“What will tomorrow be like?” I asked myself as I ate my first meal as an official exchange student, an overpriced Käsebrot, or a cheese sandwich, in a busy cafe in the middle of Frankfurt Airport. I was sitting with my fellow youth ambassadors of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) and the conversation buzzed with snippets of bucket lists and broken German. We all spoke with gilded confidence to hide apprehension of the 315 tomorrows ahead of us.
The biggest change I experienced during my exchange year was the dive into independence. German teenagers are given more freedom than Americans, but they are also expected to be self-sufficient earlier on. Raised by strict parents, I needed time to adjust to this newfound freedom. Meanwhile, I found myself making multiple mistakes, and although my host family was always supportive, it was always up to me to fix them. My most traumatizing mistake was falling asleep on a bus ride home and being awoken by the driver in another village. I had left my phone that day and couldn’t call my host mom to pick me up, so I was forced to take the situation into my own hands. Forcing back tears of shame and fear, I marched out of the bus station and into a taxi. The driver was a sleepy Polish man who didn’t seem to appreciate my broken German, but about thirty minutes and €24 later, I was home. This experience is vivid because it was the first time I felt independent, empowered by being able to take care of myself rather than rely on other people, and all it took was facing my mistake head-on.
As I grew more accustomed to independence, I was able to explore more of the unknown. My program organized three trips throughout the year to Weimar, Berlin, and Prague, where we were able to fully experience the rich diversity in European culture. I also took advantage of weekends and holidays, traveling to Hanover, Cologne, even Florence and Rome. I’ll forever cherish the feeling of walking into a new city and knowing that it’s just waiting for me to fall in love with its hidden alleyways and obscure cafes.
But to be an exchange student is more than going to a couple of cities and giving directions to intimidating taxi drivers; it’s more than escaping strict parents and trying exotic coffee. To be an exchange student is to take a running start to find one’s inner being. In exploring these new cities and learning a new language, I didn’t just learn about a foreign country; I came to terms with myself. The freedoms I tasted did not just satisfy my hunger for knowledge, they also allowed me to step back and see myself in different, multicolor lights. I admit that I still have much to learn about myself and the world around me, but I’m confident that my exchange year has prepared me to face these challenges, and that I’m ready for whatever lies behind the curtain of tomorrow.
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