Not many teenagers would volunteer for an additional year of high school.
But when the deal offered by the Rotary Youth Exchange program included a beautiful Swiss backdrop and adventures all over Europe, Emmeline Wilson couldn’t resist. The 2011 Oak Ridge High School grad packed her bags and spent 11 months in the Old World.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Emmeline, 19. “You come back with so much.”
But first, she had to get there. Emmeline’s adventures began at an airport when she missed a connecting flight and had to take an alternate route through Dublin, Ireland, “Which was fun because I could add another country to my passport,” the optimist said.
She finally landed in Zürich, Switzerland, and met her first host family — the Quarellas. They traveled the hour east to St. Gallen, where Emmeline got some much-needed rest. “I slept for about a day,” she confessed.
Her first impression of Switzerland? “Everything was so green,” Emmeline said. “It was like a fairy tale.”
Except her fairy tale included a check-in at City Hall, a Swiss bank account (not easy for Americans to get these days) and school. Emmeline attended Kantonsschule am Burgraben, enrolling in 13 classes for the year, including chemistry, physics, religion and three languages — German, English and Spanish.
She learned German before leaving for Europe but Emmeline said she soon discovered that German and Swiss German don’t quite match; it took her several months to have complete conversations with classmates.
Emmeline described her Swiss school as “formal.” “There’s no school spirit and there are no school teams,” she said. For the school year, Emmeline studied with the same 20 classmates but that didn’t stop her from making friends outside the confines of a classroom. She met fellow exchange students from New York, Canada and Australia.
To get her sports fix, Emmeline started playing rugby but her time on the field was sidelined when she broke her elbow in a ski trip. Her last three months in Switzerland, and with her elbow mended, Emmeline took up lacrosse — a sport she played at Oak Ridge. The Trojans tied for second place in their conference during Emmeline’s senior year.
Now about that ski trip … make that snowboarding, Emmeline clarified. No one goes to Switzerland without a stop at the Alps and Emmeline enjoyed a week-long course in the St Mortiz area. During her last day on the slopes Emmeline, as she put it “fell harder than normal” with one busted elbow the result.
The resilient teen shrugged off the injury and certainly didn’t let it stop her from having a lot of fun.
Emmeline’s passport got a workout during her year aboard. She spent time on a farm in Germany before school started, traveled with classmates to Barcelona, Spain, where they ate paella with whole shrimp (eyeballs and everything), and Nice, France, and met up with fellow Rotary Youth Exchange students in Rome and Venice, Italy.
“I liked Italy the most,” Emmeline said. “We did the typical ‘see everything in three days’ trip — the Colosseum, the Pantheon …”
Switching hats from tourist to tour guide, Emmeline played hostess to two of her best friends from the states. She took Heather Tegley and Jordan Sharp “all over Switzerland,” but confessed she wishes she had more time to explore her host country, especially the French-influenced area in the east and the Italian-influenced area in the south.
And while Switzerland’s spectacular views and dried horse jerky will undoubtedly stick in Emmeline’s mind she said the best part of her experience was getting to know her host families — the Quarellas and the Hersches. “It was really just like family; I was very comfortable around them,” Emmeline said. “That’s a relationship I’m going to keep.”
So what about the family she left behind in El Dorado Hills? “I didn’t call home too much,” Emmeline said, adding that she did sometimes miss parents Tim and Marybeth Wilson, along with siblings Olivia, 18, and Timothy, 16. She Skyped with Mom and confessed to getting a bit teary-eyed when the family dog Stewart popped up on the computer screen. When Emmeline returned home in mid-July the pup did a double take just to make sure she was really there.
Marybeth said she had few reservations sending her daughter away for nearly a year. Emmeline’s cousins participated in a student exchange program and had “such great experiences,” she said. Still, the mom confessed, “At times it was really tough. I would miss her so much.”
Finally caught up on sleep (though she still enjoys the occasional nap) Emmeline’s ready for her next adventure — San Diego State. She will study mechanical engineering at the university and said she hopes to transfer to the Naval Academy and major in a language, possibly Chinese or Arabic.
This world traveler is far from done.