International summits are typically stiff, orchestrated affairs where even loosening a tie can seem like a radical breach of protocol. Leave it to high-schoolers to hold a bilateral gathering without even a whiff of formality.
Over pizza, cookies and games that involved M&Ms and stories about their favorite childhood toys, a group of 15 student leaders from Finland and 16 student government leaders at Gaithersburg High School met Tuesday to share experiences and explore differences for teenagers in the two countries.
The day began with a round of shy introductions, but in no time at all the media center in the three-year-old, $200 million high school was crackling with the laughter and energy that only 31 bright and buoyant teens can provide. Following a few icebreakers, the strangers from a world apart were now good friends, and they settled in for far-ranging discussions that explored everything from the role of religion in the two countries to gender discrimination, drinking and driving, crime and relationships.
The Montgomery County students seemed taken with their visitors’ tales of small class sizes, free college, universal health care and strict gun laws.
The Finns, who are in the Washington area for six weeks as part of a U.S.-Finland cultural exchange program, wanted to know more about the presidential race, school mascots, proms and the many extracurricular sports and activities available to American students.
In many ways, the day’s interactions left students from both countries sounding like members of a mutual admiration society.
“Their school is so huge. Ours is so small and you know everyone and that’s so lame,” said Mikko Juntunen, 17, who lives in Rajamäki. “And here people are not shy at all. If you look someone in the eye, they say hello. In Finland, they would just look away.”
Logan Rist, 17, a rising senior at Gaithersburg, felt pretty much the same way about his visitors.
“They’re all really polite,” he said. “And they’re open to having conversations. In America there are a lot of kids who won’t speak to you.”
From her discussions with the Finnish students, Alicia Dowdy, 15, did notice one huge difference between their upbringings.
“Our school is really diverse and they don’t have that kind of diversity there,” she said. “I think they can learn something from that.”
The day-long program was the idea of Carolyn West-Gipson, a counselor at Gaithersburg High who also is hosting one of the Finnish students during her stay here. She saw that the schedule for the visiting students was filled with official tours and meetings, and said she believed the students would really like having a chance to hang out with students their own age.
“I look at what’s happening in the world today and think if we could just get more people together like this, maybe that will help things,” West-Gipson said. “This is just an opportunity for them to broaden their horizons and learn how things can be done differently.”
Sisters Briana and Tamia Jackson of Waldorf, Md., don’t go to Gaithersburg High, but they are hosting one of the Finnish students, an eye-opening experience.
“I didn’t even know where Finland was,” said Briana, 16. “But we’re learning more about it and trying to teach her more about America and our culture.”
She also observed a distinct difference between the Finns and the Americans.
“I’ve noticed that we’re very lazy and I never noticed that before,” she said. “They can walk 10 miles and it’s not a big deal. Here we have to drive everywhere.”
Tamia, 15, wasn’t sure the Finnish visitors were always getting the best impression of America.
“You see what’s going on now on the news, like in Dallas. I don’t want them to experience that,” she said.
The headlines have been disturbing for Nea Renström, 16, of Vinti, Finland. “There’s a lot going on here and it makes me sad,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that hard to work through cultural differences.”
But Renstrom was pleased to find that she and her American cohorts had so much in common and was impressed by the fondness the Americans expressed for their school and the amount of time they spend there.
“At home, school is just for studying, not for friends or sports,” she said. “They have so much spirit in their school and I think ‘Why can’t we have that?’ That would be nice to have in Finland.”
Visiting America is a dream come true for Katja Mustonen, 17, of Kuopio.
“America is a place that everyone needs to know about,” she said. “When anything happens here, the world knows about it. When Orlando happen, everyone in Finland knew right away. So I think it’s really important to come here and not just learn about America but tell people here about my Finnish culture.”
At Gaithersburg High, dozens of flags line the walls to represent the home country of every one of the school’s students. With no students from Finland at the school, there is no Finnish flag on the wall. But that could change.
“I would love to go here for a year,” Mustonen said.