Being an exchange student
Every person has that moment in their life when they want a change.
When every day becomes the same and a way is out is needed. That is definitely how I felt over a year ago and I was not happy with everything anymore. One day in my chemistry class, our teacher told us that he was an exchange student in America 30 years ago. He talked about how the experience changed his life, how much he learned and that he enjoyed it very much. His story opened my eyes and I saw it as my chance to accomplish the change I needed in my life. I knew becoming an exchange student would not only be an adventure, but also give me new experience, better knowledge about the English language and American culture and a different perspective on life.
When the idea of being an exchange student myself, first got to my head I was determined to realize it. To my surprise, it did not take a lot to convince my parents that it was a good idea. They knew how much it meant to me and together we found an organization called ISKA that offered exchange student programs. We signed up for it and I was very excited.
The process of getting approved for a Visa and getting all the paperwork done started a year before me leaving for America. I had meetings with people from ISKA, I wrote letters to my future host family, I went to the doctor to get shots and tests done and went to the American consulate to finally get my visa approved. It was a lot more work than I expected and I am very thankful to my family for helping me with everything and trusting me, when I made that decision for myself. Without their support I would have never been able to make this idea and dream come true.
I would say I knew what I signed up for, but I am not sure that I realized what it actually meant to leave my home of Germany for a whole school year. On one side it was going to be a great experience, I would learn English and meet great people and become more independent and mature. On the other side, I would be without my family and friends for a year, the longest time I have ever been without my loved ones.
When all the paperwork was done and I finally knew who my host parents were going to be, my dad and I planned a trip to America to visit my future host parents, the people I would live with, and my school during my year in America. We stayed in Greene County, Indiana over spring break for five days. During that time I got to know my host parents John and Sandy a little and saw WRV high school for the first time. It was a good experience and gave me a perspective on what I could imagine for my stay.
After we got back home, I had only four months left before I would leave, and in that moment it really seemed real to me and the nervousness started kicking in. All my friends told me how much they were going to miss me once I was gone and my best friend took it the hardest. My best friends name is Marie and we have been best friends since I was six years old and the thought of me leaving her made her really sad, she would often start crying, when we talked about being separated. In these moments I sometimes started doubting my decision and if I was doing the right thing. I thought about homesickness and feeling alone and sometimes I could not tell my family about these thoughts because I did not want them to worry about me.
When school was out in Germany and summer break started, I had about a month left at home. In this time, I spent a lot of time with my friends, going to the swimming pool or the movie theatre and having sleepovers, it was a great time but I could also feel myself emotionally pulling away from my friends and family in preparation for the upcoming goodbye. I hate goodbyes. Even though I tried to make it easier, it did not really help, it rather made me feel lonely at times. In the last week before my departure I had to say goodbye to many people and it was hard, but the most emotional ones were saved for last.
The morning of the first of August, my grandparents, my mom and dad and my four best friends came with me to the airport. My best friends gave me a collection of photos of our memories as a present. My family and friends told me they would miss me and they loved me very much and also were proud of me for being so brave. I gave my family and friends goodbye hugs. I knew I would miss them incredibly. We were all crying and I could not even speak because of all the tears.
I will never forget that feeling, when I realized how hard it is to get along alone and to leave the people that have been with me all my life.
I got on the plane and I started crying again, I thought I made a huge mistake and that all of this was not worth it, but later I realized I was wrong. The first few weeks in America I was homesick a lot and I was in situations I did not think I could handle alone, but I did. These first weeks or months are best described with a quote by Nelson Mandela: “Everything seems impossible until it’s done.”, and that is very true. I thought I would not be able to make new friends or get good grades because of the language barrier but I did it. In the course of the year I experienced many new things when it comes to food, school, sports, culture or people. I think it really furthered my knowledge and acceptance of other people and cultures and it made me appreciate my own culture too because I realized things about it that I never noticed before. I also got to teach people I met here about Germany and our traditions and life there, most people were really interested and appreciative of what I had to say and that made me very happy. Some of the greatest experiences I made, doing sports; I tried volleyball, basketball and track for the first time when I came here and it was a challenge to learn these sports, but definitely fun. It felt really good to be part of a team of people that support and encourage each other, it was in a way a new experience for me. Doing sports as a team, we went through struggles and victories together and that brought us closer as a group and made us family. I also met great friends during my time in America, while doing sports and in school. The people I became very close with are people that I trust with my life and that I feel like I have a bond with; I definitely plan on staying in contact and coming back to visit, to not lose the connection. When I came in contact with people I received a lot of acceptance, but sometimes people where not very generous because of my countries history. I am willing to talk about Germany’s partially dark history, even though it is a hurtful topic, but sometimes it was difficult to deal with disrespect. These experiences showed me that some people like to cause conflict or just do not accept differences; sometimes the words these people say are hurtful but still I never want to react in an aggressive way but rather stay calm and be an educator about my country, to change other people’s bad opinion or stigma.
During this year I made many good experiences and some bad ones but all of them took part in making this year unforgettable and I am very grateful that I got the chance to go on this adventure.
My year here is now almost over and my feelings are conflicted. I am happy that I will see my family and friends again but also sad because of what I have to leave behind. During this year some people here in America became so close that I now consider them family, a family that is not blood related and lives across the ocean. I invited my close friends to come and visit me and I am happy that I get to show them my country like they showed me theirs. That is the reason why it is called “exchange student”, two different cultures exchange knowledge and leave both sides with more acceptance and love for each other.
We all live in one world, and I am ready to see more of it in the future and make this life as unforgettable as my time in America.
Carmen Muelhens is an exchange student at White River Valley High School. She is from Germany.