SignMyCar! Belgians Living in the US.


SignMyCar! Belgians Living in the US.


Nele Van Hees - Jacksonville, FL

Story Published in May 2016  | Interviews conducted in July 2015

Nele and her family [“The Petra Clan”] welcomed me last Summer to document their lives. Each family member let me shadow them for a couple days to really capture the essence of their Belgian American Life. It was Nele’s last summer before heading on to college and flying with her own wings. She shared her experience of growing up in the United States. Her story is part of a multi-generational story. Don’t miss out and read all five stories!

SignMyCar! Belgians Living in the US.
SignMyCar! Belgians Living in the US.
Her first experience

Nele moved to Florida in 2008 when she was 12. It was her second experience in the United States: the family had lived one year in Pennsylvania in 2002. “I don’t remember much for our first time there. I was only six years old. I did not speak the language and got behind in school because of it. When we returned to Belgium in 2003, I had to redo my 1st grade and ended up in Maarten’s (editor's note: her younger brother) class! 'I did not like that at all!” Nele recalls. It was later found out that Nele suffered from dyslexia which made school really hard for her, either more so in a different language.


Her parents got Nele tested for dyslexia in 2003 and decided to have her redo her first grade to give her a good baseline in Dutch. While it was necessary, Nele is still frustrated about it. “I am older than Maarten! People often forget about it.

Her second time

When she returned to the US in 2008, Nele could understand local people around her but could not reply. “Hi my name is Nele was all I could say the first month. It took me two months to be able to communicate and a year and a half to feel comfortable. I am very lucky that my best friend is shy too! Also, the American schools are the best to help children with different needs. They have an amazing system of Teacher Assistants, which is a profession that does not exist in Belgium. Mum was also so supportive! She helped me understand my notes and translated entire books for me. She was a wonderful trooper!”.

Her school adventures

Nele is a smart kid and brought home almost perfect grades despite her dyslexia. “I think it taught Nele to always give 200% in everything she does and to become self-advocate. She is very strong inside and does not fear to ask her teachers for the help she deserves” explains Petra very proudly.


As far as cultural difference at school goes, Nele was at first confused by the lockers system at her school. Carrying a backpack was not permitted and students had to switch class rooms (editor's note: in Belgium, the teacher is the one who changes classroom in Middle School), all of this under severe deadlines. “We had very specific schedules. For example a class can start at 7:48am and end at 8:43am. Then you have about 5min to run to your locker and arrive on time for your next class at 8:51am. If you are one minute late three times, you can end up in the principal’s office (editor's note:  schedules are not as precise in Belgium and the perception of time is more flexible. Class schedules are always rounded up at 5min: 8:45am, 5:10am, 11:00pm). You also only have 30min for lunch and no recesses at all. It is go, go, go all the time and it can be really hard to catch your breath. You get used to it.” Nele recalls. There is also a huge emphasis on standardized testing which Nele truly disliked.

Her creative outlets

One of the best things in American schools according to Nele - aside from providing teacher assistants - is the importance given to arts and music. Nele discovered a true passion for working with clay. Nele was part of the National Art Honors Society through High School. She loves it so much she took pottery as an elective in college. Her favorite aspect is the assembling process. “Working with clay can be physical and you have to be fast because it dries up fast. It’s a great way to work frustration out of your system. I love using my hands to create art.” You can see some of her favorite work in the slideshow below.

Her rock collection

Nele has a sweet spot for collecting rocks. “I just love the way they feel, look: their combinations of colors and textures. I also love when artisans sculpt them into cute animals” Nele smiles. Nele fell in love with her first rock when she was 9. Her family was on vacation at the beach. Ever since, she looks out for special stones whenever she is outside. “Mum would restrict me to only one rock per vacation. But sometimes I took two in secret.” her eyes sparkle. Her father [Hans] also had a rock collection at some point and her new grandmother-in-law in Tampa collects rock as well. According to Nele, her collection is incredible!


Her true calling

Nele wants to become a Pediatric Doctor. She loves taking care of toddlers and children. Ever since she was little, she has always volunteered at church and at school to take care of the youngest ones. Nele became a certified Nanny the age of 15 and has babysat many kids in her neighborhood. “Nele’s teachers have always told me what a great nurse or teacher she could be. She is always taking care of someone. In that regards, she is a lot like me” Petra smiles.


Nele was accepted to the prestigious Rutgers University in New Jersey and started her first semester in the Fall 2015. She is both excited and anxious to fly with her own wings. She looks forward to eating her favorite foods whenever she wants (she’s addicted to potatoes) and to keeping all the rocks she loves - not just one.

Read all the stories

 Nele’s story is part of a multi-generational featured story. Don’t miss out and read all five stories from the Petra Clan:


SignMyCar! Belgians Living in the US. SignMyCar! Belgians Living in the US.
SignMyCar! Belgians Living in the US. SignMyCar! Belgians Living in the US.
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