Wanderlust No More: A Year Abroad in Germany

River+Harper+%28%2719%29+and+another+exchange+student+pose+in+Marburg%2C+a+town+just+north+of+Frankfurt+where+the+program%27s+language+camp+was+held.+

Photo courtesy of River Harper ('19).

River Harper (’19) and another exchange student pose in Marburg, a town just north of Frankfurt where the program’s language camp was held.

Henry Diep, Staff Writer

Last school year, two Chamblee students were given the opportunity to spend a year in Germany on a foreign exchange program known as the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX). While in Germany, they attended school and took classes with the added benefit of being able to experience an entirely new culture and lifestyle and to explore rich locations across the country.

“CBYX is a government-led and funded organization that gives out around 300 scholarships every year for exchange students. If accepted, your plane tickets, language camp, insurance, and visa are all paid for by Congress and the German Bundestag. This was the first organization that I applied to and I had absolutely no idea how rare it was for exchanges to be so affordable. I got super lucky. The exchange itself is 10.5 months long,” said Livi Hogan (‘21), who participated in the program her junior year.

The U.S. and German governments hope the exchange program will create unity between the two countries.

“The purpose of the program is to improve diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany,” said Georgetown student and Class of 2019 Chamblee graduate River Harper, who participated in the exchange program during his gap year before college. “As a youth ambassador, your role is to help educate your peers at your German schoolusually a Gymnasium, or high schoolby telling them what America is really like and dispelling stereotypes that they may have about Americans, especially during the politically turbulent times we’re currently experiencing.”

The program starts with all the exchange students staying together for a month before they move on with their host families.

“At the beginning, there’s an introductory seminar in D.C. where you meet all of the other exchange students, and then we all flew together to Frankfurt. We then had language camp, where the first month was spent with the fifty kids in your region, living in a castle together. The purpose is to teach those who don’t know German some basics, but we also had a lot of free time and it was just amazing,” said Hogan. “After that, your host family comes to meet you and your exchange really begins. I started school like two days after I moved in, so it was pretty overwhelming at first.”

According to Hogan, her high school experience in Germany differed greatly from her high school experience in America.

“My high school had us take twelve classes at once, but only three hours of each class per week,” she said. “German high school is pretty different from American high school in the fact that there are no clubs or school-affiliated sports at German schools. School is more of a place where you ‘work’ [in Germany] whereas here it’s more of your whole life, I think. So I didn’t do any activities via the school, although I did volunteer on Wednesdays at a food bank and I got to miss school completely once a week.”

The differences weren’t just limited to school; in Germany, Hogan was able to experience an entirely new lifestyle from what she was used to.

“When you go on exchange and get on a plane surrounded by exchange students, but are virtually alone in the fact that they’re all strangers, you begin a new chapter of intensified independence. When I left, I was fifteen and had just finished sophomore year. When I got to Germany, I turned 16, was of the drinking age [in Germany], could go clubbing, and buses and trains were always available to travel anywhere. My lifestyle took a complete 180,” said Hogan.

Hogan’s daily routine consisted of both in-person as well as virtual classes.

“Day to day, I would wake upsometimes as late as ninego to school, and see my friends. I was taking online courses through Georgia Virtual in order to get enough credits so while I participated in German classes, I got [either] a pass/fail grade and it was really more about connecting with my classmates and working on my German,” she said. “Around lunch, we would normally go get Döner Boxes, head back to class, and then eventually ride the bus home. When I was home I would FaceTime my friends and family back home, do Georgia Virtual work, and read. If it was a weekend, I was either in Düsseldorf with my host sister and her dad, out with my friends, or on a train to visit my exchange friends.”

Harper, on the other hand, felt like his lifestyle in Germany was not actually all that different from his lifestyle in America, despite the differences in culture.

“Culturally, the two countries are similar enough that you won’t necessarily have a change in lifestyle. The biggest difference for me was not changing countries, but moving from a sprawling, urban city to a pretty remote town,” he said. “Other things that were different included the fact that I could no longer go to Chick-fil-A every day after school (or any fast food restaurant, for that matter), no longer being able to drive, and not having nearly as much schoolwork, since I had already graduated and didn’t need grades while I was there.”

