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Hanne R. Utheim reflects on her time at the Erickson home. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Foreign exchange student thankful for opportunity after spending time in West Central Minn.

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ATWATER -- More than 4,000 miles from her family, she found a home away from home.

Hanne R. Utheim, a 17-year-old exchange student from Norway, arrived Aug. 18 in the United States and quickly found a place in her host family's life.

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Jon and Shelli Erickson never considered being host parents, but after their eldest daughter filled out an application, the entire family discussed the opportunity.

Bailey, 16, and Morgan, 14, immediately knew they wanted to do it.

On the other hand, Jon and Shelli's only son, Cole, 9, was unsure.

"He wasn't really sold on the idea of having another girl in the house," Shelli said with a laugh.

But, the family ultimately decided to give it a try and within two weeks they received information about different students.

"We picked her because she wanted to be with horses, and we've got horses," Shelli said.

Utheim said she had hoped to stay with a family somewhere in the South.

However, when she arrived at the Erickson's rural farm home on the outskirts of Atwater she thought, "This is not going to be bad, this is going to be great."

After taking horse riding lessons in Norway for ten years, Utheim was excited to see that her host family had horses, not to mention cats and dogs, too.

"And, they had a daughter my age," she said.

Bailey quickly introduced Utheim to her friends and treated her like another sister. Cole even warmed up to her when he realized they had similar interests.

"Both of us like World War II and history stuff," Utheim said.

"They would read about it, talk about it and watch movies together," Shelli added.

With a talkative, outgoing personality, Utheim fit in well with her new family, but she had to adjust to a few differences in their everyday lives.

Utheim was used to being connected with everyone 24/7 by phone or computer, which her host parents didn't like.

"Having to be connected to people all the time drives me crazy," Jon said. "You don't have to be texting someone all the time, especially when I'm talking to you. We don't allow that."

At first it was hard for Utheim to put her phone down and disconnect, but it helped her realize the importance of connecting with those around you.

She also had to get used to not using public transportation, which is popular in Norway.

Being involved in school activities and living seven miles from the school, Utheim often needed a ride.

"I'm very used to walking to school in 5 to 10 minutes, and I came out here and I was just like 'whoa, that's not going to work out here,'" Utheim said with a laugh.

Bailey, Jon and Shelli gave her rides to the school whenever possible, but with all four kids involved in multiple activities it was sometimes difficult.

"The schedule just got crazy with adding another one in there," Shelli said. "And the grocery bill went up a bit, too."

Utheim said she started watching her diet more because American food is much heavier and contains more calories.

"I ate more meat than I ever have before, but I like meat so I was okay with that," she said.

Besides making minor adjustments to her lifestyle and struggling a bit with math homework, Utheim said there weren't many challenges because her host family was so helpful.

Jon and Shelli invited her into their family and treated her like a daughter. They even brought her on their family vacations to South Dakota's Black Hills and to Washington, D.C.

"I was so surprised how much the landscape changes in this country," Utheim said. "One minute you have lots of corn fields and a lot of cows, and the next time you look out the window it's all sandy and mountains. It's crazy."

At the end of the school year, Utheim walked in a cap and gown at the graduation ceremony and received a certificate of attendance. She said she was excited to be a part of it because graduation ceremonies aren't a big deal in Norway.

Next year, Utheim will complete her final year of high school in Norway and then plans to attend college at St. Cloud State University.

She said it will be really sad to leave, but she will keep in contact with her host family by phone and she'll be back to visit.

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