Elis Õunapuu, a 17-year-old exchange student at Maryville High School, arrived last fall in Missouri from her hometown of Polva, Estonia.

“(Polva) is kind of the same as Maryville,” Elis said. “A lot of green areas and a small lake in the middle of the town. Also, the population is almost the same.”

Estonia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is in northern Europe and borders the Baltic Sea south of Finland.

“Back home, I used to participate in self-defense courses and martial arts,” Elis said.

She is a member of the Estonian Defense League and alpinism club, finished Art School and loves music. She also enjoys volleyball, rock climbing and downhill skiing.

Life in Maryville

While in Maryville, her host parents are Cris and Tara Wilmes and host siblings are, Tierry, 18, Lori, 16, Blaytyn, 15, and Scooter, 13. Cris is a real estate appraiser and farmer and Tara is a teacher with the Maryville School District.

“Some of our family members have done it,” Tara said. “And we thought it would be an adventure.”

The Wilmes family is enjoying learning about a new country and culture, playing Estonian card games and trying new food.

Elis said she hasn’t really missed anything from home because adjusting to life in the US has been very smooth.

“There haven’t been any challenges,” she said, “except maybe adjusting into that big family and getting used to something going on all of the time. I really love my host family.”

At MHS, Elis played on the volleyball team and is involved with the international club.

“The school and volleyball team have been amazing and I have met so many new people and gained a lot of new friends,” she said.

Comparing countries

There are naturally a few differences between the US and Estonia.

“People in the US are more open and very laid back,” she said. “Everybody has a smile of their face all the time.”

She said school is much easier and communication between students and teachers is very friendly, but respectful.

“(The teachers) have a lot of small talk and are curious how students are doing in school,” she said. “In the beginning, it looked very funny for an Estonian because schools in Estonia are very formal.”

There are also many similarities.

“I think the most similar thing is how important we think our families are to us,” Elis said.

Teenagers are pretty much the same in the US and in Estonia, she said, with the same problems and the same activities.

Realizing her dream

Elis said she started dreaming about becoming an exchange student when she was in the fourth grade.

“I always wanted to travel and this gave me that perfect opportunity,” she said. “Last September, when the program first started in Estonia, I saw that chance and here I am now.”

She continued: “I want to encourage everybody to become an exchange student because it is an amazing opportunity to learn about new cultures and also gain new experiences.

“It’s been the best year of my life and every day is a new adventure.”

To learn more about becoming a host family or being an exchange student, visit ciee.org.

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