Harper’s daily routine in Germany, unlike Hogan’s, was relatively similar to his daily routine as a student back in America.

“On a daily basis, [my routine involved] going to school as an exchange student, taking classes, and joining clubs and other extracurricular activities, known as Arbeitsgemeinschaften or AGs,” he said.

However, this is not to say that the cultures in Germany and America are not largely different or unique in their own ways. In fact, Harper learned some valuable life lessons while immersing himself in a culture that was foreign and different from what he was used to.

“This experience allowed me to grow incredibly as a person, especially thanks to the cultural differences that I saw in Germany. One central difference is the fact that Germans are much more direct and are not afraid to speak their mind when talking to you,” Harper said. “This definitely took some getting used to, but now that I’ve incorporated that mindset into my own life, I get along a lot better with my friends and I’m able to resolve conflicts a lot more quickly and easily.”

Hogan also gained some very valuable life experience while in Germany as well and ultimately grew as a person as a result.

“I do think that my exchange year changed me,” she said. “When you’re uncomfortable is when you grow the most and nothing puts you out of your comfort zone like removing yourself from everything and everyone you’ve ever known. I’ve always been shy, and every experience helps me combat that even more. I realized a lot about myself, my passions, and my future.”

Another significant difference between Germany and the U.S. is the edge that Germany has on public transportation, which allowed Harper to travel much more freely and conveniently.

“The best thing about Germany that we don’t have is the public transportation. Even though I lived in a small town, I was able to go from city to city in Germany with ease by taking the train. I could get to Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne in two hours, and even going to other countries was extremely cheap and simple,” he said. “Meanwhile, the United States is really behind on public transportation, and that includes Atlanta. MARTA has 38 stations; for a similarly sized area in Germany, like Berlin, there would be at least 200.”

Hogan agrees with this sentiment.

“One thing that I miss so, so much is the public transportation system, as weird as that sounds. I miss bus and train rides and the ability to make trips to travel and see friends,” she said. “Do you know how people have ‘happy places?’ Mine is on a train along the [Rhine] river. There’s nothing like it.”

Public transportation, of course, presented many opportunities to travel all over Germany as well as Europe and visit a plethora of foreign tourist attractions.

“Since I was eighteen, I was able to go on longer trips to visit my exchange student friends on my own and even travel to other countries with them,” Harper said. “During my time with CBYX, I went to Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Leipzig, Amsterdam, Vienna, northern Italy, and had trips planned to Rome and Paris before my time was cut short. If you’re 18, you have a lot more leeway to travel, so I was able to take advantage of that.”

However, the U.S. has its own advantages over Germany, too.

“I would probably have to give America a slight edge in food. The food in Germany is by no means bad, but there just isn’t as much variety as there is here. That speaks to something else that we take for granted in America, which is diversity. Germany is predominantly white, and there were maybe ten non-white kids for every hundred white students at my school. At Chamblee, I was very fortunate to have the ability to interact with students from all cultures and backgrounds, which is something I missed in Germany and still miss at Georgetown,” said Harper.

While both Hogan and Harper had previously taken German courses at Chamblee, having prior experience with or a grasp of the language is, in fact, not a prerequisite of the exchange program.

I had the huge advantage of being taught by Herr Neuhaus at Chamblee. Most of the CBYX participants went to Germany without knowing any German at all, so his amazing teaching skills gave me a significant edge over everyone else,” he said. “One of the most common misconceptions that people have about the program, though, is that you need some prior background with German in school. You absolutely do not. They are looking for people who are open-minded, outgoing, funny, and sociable, while also being humble and down to earth. If that describes you, that’s all you need.”

As much as Chamblee’s German program helped prepare her for her exchange program, Hogan explains that moving to a foreign country and having to speak an entirely different language still took her by surprise.

“It was completely different from what I had expected,” she said. “I don’t grasp languages easilyI always say that my brain just isn’t built that waybut I love the subject. I could talk about English and German and the differences and the origins of words and all the rest for hours. Because Chamblee had such a good German program, I was in the top class I could be, but I was often one of the worst in that top class. When I went to language camp, I was surrounded by people who didn’t know much German at all and in my friend group, I was the one who knew the most German. And then after a month of that, I was quite obviously the worst at German, [being] surrounded by Germans, so it was weird adjusting a couple of times.”

