In early June Haylee Sovell returned to Minnesota after spending the 2018-19 school year away from home.

Sovell took part in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Abroad program and spent nine months living and learning in Macedonia.

“This was an experience that I will never forget,” said Sovell, adding it has changed her life and her perspective on life forever.

Having left Minnesota in mid-August 2018, Sovell arrived in the European nation and met the family she would be living with during her stay. Sovell admitted being a bit nervous, as she was not sure what to expect. Getting over that initial anxiety did not take long for Sovell, as the people she met all made her feel very welcome.

Sovell said she made the trip to broaden her horizons, adding she wanted to make her senior year in high school more memorable. However, she also wanted to look back and say she learned a lot about a new culture and its language.

For Sovell, that mission was definitely accomplished during her stay in Macedonia.

Sovell said she walked in to her new experience knowing very little of the language.

“I knew how to say ‘hello,’” she said, adding her host family knew very little English.

While communication may have been challenging, Sovell said that ended up being a blessing, because it forced her to learn more of the language. While she might not consider herself fully fluent, being immersed in the language for that long helped her to better understand it, and when she returned Sovell admitted there were times when she had to stop and think about the English words she wanted to use, because she had been thinking and speaking in another language for so long. Sovell said she is going to do what she can to make sure she keeps up with that she learned.

“A huge part of the culture is the food,” said Sovell, adding many times meals can be up to a five-hour ordeal.

The food was very good, she said, adding she was willing to try new things simply because she never wanted to insult the people she was meeting, nor did she want to give anyone the impression she was judging them as an American.

Sovell attended an international school while she was in Macedonia, and she traveled by bus, a double-decker, for about an hour every day.

Sovell also had the chance as part of her YES Abroad experience to teach English to children in Macedonia, adding that was a great experience for her. Children are a priority in Macedonia, said Sovell, adding she experienced that reality in a number of different settings whether it was seeing someone give up their seat on a bus to a small child or phrases she heard like “children are like gems.”

As an ambassador, Sovell said she also spent time helping the people understand what America really is like and said she often addressed the misconceptions people have of the United States based on what they see on TV.

“I did not go there to change them or to convince them that the America way of life is the right one,” said Sovell, adding she was there to learn about all that makes up a nation that is different from the one she calls her home.

While in Macedonia, Sovell made trips to see different places, taking in the scenery, culture, history and traditions. Sovell said some of the most beautiful scenes she has ever experienced in her life were ones she saw in Macedonia.

For Sovell, there were some things that surprised her, but, for the most part the surprises were positive ones.

“I did not think I would like Macedonia as much as I do,” said Sovell, adding she definitely wants to go back.

“I felt safe all of the time,” she said. “I always felt comfortable there.”

Although Sovell missed the experiences her fellow Redwood Valley High School seniors had during their final year of secondary school, she gladly was willing to give all that up for this kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I had great adventures and learned so many life lessons there,” she said, adding she has also gained a host of new friends that she will keep for the rest of her life.

While she was not at RVHS, the classes she took in Macedonia did transfer, and so she was able to graduate and now has a high-school diploma.

Looking to the future, Sovell said she fully intends to do a lot more traveling.

However, for this fall she is going to be focusing on her studies as a college student pursuing a nursing degree at the Rochester campus of the University of Minnesota.