From Norway to Perham: A 1970s foreign exchange student reflects on his time as a Yellowjacket
Leif Steinholt was a foreign exchange student at Perham High School during the 1977-78 school year. He is now living in Sandnessjøen, Norway.
Note: This story originally appeared as part of the winter 2023 edition of our Generations magazine, which was published in February.
PERHAM — Traveling to a new country on your own is a daunting task even today. However, this would have been even more daunting without social media or the internet.
In 1977, Norwegian high school student Leif Steinholt made the leap of choosing to become a foreign exchange student. Through AFS (American Field Service), Steinholt landed in Perham in August 1977 and became a Perham High School student until the end of the school year in 1978.
Some 1970s Perham High School students may remember him as the classmate who played kazoo and guitar at the homecoming talent show. Others may remember him as the author of his own column in the school newspaper: “Leif’s Logic.” Though much time has passed since his year in Perham, and though he’s taken permanent residence back home in Norway, Steinholt still looks back fondly on his time in America.
“It’s quite an experience for a young kid,” Steinholt recalled. “You’re sent out on your own, and you stay there a year. When I stayed in Perham, I only phoned my mother a couple of times.”
Several years before he was an exchange student himself, an older cousin of his studied in Ohio. Seeing her do this inspired him, and he decided to apply to be an exchange student himself. He remembers filling out forms and completing interviews, explaining why he wanted to go and what he wanted to bring back. Though it was a long process, the idea was exciting and new, and he wanted to go.
Eventually, he was selected. And though traveling to a new place on his own could be daunting, something really helped him out: the family he lived with. Though he didn’t get to select which family to stay with, Steinholt lucked out. His American “parents” were Tom and Joan Schmitz, and the rest of his American “family” included several other members of the Schmitz household such as Jennifer, Cathy, Carol and Mary. They were immediately kind to him, and they made Steinholt feel welcomed — especially in the midst of a big change.
“When you wind up in the U.S., I mean, you can wind up in New York or Los Angeles or something more like Perham,” he shared. “I mean, it’s so different. I think when I went over, there were maybe hundreds of exchange students from Norway going at the same time on the same plane. People were going to all different kinds of places. Some people were going to big cities. I wound up in a pretty rural part of the country.”
In a way, ending up in a rural area wasn’t dissimilar to what he was used to back home in Sandnessjøen, a town of about 6,000-7,000 people. In fact, the biggest change for him was in the culture. He had a different political ideology from a lot of the people around him — including the family he was staying with. He’s also never been a religious person, and he saw Perham as a really religious community.
It's quite an experience for a young kid, you're setting out on your own, and you stay there a year. When I stayed in Perham, I only phoned my mother a couple of times.
“But at the same time, they were very tolerant toward me,” he said, remembering the kindness he received when visiting the area almost 50 years ago. “I was different. I have another background. They respected that. And I respected them for their background and their thinking. One of the things I learned from staying there is that you can come from different countries, different backgrounds, have different ideas about things, but you basically have to respect and listen to them.”
He was able to still share his thoughts and reflections with this slightly different cultural perspective through his school newspaper column. Something he shared, which wasn’t nearly as popular in the Perham area in the 1970s, was cross-country skiing. Hardly anyone in central Minnesota was skiing at the time, at least to Steinholt’s knowledge. Because of this, many people around him wanted to get to know all about the sport.
In fact, he and a few of his friends from class were able to get a little innovative with those cross-country skis. One of these friends had a large cabin that they all went and visited in the winter. His friends brought along snowmobiles, so they attached Steinholt’s skis to the back of the vehicles. They zipped through the woods, pulling Steinholt on his skis behind them — much like water skiing, except on land.
Though snowmobiling is popular in some areas of Norway, he shared, where he comes from, there isn’t a lot of snow. Because of this, messing around with his friends at a Minnesota cabin with fun, outdoor, winter activities is a true piece of Perham culture he got to experience while visiting.
Eventually, the 1977-78 school year came to a close, and Steinholt finished his year as a Perham High School Yellowjacket. When he got back to Norway, he finished his final year of high school and then joined the army for his compulsory service. Afterward, he stayed five years in Tromsø and then over a decade in Oslo, where he studied journalism and worked for two different national newspapers. Eventually, he returned to his hometown of Sandnessjøen, and he’s been there ever since.
Now, he’s in a long-term relationship of 12 years and has five kids who range from the ages of 8 to 33 years old. Though he’s found a good life in Norway, his time in Perham has influenced the path he took. He was always interested in journalism, and after writing for his school newspaper, he has been working as a professional journalist in Sandnessjøen at Helgelands Blad since 1997. He’s also managed to return to Perham twice; once for the 10-year class reunion and another time for the 30-year reunion.
He believes his time in Perham led him to become the open-minded person that he is today. He’s able to see multiple perspectives, which definitely helps as a journalist.
“(It helped) to reflect on differences and to accept that people are different,” Steinholt explained. “You don’t have to agree with them on everything, and you can still say ‘I disagree,’ and this doesn’t mean that you look down on them.”
Though almost 50 years have passed, the community of Perham continues to have an impact on Steinholt from across the world.