• Sweden's news in English

Swede in US school exchange nightmare

David Landes · 23 Mar 2009, 15:22

Published: 23 Mar 2009 15:22 GMT+01:00

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Patrik Sundelin was looking forward to spending the 2006-2007 academic year in the United States on an EF Education- arranged programme.

Seventeen at the time, the enthusiastic teen hoped to try out for the American football team at Alma Bryant High School, located in the small town south of Mobile, Alabama.

“I was going mostly because I wanted to do something new, to improve my English, and experience a new culture,” Patrik told The Local.

“I was expecting to have a really fun year.”

But Patrik’s excitement quickly turned to despair when he discovered his host family already had two unpleasant houseguests living with them, both of whom had had brushes with the law.

“The first night they brought me into the kitchen to show me their knife collection. Then one started telling me the best ways to cut someone up with a knife,” said Patrik.

“It was a surreal experience.”

The following day, Patrik found himself taken on an even more bizarre first “field trip”.

“They took me for a ride into town. We ended up at the courthouse so one of them could meet with her probation officer,” he said.

“On the way there, she pointed out all the places where I could buy drugs, if I was interested in doing so.”

And the two dodgy sub-letters weren’t Patrik’s only concern. Not only was house itself also a mess, but the host father was gravely ill and the family’s own son had recently been taken by social services.

“Patrik called us and said there was no way he could spend a year with this family,” said his mother, Lena Sundelin.

Lena contacted EF in Stockholm and within a day, Patrik had been taken away from his first host family and placed with another temporarily.

While admitting that EF quickly removed her son from what she considered life threatening situation, she is nevertheless critical of the company for not updating her on the situation immediately.

“I had to wait for two days because the woman in Stockholm said she was home with the flu,” she said, wondering why no one else with the company contacted her sooner.

Although Patrik was no longer living with veterans of the Alabama prison system, his problems were far from being solved.

Unable to find a permanent home for Patrik, EF placed him with the mother of their regional representative until a second family was located.

But when he finally did move for what he thought would be the last time, Patrik soon discovered that his new family was only a marginal improvement.

His new host mother treated him with little compassion or respect and even laughed in his face when he confessed he was having a difficult time. She was also verbally abusive on at least one occasion, an incident witnessed by some of Patrik’s classmates, who notified school officials.

A guidance counselor at the school who became aware of Patrik’s situation eventually suggested that he live with her sister, a move which seemed agreeable to everyone by the local EF representatives.

Late one evening prior to his planned move to what was to be Patrik’s third host family within two months, EF’s local representative and her mother visited Patrik and asked him to get in the car with them.

“They tried to get me to sign a contract saying that if there was one more problem that I would agree to be sent home,” said Patrik of the uncomfortable late-night meeting.

When Patrik refused to sign without first going over the contract, known as a “Behavioural Agreement”, the two women became angry.

“They basically threatened me with being sent home if I didn’t sign,” he said.

“I had no power. My word didn’t matter at all. If they had succeeded in sending me home, the story would simply have been one of another foreign student who couldn’t handle studying in the United States.”

But Patrik refused to sign and eventually moved in with the third family, where he finished out the rest of what became a very enjoyable year.

“I really enjoyed the school and the friends I met there and I did end up getting to play American football,” he said.

“EF didn’t do anything helpful except getting me out of the first house. They were more of a hindrance than a help. They tried to blame me for all the problems.”

Following Patrik’s return to Sweden, his family filed a claim with EF asking the company to refund some of the more than 50,000 kronor the family paid EF to arrange his trip to the US.

“We feel that we paid for something we didn’t get,” said Patrik.

“A big part of what you pay for is the support they are supposed to give you. EF is supposed to make sure the experience in the United States is a safe one.”

Specifically, Patrik and his family contend the EF failed to live up to their promise to visit the homes of potential host families to assess their suitability for housing an exchange student.

“There’s no way that EF could have done a home visit to the first family because if they had, they would have seen that it wasn’t an appropriate place for a high school student to live,” he said.

The company countered, however, that it did carry out a home visit and background check of family members. The problem, according to EF, was that the family never mentioned anything about the two criminal houseguests.

“If a family isn’t forthcoming with information, there’s only so much we can do to discover it,” said EF’s Emma Ragnarsson with the company’s High School Year department in Stockholm.

Story continues below…

There are also conflicting claims about whether a representative from the company ever visited the home of Patrik’s third and final host family. While EF claims to have documentation of the visit, an email from the host mother says that the family “had not seen or heard from anyone from EF”.

In response to the Sundelins’ request for their money back, EF initially offered to pay them 3,000 kronor for “pain and suffering” in the spring of 2008.

Dissatisfied, the family filed a complaint with the Swedish National Board for Consumer Complaints (Allmänna reklamationsnämnden – ARN) asking for an additional 25,000 kronor, or roughly a 50 percent rebate on the total cost of Patrik’s trip.

Around the same time the family filed the claim, EF upped their offer to 10,000 kronor.

In the end, ARN ruled that the family wasn’t entitled to any more compensation than EF’s new offer for the problems Patrik endured.

According to ARN, his mother, who filed the document, “did not show that the failings are such that she is entitled to a discount which extends further than what the company has conceded”.

Ragnarsson said EF regretted that Patrik’s experience in the US got off to a rough start, but said it stands by the procedures it has in place to ensure the safety and security of its students.

“We do more than what is required by the US State Department or the Swedish Consumer Agency (Konsumentverket),” she said, characterizing Patrik’s case as the exception, rather than the rule.

While disappointed by the ruling, Patrik said there was more at stake than financial compensation.

“The compensation doesn’t make up for what we lost,” said Patrik.

“But it’s not really about the money. We wanted to draw attention to the case so that other students didn’t end up in the same situation.”

David Landes (david.landes@thelocal.se)

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