An American Dream

The Herald | An American Dream

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Story by Corey Stolzenbach
Photos by Marlena Sloss

Frida Hansson is proof that sometimes, dreams do come true.

The foreign exchange student from Uppsala, Sweden, arrived in Dubois last July. She had always wanted to come to America, since her mother, Jessica, was once an exchange student in El Paso, Texas.

Frida jumped right into life in Dubois County, running on the Northeast Dubois cross country team, playing basketball for the school and cheering as a cheerleader. Her American peers at Northeast Dubois thought so highly of her, they selected her for the homecoming court.

But her dream ended in a rude awakening.

Like the world around her, Frida’s experience came to a screeching halt when she learned on March 19 that she was being sent back home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The life she built in America was torn down, just like that. She still had Chicago and St. Louis to visit, and a 19th birthday to celebrate in April. Somebody asked her to prom. The glass slipper fit her, but midnight for Frida was supposed to be in May, not in March.

“I was crying because I wasn’t really ready for it,” Frida said.

The first thing that came to mind was that she’d be leaving everyone she had come to know in southern Indiana.

“I feel like it’s going to be nice to see my family again, but I’m not ready to leave yet,” she said.

Frida, center, does the wave with the student section at the boys basketball sectional game in French Lick on March 6. Frida noted how much everyone cares about the community in Dubois.

Frida lived her whole life not knowing Indiana existed. But Indiana, she’d soon learn, was home to friends she’d make for life. She discovered she had a second family in the state — host father, Doug Stephenson; mother, Charlotte; and sister, Maggie, a classmate and fellow Northeast Dubois cheerleader. The family embraced Frida as one of their own.

And she felt the same way.

“They’re my parents, too,” she said. “They’re my American parents. I love them so much.”

Frida wasn’t the only one emotional about her premature March 23 departure. Charlotte likened it to sending a child off somewhere, and not knowing if she’ll see her child again.

“When we took her to the airport, we had to basically tell her she needs to go through the gate,” Charlotte said. “She didn’t want to leave.”

Frida’s personality, smile and penchant to engage in joking and banter with the Stephensons brought her host family joy. When Charlotte was asked what she misses the most about Frida, she asked, in turn, what there wasn’t to miss.

“Probably the hardest part is walking down the hallway and her bedroom door is open and she’s not there,” Charlotte said.

Frida first applied to the exchange program around late 2017 or early 2018. She finished applying early, but her placement did not come overnight.

“I was so nervous and excited at the same time, because they could call me any day to tell me where I was going,” she said. “So, every day I was just waiting for that phone call.”

Still, she was never concerned she wouldn’t be placed.

Maggie wanted a foreign exchange student dating back to her freshman year, and her parents finally gave in this past year. The Stephenson family was able to pick which exchange student they wanted to host, and they made their selection before Maggie’s junior year ended. They came across Frida’s profile, which mentioned how she loves to spend time with her own family and teaching kids to dance.

The family didn’t look at anybody else once they saw her profile.

The placement came in June 2019, about a month before Frida rolled into Dubois. She was excited, but nervous, and knew it would be difficult to leave her family and friends back home for a year.

The Stephenson family first had concerns whether or not Maggie and Frida would get along. The two of them have different personalities. Maggie is loud and voices her opinion, while Frida is more of the quiet and reserved type.

It took weeks for Frida to assimilate and get accustomed to things in a new country. She embraced that Dubois is a small community where everyone knows one another. She had her challenges, but making friends wasn’t one of them. Everybody was good to her on her first day of school (she was a junior), and things just continued from there.

Her favorite part of school was sports — there are no school sports in Sweden — and she had many athletic accomplishments during her time at Northeast Dubois.

She had different ribbons from the cross country season — she ran at semistate — pinned on a board in her bedroom at the Stephenson home. Another honor was a trophy for “Most Improved Runner,” which meant a lot to her.

Frida's cross country ribbons and a trophy for "Most Improved Runner" sit on a dresser in her room in Dubois on Jan. 22.

“It started with that I just wanted to make friends and I thought that it’s a great way to do that by joining a sport,” Frida said. “I just ended up really liking it and liking new people I was running with.”

Frida began playing basketball when she was about 7 or 8 years old, and played until she was about 14 or 15. Her cousin, Gustav Blonqvist, was an exchange student in Texas, and told Frida that Indiana is a basketball state, which added to her excitement about coming to America.

Northeast Dubois girls basketball coach Andy Chinn was really excited when he heard Frida wanted to come out. He pulled her out of her weightlifting class one day to talk to her about playing for the Jeeps.

Frida’s ability to get things down pat quickly drew the praises of those around her. Andy noted there had to be patience when dealing with a situation like that, but Frida learned things so quickly, it was almost as if patience wasn’t required. The team treated her just like they treated everybody else. Andy saw Frida as new to things just like a freshman would be, but it was easy to give her everything she needed, because of Frida’s good attitude and work ethic.

