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Classmates welcome foreign exchange student back to Kingsport after 48 years

Earl Carter • Sep 19, 2012 at 2:06 AM

Stina Ifström's second visit to Kingsport wasn't as stressful as her first one - thank goodness. Stina returned to Kingsport to visit her Dobyns-Bennett High School friends. It was the first time she had been back since graduating with the Class of 1964.

Stina was a foreign exchange student from Finland. At the age of 16, Stina's family put her on a boat for the 10-day trip to New York to spend a year at an American high school.

"There was a bad storm at sea almost all the way across," she recalls. "All I could do was lay in my bunk and I got seasick very bad."

Stina and about 100 other exchange students made the crossing together and split up in New York City to travel to their host cities. Stina was put on a Greyhound bus with almost no money and still sick from her stormy voyage.

"I just tried to sleep and I was feeling sick," she remembers. "I didn't know much English and it was all very strange."

Stina recalls the bus trip from New York took around 16 hours and she arrived early in the morning at the Greyhound station in Bristol, Tenn.

"My host family was there to meet me and took me to Holiday Inn for breakfast," she recalls. "They ordered pancakes and lots of syrup. So much syrup... and I ate it all."

Over a more balanced meal at Riverfront Seafood Restaurant, Stina recently dined with several members of her Dobyns-Bennett Class of 1964, including Earl Carter, Linda Lane Archer, Robert and Sandra Hamlett McGinnis, Rick and Carloyn Gibbons, Randolph Cupp, and Ruth and Larry Carmichael. It was Stina's first trip to Kingsport in 48 years. Classmate Carolyn Camp Gibbons and husband Richard hosted Stina and her daughter, Kea, during their visit. The visit started with a tour of the city and a walk through her old school (now Sevier Middle School).

Stina says she really enjoyed the experiences she had as an American teenager. One of her former classmates, Randolph Cupp, recalled how she persuaded him to let her drive his mother's car. It was not a good idea as she proceeded to bump into another car. Being the good friend, Cupp took the blame and they're still good friends today.

Stina remembers being very homesick upon arriving in Kingsport as a teenager. But, by the end of her school year, she did not want to return to Finland. She had been assimilated. Returning was necessary, however, as she had to complete school again in her native country.

"We don't start school until age 7 and graduate at age 20," she explained. " I had to graduate again back home."

After high school in Finland, Stina attended the University of Helsinki and obtained her law degree. She went on to a successful career as a judge and lawyer in various fields of practice. She married another lawyer, and they have two daughters. After retiring three years ago, Stina has been spending most of her time working with Finnish swim organizations. She was a competitive swimmer in her youth and still loves to swim.

Her daughter Kea was also a foreign exchange student, having studied in Alaska. She works in customer relations for the largest department store in Finland. Kea speaks 10 languages, which she says all come in handy in her job. Stina, by comparison, speaks six languages. Kea is also an avid photographer, pleading with her guides on many occasions to stop when she spotted a good photo opportunity. It is her quest to visit all 50 of the United States. She has 27 so far, after picking up several more during this trip.

Stina's reflections on her most recent visit to Kingsport included " how friendly everybody is." The town she grew to love as a student is apparently still a very nice place to be.

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