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The Swedish experience: Julie Kelly takes on a new role as principal in Sweden

Julie Kelly, a fifth grade teacher at Century Middle School, will begin her new role as principal at the International English School in Sweden in January. (Nicole Vik/Enterprise)

Julie Kelly, a fifth grade teacher at Century Middle School, has deep ties with Sweden, where she has recently accepted a job as principal at Internationella Engelska Skolan or the International English School, under the organization that was established in 1993.

While enrolled at the Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minn., she and her husband Jeff, who was then her boyfriend, decided to study abroad for a while in Sweden.

"We thought it would be exotic to go study abroad somewhere," Julie said. "I wanted to go somewhere actually exotic, like Spain, where it's warm. Jeff said, 'Let's go to Sweden." I thought that was the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Why would anyone go to Sweden?"

They went, spent six months in Sweden, and loved every minute of it.

"It was amazing. We just loved the culture and the language and our experience," she said.

The couple came back to Minnesota to finish school and also became engaged to get married. As all couples do, they began discussing what they would do after they received their degrees and decided they wanted to move back to Sweden.

Jeff Googled "english schools in Sweden." They found a website where Julie applied for a job to teach language arts and a few weeks later she received a phone call.

They were married in June 2009 and moved to Jönköping, Sweden in July 2009.

"It was terrifying, but super exciting," she said, adding that she had the challenge of communicating with her students in a language they were not fluent in.

The school was brand new and there was no curriculum in place.

Julie explained, the founder of this school system discovered Swedish schools were lacking the discipline that American schools had, but they had an amazing flexibility. She saw an opportunity to create the best of both worlds and the system was successful.

"We had more flexibility on what we teach and how we teach, but I could also give them the structure that Swedish schools don't have. We came in with all sorts of ideas. There were teachers from the States, teachers from England and Australia and obviously Swedish teachers as well in our school just coming together with all of these ideas," Julie said. "To take that kind of job, you have to be a little ambitious and you have to think outside the box. The kids also had to be a little daring because they were going to this non-public school that was just new. All of us were thrown into this, coming with this passion and drive to do something different. It was amazing."

They had told their families they would only be there for three years at the most. After three years, Julie was offered a new job as an assistant principal at a new school that was opening within the same organization, which specializes in teaching middle school aged kids.

They moved to Halmstad, on the coast of southwestern Sweden, where both Julie and Jeff started working at the new school.

Julie then got pregnant with their son, Liam. Once he turned two, the couple decided they would move back to the U.S. to be closer to their families.

Having originally been from Minnesota, the couple began searching for available jobs in Minnesota. They found a listing for a job opening in Park Rapids and Julie applied.

"I interviewed with them and they were all super excited. Everyone that I talked to was so much fun," she said. "It was 10:30 p.m. at night my time and after I got done with them, they called me right back and I was already in my pajamas because it was 11:30 p.m. by then. They said, 'We don't usually do this, but do you want to work with us? We feel like you're the right fit.'"

Julie did not expect to be offered the job so soon after her interview, so her and Jeff Googled "Park Rapids" before making their decision.

"I said, 'It's really small. It's really far up north, but it has a Walmart so I can survive,'" she joked.

Ultimately, she accepted the job and they moved to Park Rapids nearly three years ago and the couple recently welcomed their second son, Nolan.

Julie currently teaches 75 students throughout the day. She tells them stories about her time in Sweden, teaches them about the culture and the students also have penpals in Sweden.

The owner of the organization she had worked for prior kept calling Julie, offering her new opportunities and she kept turning her down. Julie was offered the job as principal last spring but didn't accept it right away.

After receiving more information, Julie learned she would be overseeing the start of a brand new school in the Stockholm area. With Jeff's encouragement, she accepted the job and will begin in January 2018 and school will start in August 2018.

"There is no one employed at all. It will be me starting fresh with nothing there except a school that's under construction," she said. "In my heart, I am so excited to be going back and to have this exciting challenge."

She added, there are so many cool opportunities for her and her husband professionally and for their kids personally.

"My heart has always just not felt quite right being here. I have amazing students and co-workers and there's nothing wrong, but my heart just didn't feel like this was home," she explained.

Julie is very excited to give both of her children the opportunity to travel and time together as a family, saying in Sweden it's a much more balanced way of life.