Editor’s Note: This is the third of a five-part series on the experiences of Alice Palmbäck, an exchange student who is spending the 2022-2023 school year in Red Hook. Part 1 described Alice’s disconcerting arrival to a home in the Midwest. Part 2 focused on the efforts of her mother back home in Stockholm to relocate her. Today, Alice shares details of her experience in Red Hook, her unexpected home for the 2022-23 school year. Tomorrow, we look closely at the alleged violations of State Department regulations by her sponsoring company and their explanations.
As the car pulled into the driveway on Sunrise Drive in Red Hook, Alice Palmbäck of Stockholm could no longer hold back. Tears suddenly welled in her eyes. After having been initially placed in a crowded and chaotic house in the Midwest that she could never imagine calling “home,” she had spent two long weeks struggling to salvage her exchange student year. And now, finally, the pieces had all come together.
“I just got so emotional, and I was trying to hide my tears,” Alice, 17, said as she recalled the August 2022 day when she met Mikki Glass, Troy Haley, and their 11-year-old daughter, Olive. Nancy Johnson, the wife of an old friend of Alice’s mother, had driven her down from the Johnsons’ lake house near Rochester. Craig Johnson had connected with Glass, a work colleague, on Facebook. And she promptly offered to become Alice’s new and unexpected host mom.
Alice slowly began taking in her new surroundings. A beautiful yard. Three slurping dogs. A busy home with an open floor plan, cozy rugs, and big comfortable couches. A room to call her own, graciously appointed. Even a lizard in the living room terrarium staring back at her with interest.
“I just thought, ‘Yes, this is home. I can live here. This is a good family and a warm community. I will be happy here,’ ” Alice said, as she detailed her last seven months as an exchange student in Red Hook. “I kept thinking. This is real. This is good.”
Alice had spent two weeks relocating, under the watchful but distant eye of her mother 4,900 miles away. Soon, her 2022-23 school exchange year would begin anew. Superintendent Janet Warden and School Board President Kate Kortbus had helped to make the arrangements for a smooth enrollment at Red Hook High School, Glass said.
And as the comforts and stability of a reliable quiet home settled in, Alice quickly logged on to the school district website to locate the name of the swim coach. She made arrangements to attend swim team practice on her first day in Red Hook.
“I knew I had to make friends,” said Alice, who swam on a team in Stockholm for seven years. “I was so excited to tell my new host mom, Mikki, that I’d be swimming.” Through swim practice, she soon made her first friend, Charlotte. “We just found each other and clicked.”
Her new family treated her to dinner at an Asian restaurant in Kingston, a substantial improvement over the plate with two slices of dry bread she’d been offered for one meal at her first host family. Then, on to Holy Cow ice cream shop for one of many Red Hook traditions she would come to assimilate into her experience of the Hudson Valley. “Seeing these Red Hook special places made me feel a part of things right away,” Alice said. “That’s what I love about Red Hook. You can tell it’s a community that’s welcoming and caring.”
In fact, Red Hook, she realized as she drove and walked around, was unlike anything she’d known. “It is so small, but small in a wonderful cozy way that I associate with my favorite childhood movies. It’s a special feeling that’s comforting,” Alice said. Her room at the Haley home was beyond her wildest dreams: a large bed, a sliding window overlooking a lawn with visiting rabbits and deer, a big desk, and even a TV. The licks and snuggles of the dogs rounded out the warm Haley welcome. “It was just so perfect,” Alice said. “Such a good change.”
With her first host family, Alice had been relegated to sleeping quarters in a subterranean basement.
Soon, Alice began to select courses. Ceramics tops her list of favorites. “We don’t have that in Sweden, and I just love it,” Alice said. She’s also studied algebra, AP literature, women’s studies, baking, anatomy, and legal studies.
The school culture has been a surprise, she said. She is able, for instance, to approach any student at any time. “I’m not friends with everyone, but I can talk to everyone, a big difference from Sweden.” Back home, she says, students only share classes with others the same age, so making friends with people of different ages is uncommon. Red Hook teachers are also so encouraging and supportive, she said.
She said students have also been keen to get to know her. “Everyone is kind and friendly,” Alice said. She quickly found her own group of six girls. “I always have them there for me, which means a lot.”
The Haley family has included Alice on myriad family adventures: Long Island for Labor Day weekend, Key West in October, Boston for a vacation in December, and an upcoming trip to North Carolina for spring break. “It just shows me even more that I’m a part of this family now,” Alice said. “They want to show me different parts of the country.”
A particular highlight was the colorful turning of the leaves last fall. “They were just so beautiful. I’d never seen anything like it,” she said. Another special occasion was a trip with a new friend to New York City over the winter holiday season. She loved the ride along the Hudson River on Amtrak, she said, especially the sunset. Alice has also remained in touch with the Johnsons, who offered the opportunity to stay at their apartment in the city.
An unexpected friend is Pepper, one of the Haley family dogs. “This is my dog now,” Alice said, laughing, as Pepper settled into her lap. “She sits outside the whole day I’m at school and just waits for me to come home. It’s so sweet.” Alice had never had a dog before. “She’s going to be heartbroken when I leave.”
Glass said Olive, as an only child, has also benefited from having a temporary big sister. “There’s this really nice bond, and I think it’s nice for Olive to have someone older that she can talk to,” Glass said. “Alice is an older, wiser big sister.” Glass said Olive sometimes turns to Alice for help with schoolwork or advice. “Alice has a really nice way about her, and Olive feels comfortable,” Glass said. “She was a bit nervous in the beginning, not knowing what to expect, but it’s been a really good experience.”
Glass said her family, which didn’t set out to have an exchange student this year, didn’t know how things would unfold. “From the moment she got here, we knew our lives would never be the same, in the best way,” Glass said. “For one, it’s really fun to have Alice around. She’s kind and helpful and insightful.”
As spring beckons, Alice is hoping to compete on the Red Hook High School track team. Meanwhile, she’s become more self-reflective and says she has learned from the experience.
Because she initiated a search for a new host family so soon after her arrival in the Midwest, Alice said she was criticized for not giving the first home a chance by the woman with whom she stayed while awaiting a new placement. It was a very stressful week of waiting, wondering if a new host family would ever be found.
“I was told I didn’t try hard enough, but that’s really not true. I just knew what I needed and what I had to do to feel better. I stood up for myself,” Alice said. “I’ve learned that everything will work out, and it’s important to speak up and trust your instincts.”
The middle of three sisters, Alice also said being in Red Hook has allowed her to open up, to be more outspoken, and to reach out for friends. “I’m so much more independent now,” she said. “I used to be afraid I’d say something wrong. I didn’t talk to new people because I thought they might not like me or not want to be my friend.”
Red Hook, she said, has changed that. “Now, I can talk to everyone if I like,” she said. “America made me come out of my shell.”
Red Hook, she said, has made that possible.
Tomorrow: ‘Carefully Vetted and Fully Compliant’: Alice’s Sponsor Vehemently Defends First Placement, Attributes Her Frustration to Culture Shock
To read all of the stories about Alice’s journey, visit this link.