Izzati Soekarsono always knew she wanted to be an exchange student.
"I wanted to become an exchange student because my mom and my sisters had become them. I always knew I would go to another country," said the 17-year-old from Bandung, Indonesia.
Her mother went to California as an exchange student, while one of her sisters went to Holland and the other to Michigan.
Soekarsono was in elementary school when her two older sisters studied abroad.
Last year, it became her turn.
She arrived here on Aug. 14, 2011, as a Rotary exchange student and heads home on July 20.
"Honestly, I always wanted to go to America, because my mom and my sister went there," Soekarsono said. "One day, my mom said, ‘Everyone always wants to go to America. Why not go somewhere else, like Finland?’"
When Soekarsono said, "Where’s Finland?" her mother replied, "Exactly."
So, when it came time for Soekarsono to rank which countries she wanted to go to, she planned to put Finland at the top of her list.
However, Finland was not on the list last year, and so America became her top choice, followed by Italy and France.
"It was surprising that I got accepted to America," Soekarsono said.
Even more surprising for her was learning last July that she would be going to Wisconsin.
"When I found out I was coming to Wisconsin, I knew where it was, because I had read the Laura Ingalls books," she said. "I said, ‘Mom, I know where Wisconsin is.’"
A month after arriving in Waupaca, Soekarsono went to Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in Pepin, Wis. with her host mother Kelly Baumgart, host sister Hannah Baumgart and Dawn and Kaylee Biba.
"It was awesome," Soekarsono said. "All the things I read in the books came to life."
She loves to read and write and has written 16 children’s books.
She wrote her first book when she was 7 – it was published when she was 8. She also loves to journal and started to blog when she was in eighth grade.
Her other love is music. Soekarsono plays the piano and violin.
During her time at Waupaca High School, she found numerous ways to become involved and meet people.
Among them was joining the cross country team.
"It was so surprising that I joined cross country," said Soekarsono. "My sister had told me that sports are important in America. Now, I’m thankful that I did it."
Improving her time over the course of the season and getting to the finish line were great accomplishments for her.
Soekarsono said she ran for her host family – the Ben and Kelly Baumgart family with whom she spent much of the past year.
She met many of her friends through her cross country experience and also joined the high school bowling club.
"At home, I’m always in music," she said. " A month before I left, my dad said, ‘Let’s go bowling.’"
Soekarsono’s involvement as a WHS student included playing the violin in the orchestra for last fall’s musical, "Hello, Dolly!" She also sang in the choir, including a solo, went to Florida last spring with the band and was in forensics and the all-school play.
She made it to the state Solo and Ensemble competition and also to state in forensics.
Among the highlights of her time here was being selected for prom court. "I thank my friends for giving me that experience," she said.
Before arriving in Waupaca, Soekarsono tried to get an idea of what school might be like by watching American movies.
In Indonesia, the students stay in one classroom, with different teachers in the room throughout the day.
Soekarsono says her experience going to school in Waupaca taught her how to manage her time.
It also taught her how to interact with different people.
"Everything was in English," she said. "That was difficult, and being an over-achiever, I wanted to excel in English class."
She found it easy to make friends.
Her sisters had told her that as an exchange student, she had to be active and not wait for others to introduce themselves.
"I tried to be as friendly as possible," Soekarsono said.
Her other experiences in Waupaca included going downhill snowboarding and being part of the strawberry shortcake eating contest at Strawberry Fest. She also traveled to California, where she met the family who hosted her mother during her time as an exchange student.
While some were not excited to see snow last November, Soekarsono was.
"It was like magic," she said of that day. "It was like one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen."
Soerkarsono saw everything here as an opportunity for her.
"Pretty much the whole year was a highlight," she said. "I’ve always known this would be the best year of my life."
She said exchange students always say, "Exchange is not a year in your life. It’s your life in one year."
Soekarsono believes the teen years are about figuring out who you are becoming.
"Exchange is probably the best way to figure out what I will be in the future," she said. "It’s about making the borders between countries disappear. It’s weaving the thread of peace and friendship."
When she arrives in Indonesia, she will start her senior year. There, the new school year just began on Monday, July 9.
She will work hard and would love to return to the United States as a college student.
"I want to do lots of stuff. I don’t have to major in English. I know whatever I do, I will write about it," Soekarsono said. "I think music and writing will always be how I live my life. They are one."
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