While she enjoyed speaking and learning more about the language, Hogan describes having to speak a foreign language all the time as often tiring.

“Again, I didn’t know much about exchanges at all. One thing I didn’t consider is how exhausted you are. When you are constantly working your brain, even at the dinner table, you are just in a constant state of [fatigue]. I slept around twelve hours every night for the first four months,” she said. 

Overall, both Hogan and Harper greatly enjoyed their experiences in Germany and found the exchange program to be, in Harper’s words, a “life-changing experience” that they won’t soon forget. 

I would recommend this exchange program to anyone and everyone,” said Hogan. “Even if you get a horrible host family and make no friends and are just having an awful time, all of that can be fixed. I don’t know anyone who regrets their exchange, even those who didn’t get fitting host families at first. It is always worth it to push your boundaries and trust yourself if it means an amazing life experience, which I promise you it will.”

Luckily for Hogan (as well as most of the other students), meeting and staying with her host family was one of her favorite aspects of the exchange program.

“I have so many favorite moments from my exchange. One would have to be the first moment I saw my host family,” she said. “I and a whole bunch of exchange students were waiting in front of the castle in the parking lot while host families trickled in. My host mom and sister pulled up and were looking excitedly at me. I recognized them but wasn’t quite sure if I was right or mistaken. I was a ball of nerves and pointed to myself and was like, ‘Me?’ And they were smiling and nodding as they parked. My friend Luci just gave me a huge hug. It was a very special moment.”

Unfortunately, the program stopped prematurely early due to COVID-19, and all of the students were sent home much earlier than expected.

“I learned from other exchange students who knew way more about exchanges than I did that the last few months of exchange are the hardest. You’re about to say goodbye, you know that, and that weirdly makes you homesick,” said Hogan. “So I had like four trips [to different countries] planned in the last four months […], but in March, we were sent home because of [the coronavirus]. I found out on a Monday and was on a plane Friday. The hardest part was leaving my friends and family so suddenly, but it was also a bummer that every single one of my trips was canceled. Because of the circumstances I also haven’t seen my exchange friends since then.”

However, both Hogan and Harper have plans to revisit and return to Germany at some point in the future.

“I definitely have plans to work and live in Germany depending on how things look in the job market after Georgetown, and I would recommend CBYX to anyone and everyone at Chamblee,” said Harper. “The entire program revolves around the people you meet. I made my best friends I’ve ever had through CBYX, and I’m much closer with them than I ever was with anyone after ten years of going to school with the same people. The friendships you make and the relationships and memories you cultivate are definitely the best part about the program.”

Timeline

Editor’s note: This month-to-month timeline was provided by Livi Hogan (’21) to further illustrate her experience.

August: I flew to DC, met my exchange friends (including my three eventual language camp roommates), and then boarded the plane to Frankfurt. We then drove to Language Camp, in a small town called Bad Laasphe, where we spent a month working on our German, and where I turned 16.

September: I met my host family and host community for the first time. I began school, started to make friends, and settled into my new home. That first weekend, my grade had an overnight trip, so that was crazy! I also visited Dortmund and went clubbing for the first time.

October: In one week, I visited Düsseldorf, Köln, and Hamburg for the first time. I began volunteering for the food bank! I spent October with my extended host family and visited the North Sea for the first time.

November: I met up with some of my exchange friends for the first time since language camp and went to my first [Borussia Dortmund] game. I also went to the Christmas markets in Dortmund!

December: I went to Köln to visit some exchange friends and we went to a concert, which you would think would be the same as here, but it was different and so cool! I spent birthdays and Christmas with my (host) friends and family.

January: My mom and sister flew in to spend New Year’s Eve with my host family and me. It was very special to have them meet. We had Midyear, a seminar about halfway through our exchange to provide support through any challenges.

February: I went skiing for the first time and found out that I am absolutely awful at it. I went to Karneval for the very first time in Köln with exchange students from all over the US. It was a crazy and unforgettable night.

March: It finally snowed! Toward the middle of March, coronavirus started to get more serious and we were sent home.