“Wishful thinking would be that we would get her back for her senior year next year,” Andy said.

He lauded “Swedie,” one of his nicknames for Frida, for being a bright spot for the other players every day, even if one of them was having a rough day. Other nicknames included her surname, “Frido,” and “Frida Lay,” a play on words from the potato chip brand. She didn’t mind these nicknames at all. Doug had his own nicknames for her, such as “Swedish Assassin.”

“One of the very first shots she made, she banked in,” Doug said. “I said, ‘The bank is open in Sweden.’”

Frida established a friendship with fellow junior and Jeeps basketball teammate Becca Brosmer. Becca told of how nice Frida is to everybody, and that she seemed interesting. The two of them had a few classes in school together. Becca sometimes had to help Frida with something in school if she didn’t understand things.

The two became more than friends. Becca sees her as a sister.

“We’re just really close,” she said. “We can trust each other with anything.”

Frida also saw different American movies. One of them was “Hoosiers,” which was also fitting since Northeast Dubois played West Washington on Jan. 18 at the Hoosier Gym. Frida dressed for both the varsity and junior varsity games that day, but only played JV.

Frida liked that the movie was based in Indiana and was inspired by a true story. Seeing the movie helped her further appreciate getting to see the venue in real life.

A cheerleader at Northeast Dubois, Frida had a reprieve from her duties during the Feb. 14 homecoming boys basketball game between the Jeeps and Perry Central. She made it onto the homecoming court, garnering lots of applause as her name was announced by senior basketball player Madison Cave.

“That was really fun,” she said. “I had a good time. It was really fun to have that experience, too. I’m happy I did that. I’m happy I got to have that experience.”

Northeast Dubois High School senior homecoming queen Shelby Livingston, left, Frida, and senior Maggie Stephenson laugh while looking at photos on Maggie's phone during the homecoming basketball game at the school in Dubois on Feb. 14.

The honors continued prior to the Feb. 27 Senior Night game against Tecumseh. Frida and Maggie were both announced as cheerleaders, with Doug and Charlotte accompanying both of them. Though a junior, Frida got to partake in the night, just as seniors normally would, and she received a round of applause upon being acknowledged.

“It was like I walked out with two daughters,” Charlotte said. “It’s fun to share her with another family. My daughter is my daughter, and I love her, and it’s a similar love.”

March 7 was the last game Frida got to cheer at, and she had a lot to cheer about. Northeast Dubois bested Evansville Day for a sectional championship, and gave Frida one of her favorite memories.

“I never seen anything like that,” she said.

Her memories weren’t confined to just sports, though.

She wore a gold necklace with her name on it that her host family gave her as a Christmas gift. She wore it every day. Maggie gifted her a stuffed bear, Chip.

The Stephensons took a vacation to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at the turn of the year. They a rented a cabin, and the vacation gave Frida more things to experience, such as seeing the mountainous region. The Stephenson family has an affinity for playing cards. They taught Frida card-playing, such as Hand and Foot, while she taught them some Swedish card games.

“I liked Tennessee a lot,” Frida said. “It was very pretty. Gatlinburg was pretty. I’d never seen the mountains.”

The Stephensons won’t be taking any other exchange students on trips, because Frida is the only one they’ll ever host.

“You’re not going to get a better exchange student than her,” Charlotte said. “She’s not an exchange student anymore. She’s like one of us. We call her Frida Stephenson Hansson, but while she’s over here, she’s Frida Hansson Stephenson.”

Knowing what she knows now, Frida would’ve told herself last July to get involved and try new things. She’s so happy that she did the things that she did.

She didn’t believe in setting expectations, because everything she saw about high school before she came was in movies. While high school wasn’t quite like the movies, her experience exceeded any expectations she could have had, and she learned a lot about herself.

“Just being able to be away from your parents and friends, and just coming here all alone, that shows that I’m brave, that I can do this and I’m independent,” she said. “[It] just shows that you can do what you want to do and just go for it.”

Just the thought of Frida leaving left the Stephenson’s emotional. Already back in January, Charlotte and Maggie wiped their eyes with facial tissue when talking about Frida leaving.

Frida, left, walks out of her house with her host sister, Maggie Stephenson, 17, carrying Frida's bag, while departing for the airport to fly back to Sweden at her home in Dubois on March 23. Frida left early with only four days notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Charlotte remains in communication with Jessica and Frida. Jessica told Charlotte that Frida has had her good days and bad days.

She’s set to visit Dubois again later this year to show her parents, Jessica and Peter, where she lived. Frida left some of her stuff in March, but plans to retrieve the rest upon her return when she sees her host family once more.

“I never in my life thought about going to Sweden, but I can say I’ll probably go to Sweden at some point,” Doug said.

“Probably for somebody’s graduation next year, maybe,” Charlotte said.

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