When I came to the United States, it was only supposed to be for a year.
It was August 1998, and I stepped off my KLM flight from Amsterdam and walked through two sliding doors into a disgustingly humid summer night at JFK airport. The hotel room I was sharing with three other au pairs-to-be had air conditioning, but neither of us knew how to turn it on.
I complained to my host father that night on the phone. I said “I don’t know if I can take this heat!” Laughing, he told me I wouldn’t have to worry about being hot in his home. I soon learned that he keeps the entire house at a comfortable 70 degrees Fahrenheit year round. “You’re gonna like it here,” he said.
It wasn’t long before he predicted I was here to stay. “I’ll make a bet with you,” he said, “that you’ll still be here in five years.”
“No way,” I told him. “This is only for a year. Then I’m going back to Sweden.”
He smiled, nodded, and said, “We’ll see.”
Around Christmastime, I was thinking that perhaps a year wasn’t sufficient for all I wanted to do. Being placed near New York, I hadn’t had a chance to see the West Coast yet. The Grand Canyon, of course, was a must, and I should really try to visit Texas, Florida and Alaska as well. Then again, there were enough things in New York City to keep me busy. I just couldn’t get enough of this fast-paced area that’s never asleep.
I approached my host father about this problem. He was ready with a solution. “You should go to school,” he said. “Take some college classes, and get a student visa to stay for another year.”
So, in the summer of 1999, I took two weeks off to go home to Sweden, get a new passport and get a new visa. My grandmother asked me why I was going away again, and I assured her, “It’s just one more year.” Then I was off again.
Community college was exciting. I took classes during the day and was home at 3 p.m. when Little Mike got out of school. We did our homework, played some Nintendo, had some dinner.
Of course, you don’t get a degree at a community college unless you go full-time for two years – 64 credits. Since the first year was so easy, I decided I should really just stay and get an associate’s degree. The visa was already approved for another year, so why not? It was just another year.
But living with a family that’s not your own, no matter how close you are, can get bothersome. I realized that to really be able to focus on school, I should move into my own place. I got some student loans from Sweden, and I found myself a roommate. And my third year was on its way.
Now, an associate’s degree doesn’t really count for much in Sweden. You need a bachelor’s degree, at least, for the school board to consider it. That takes two more years. Again, I had to make some decisions. I could go back to Sweden, or I could stay and finish my degree. I chose to stay.
Money was, of course, always the issue. With guidance from my host father, I sent out six college applications. All of them were accepted. Three schools offered me scholarships. Quinnipiac University offered me two scholarships, so it was obvious I was headed for Connecticut.
With student loans and the two scholarships, I was still about $5,000 short of a year’s tuition. I therefore decided to work in wealthy Greenwich for a summer with a nice family that had four children, a dog, a cat, a bird, fish and a lizard. In the fall, I went to Quinnipiac and my fourth year in this country was on its way.
It was pretty obvious that I should stay and finish my degree, so the fifth year there was never an option of going back. And once you have a degree, you are allowed work in the United States for one year to do what is called “Optical Practical Training.” At this point, in 2003, I had stopped saying “just another year.”
It’s now 2007, and I will reluctantly admit that my host father was right. Perhaps, after nine years, I can say that I am here to stay, after all. But it was never my intention. It was just what life had in store for me. Sometimes, I guess others can predict your future better than you can.