learn such programs as Quattro Pro and Paradox. "It's not impossible to do well, but you can't blink or certainly not fall asleep for a second to stay on top of things."

Even on a three-day trip to Ocean City last weekend, many of the students said, they dragged their books to the beach to study.

"It's very important, I think, to each of us to keep up with our studies and do well, so we make the most of our trip academically and socially," Ms. Bjorndahl said.

Many of the students, who range in age from 20 to 42, said the experience of being in the United States and taking courses will help them further their educations or find jobs.

The Swedish school system has a nine-year program in which students learn basic subjects such as math, reading and writing. From the age of 16, most teens attend three-year upper secondary schools called gymnasiums. From there, some

Swedish students attend a university. But only about a third of those eligible are admitted, students said.

Despite the differences in the schooling, said Marty McDonough, the students' speech teacher, they have done quite well.

"They bring a unique and different outlook to the class," he said. "It's refreshing to see a pragmatic group of students come in here."

In a speech class with about 26 Swedish, American, Indian and Japanese students, the students said, no language barriers separate them. Instead, family and culture affect their arguments and interactions.

Swedish student Asa Rydeskog spent an hour Friday trying to convince her classmates that 16-year-olds should be allowed to drink alcohol in their homes. In Sweden, she said, people can drink at 18, but they must be 20 to buy alcohol.

"You can really tell how each person's background and experiences plays into what they're arguing in this class," said Swedish student Charlotte Feldin.

Outside the classroom, many of the Swedish students said, they have found Americans to be friendlier than Swedes. Greeting a passing stranger with "Hi" or "How are you?" is not common in Sweden, many of the students said.

Anita Nasland, 43, said, "People here tend to be more open in talking about themselves, and they certainly make everybody feel comfortable."

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