Rotary ‘trip of a lifetime’ for Knudsen despite virus

  • Maddie Knudsen enjoyed many activities while she was a Rotary Exchange student, including sailing. - Photo submitted

  • Knudsen, left, was welcomed home Thursday, May 28, by family and friends including Arianna Jackson, formerly of Knoxville, who drove all the way from Columbus, Ohio, to greet her. - Photo submitted

  • Diane Knudsen and her husband, Patrik Knudsen, with with their children, Maddie and Liam, while they visited this historic home and museum, the Holstentor, in Lubeck, Germany, two years ago. Maddie was able to return to the same location during her nine-month Rotary Exchange trip. - Photo submitted

Madelyn “Maddie” Knudsen never thought when she left last summer for a nearly year-long Knoxville Breakfast Rotary Club exchange to Germany that she would come home to a whole new world.

The now rising senior at Farragut High School had high hopes for the trip, which she still described as “amazing — it was even better than I had imagined,” even while acknowledging, “Sadly my exchange was impacted a lot by corona(virus).”

Knudsen left last August for what was to have been 11 months abroad, coming to the Rotary Exchange program with a German language background learned from Rosetta Stone courses, along with a family history of extensive European travel. Her father, Patrik Knudsen, is a native of Sweden, where his parents still live.

She stayed in Neumunster, Germany, and lived with two host families while there, attending school and participating in a variety of social and leisure activities, including paddle boarding, bike-riding and sailing.

Knudsen also was able to visit with her grandparents and extended family members in Sweden over the Christmas holidays.

She sent pictures and letters to family members, friends and Rotary Exchange officials as she sped through the year, which was impacted by the pandemic midway through her year.

“I remember first hearing about it around the beginning of February,” she said. “I didn’t think too much about it because I lived in the northern part of Germany, and there was only one case in the southern part in Bavaria.”

However, a planned trip by Patrik, her mother, Diane Knudsen, and younger brother, Liam, was cancelled by the pandemic.

“Then, a few weeks later around the end of February, I heard about a case being in Hamburg just an hour away from me. I started to get a bit more concerned then because now it was much closer than it was a few weeks before. No big actions were made until almost the third week of March,” she said. “On March 13, the state announced that they were going to close the schools two weeks early, and that our three-week long spring break was now five weeks.

“Initially, the break was great because I got to stay home and do whatever I wanted, but then the stores and such started to close,” Knudsen added. “Germany never went on an official lockdown, but most people, myself included, decided to stay home anyway.

“We were supposed to go back to school on April 20, but when that day came, Germany decided it still wasn’t safe enough and gave us two more weeks. After those two weeks only the students doing testing went back. For the final 2 1/2 months I didn’t go to school and I didn’t go out in public very often.”

Knudsen did return home a month earlier than she originally planned.

“My original date was going to be July 1, but after my end-of-the-year trip with Rotary was cancelled, my family decided to push the date up a bit,” she said. “I would have loved to stay until my original date, but after all of the stuff that had been happening with corona my exchange wasn’t the same.

“That definitely wasn’t how I wanted my exchange to end, but I know there wasn’t anything I could do,” Knudsen added. “I just tried to still have fun and make the best of it.”

Her mother did her best to at least make her homecoming memorable, and had several surprises planned when Knudsen returned to Farragut Thursday, May 28.

Back home

“I was only expecting my parents and brother to be at the airport, but when I walked through the revolving doors I saw around 15 people there with signs and balloons, all welcoming me home,” she said.

“I just wanted to go up and hug everyone, but we kept our distance and had on our masks because of corona. After visiting for a little, we picked up my bags and then headed home. I was planning on just going straight to bed, but when we pulled up, I saw that my mom had surprised me again with a socially-distanced pizza party! She invited a few of my friends over and we chatted and ate pizza for a few hours.”

Knudsen also had to quarantine for two weeks following her return. She has continued keeping her Rotary sponsors and others informed about her trip and plans to share her experiences in person “now that meetings have resumed,” she said.

”I am glad to be back, but I also miss Germany and the people there,” Knudsen added. “I have now seen so many things and met so many people that I could have never even imagined I’d see or meet. I find it so cool that I can now say I have a friend on every continent (except Antarctica). It went by so incredibly fast though. I feel like the first months of my exchange were just yesterday, and I can’t believe I’m already back.”

Summing it up, “I am so glad I decided to go and so grateful to Rotary and everyone that was involved in making it possible,” she said.