On July 26, 2009, I found myself with my family and three suitcases in Washington, DC, ready to embark on the adventure of my life. The US Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program, funded by the State Department, awarded me a full-immersion scholarship to study one year in Germany.
I was one of 40 students to embark on such a journey. I had no time for tears, the only thing you could see that day on my face, as I was departing from my family, was the smile of excitement.
â–º QUARTER FINALIST 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
Germany was a kind of “terra incognita” for me. Other than for information from media, history, my piano playing, and some research, I didn’t know much of Germany, but was eager to learn. There are a few stereotypes about Germans and their culture, but the main goal of exchange programs is to break our prejudice and teach us the wonderful things we miss by believing such preconceptions. Before leaving, I thought of Germans as cold and strict. After my year in Germany my perspective changed completely.
I was welcomed by the Freitag Family of Berndorf, a tiny town in the region of Hesse, in the middle of Germany. They were a big family and made me feel immediately at home. Werner and Beate, the parents, have four children plus grandma Oma, who lives with them. I remember I spent my second day with Oma, who taught me everything about the house, from the kitchen to how to bake a Kaesekuchen (cheesecake).
During the year, I bonded with everyone in the family, and made friendships that will last for my whole lifetime. Ann-Theres, the daughter, was my age and became soon a sister to me: together we did almost everything; it was like having a sleepover with your best-friend every day. I had the most incredible year, with the most incredible people, but it wouldn’t have been an exchange year without all the obstacles I had to overcome: The language barrier, no friends at the beginning, an unknown environment, and… the worst winter in my life! Not to mention my year at Alte Landesschule, one of the oldest schools in the region of Hesse, over 430 years old. At first I couldn’t really understand anything, so I copied every scribble the teachers wrote on the board, and used the dictionary to figure out what they were saying. Later, when I started to manage the language, I was often lost because I didn’t have the prior knowledge to understand everything they were explaining. It was the toughest time and sometimes I felt hopeless. With persistence, work and the family’s warmth, however, I was eventually able to overcome this feeling and enjoy school.
I consider myself truly fortunate. Not only did I experience a full year abroad, live with a wonderful host family, and become fluent in German, but also proved myself I could be determined and firm in the pursuit of my goals. Yes, it was certainly challenging, but I’d do it all again!
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