This essay was written by me as my AFS post program essay, and I also chose to publish it here, as it sums up my exchange.
For my AFS exchange, I was placed in the small town of Husum on the North Sea, which is about forty five minutes from the Germany-Denmark border. I was there for ten months, and had the most impactful experience of my entire life. I was placed with host parents who gave me every opportunity to explore, learn, travel, and grow, and I now think of them as family. My school was a local gymnasium, which, holding about eight other exchange students throughout the year, gave me a diverse group of international friends and provided me with a rich social environment. This experience was only made possible through a generous donation by the Speedwell Foundation, and I am immensely thankful.
One unforgettable experience from my time abroad was making a podcast, Hashtag Gastteenie (http://www.hashtag-gastteenie.de/), with my host parents about exchange, hosting, and culture. We have published ten episodes to date, including a live episode we did at Podstock DE, the German podcast convention. Each episode is about an hour in length, and deals with themes such as homesickness, challenges for students and host families, and happy memories made only possible through exchange. This experience is important to me because it gave me a creative outlet during my exchange that allowed me to talk about the highs and lows of my life in Germany. I also have a blog that I wrote for throughout my exchange (https://abbysabenteuerindeutschland.wordpress.com/). Podcasting also brought my host parents and I closer together, as we took the time to talk about cultural differences and challenges we experienced while living together as well as reflecting on our happy memories. Throughout my exchange, our podcast was also an opportunity to improve my German, as we speak (almost) completely in German. The podcast community was also an integral part of my year, as I met many individuals who have supported me, inspired me, and taught me lessons that I have taken away from my exchange into my life. From this experience I learned that no matter what the issue is, talking it out can always help.
Another memorable experience from my exchange was attending my first German punk rock concert. I went with my boyfriend and a couple of his friends, having only heard the music a few times before. I had never experienced the punk community before, and had preconceived notions of what it would be like. I learned several things from this concert, not limited to the fact that I like German punk rock music (ZSK and Swiss und die Andern specifically). I learned that exteriors can tell you very little of how a person, culture, or community will behave. The atmosphere from this experience, and the other punk concerts I went to after this, was one of only acceptance and love. Behind the rough sounding music and dark clothing, the German punk community is one based on a message of overarching equality and love for all, with anti-facist, anti-homophobic, anti-racist, and pro-refugee themes intertwined in the music. Throughout my exchange, this music was there for me and constantly challenged my stereotypes of people. I learned from these concerts and this community not to judge anyone based on their appearance and to really get to know people before passing judgement.
Although I experienced many challenges abroad, whether it was learning German or finding my way alone through Berlin on my way to meet a friend, one challenge that sticks out to me was finding German friends in my school. Although having many AFS students at my school was a great support system and I made many lasting friendships, this created a negative environment within the school itself. Many German students would not be friends with us, as they associated us with short term, fast relationships, which Northern Germans are generally not especially keen on. On several occasions we were told to “just hang out with the other exchange students” instead of talking to Germans at our school, and we were ignored. For this reason, I struggled to make friends with other students in my class. They showed very little interest in me or my culture, and this was the general exchange experience at my school. This was challenging for me as I have grown up with overly friendly American culture where making friends is easy. For many months I felt isolated, as if there was something wrong with me or I wasn’t interesting enough. I even had feelings that I wasn’t cut out to be an exchange student or was doing my exchange wrong. However, after persistent attempts at making friends and only being ignored, stood up, and seemingly forgotten, I learned an important lesson. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Instead of putting effort into making friends with people who did not want to be friends with me, I put energy into making friends with the people who did. The other exchange students in my school and Germans outside of school who cared about me became an invaluable part of my exchange, and I carry those relationships with me wherever in the world I now go. I learned that family does not have to be blood.
Something else I learned was that stereotypes are seldom true. One stereotype that I had before my exchange was that Germans are obsessed with work. I thought that the people I met would have strict schedules, profound work ethic, and not be focused on having fun. This turned out to be extremely false. I found that in general, Germans are less work obsessed than Americans. Many people I met during my exchange were just as focused on fun activities and relaxation as they were with work and personal projects. I found this balance of life to be refreshing compared to my work crammed lifestyle in the U.S.A. Germans tend to take things slower than I expected, such as going to the grocery store. What for Germans is a stroll through a market is a fast paced race to get groceries in my home country. Now, I tend not to believe many stereotypes I hear about people or cultures, as I reflect on my past assumptions about my host country compared to my beliefs.
Again, I would like to thank the Speedwell Foundation for supporting me and allowing me to study abroad, as it has changed me, my perceptions about the world, my beliefs, and my future. My year abroad has given me life-long friendships, unforgettable opportunities, and has made me a global citizen. Since I have returned from Germany, I have received my high school diploma and am embarking on a gap year. I will be living on the Canadian island of Haida Gwaii for a minimum of six months, while learning about the culture and working, then I will be moving back to Germany to apply for university. I plan to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Global Environmental and Sustainability Studies from a German university, study abroad once again, and afterward possibly get a job and live in Germany permanently. Without my AFS exchange, none of my future plans would be as they are now. My year in Germany gave me the tools required to pursue a life in a country I now feel is my home, with people I now consider family. Thank you so much for everything.
I also want to thank my amazing host parents, who made so much of my exchange memorable and possible. You both taught me that family can be chosen, and home is where the heart is.
Also, a huge thank you to Silas, who showed me much of the German culture I would have otherwise missed, and continues to make me smile and laugh every single day. You mean so much to me, and I love you.
Thank you to my parents, who supported me every step of the long process of getting me to Germany, and in every endeavor I have had since then. You are my biggest support and I am extremely grateful.
Finally, thank you to everyone who I met during my exchange and showed me the diversity and beauty the world has to offer.
Until next time,