The Mercury

Exchange opportunities

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Exchange opportunities

Katharina Spöth, Writer

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Exactly one year ago I submitted a formal application to a German exchange organisation. I was fourteen years old and didn’t seriously think about what I was doing. After half a year full of meetings, essays, surveys, even doctor appointments I had one of the most special days in my life so far.

When I came home from my violin lesson, my mom opened the door, with tears in her eyes and obviously more knowledge than me. While a ton of different horror scenarios appeared in my head, my mom told me to sit down (I still don’t really get why) and explained that the organisation responsible for my application just called her. Against my expectations, my mom announced I indeed had gotten a full-price scholarship to go to the United States for ten months.

Months of waiting to find a host family and another load of paperwork followed, and four days before my departure I finally knew: I would spend the next school year in a state called Vermont, with a host family living close to my new school, Bellows Free Academy. Indian Summer, cold winter and liberal was all they told me. My expectations were accordingly not existent.

I knew a lot about exchange years and the United States in general, we – I and the other exchange students from my program – had a preparation week. I watched a lot of over dramatic high school movies and American series and I read books like Crazy America and Gossip-Girl or Burger King?

And then I arrived and realized: everything is different, really everything. I feel like in the last three months I experienced more than I would normally in maybe one or two years. I walked  out of my comfort zone, in a positive way. I got to know crowds of new people and at the same time learned a lot about myself. My view of the whole world and its inhabitants widened and I could start building my own, unaffected opinion about the things happening every day. My knowledge about America is now based on real life experiences and conversations instead of media, TV and news that helps me better comprehend why things happen the way they do.

Together with 92 other exchange students who went to U.S. with the same program as I did, I recently spent a great week in Washington D.C. This trip is part of my year abroad because the program is sponsored by the U.S. Congress and the Bundestag (German version of the Congress) and they want us to get involved in politics and to be good ambassadors of our home countries. We visited museums which were everything but boring, had group activities, learned about how the U.S. became what it is today and met important people. The best part was still all the great conversations I had and of course meeting even more new people. That’s probably also one of the biggest benefits of traveling and doing a year abroad: you will have friends and connections all over the world, build unique relationships and be part of more than one community and culture.

I can only encourage other young people to just explore the world and expand their everyday life routine. The great thing is that there are so many possibilities for everybody to do this. Scholarships support and enable young people to start adventures in other countries. From my own experience I can tell: yes, it’s work to get into such a program but you don’t have to be the school’s most successful math student, a sport superstar or the leader of a volunteer project! I never expected to once sit down and write an article about myself being an exchange student, but I tried my best and this distant dream came true.

And if you still doubt: what about getting part of another culture in your home? Host families are rare and always needed. Hosting a foreign exchange student can be a matchless experience for both sides. If you and your family are interested in more information about being a host family, simply contact for example FLAG International. Emily Paula ([email protected]), who is a Local Coordinator here in Vermont. She would be pleased to hear from you.

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