Student exchanges Finding a second home in Germany

But why should students travel in this globalized world?
But why should students travel in this globalized world? | Photo: Hongqi Zhang © iStockphoto

In this globalized world, why travel anymore, and why come to Germany? German Culture and the German language are still attracting youth between 15 and 18.

The world as Germany’s guest – that could be the motto for many school exchange programs between the North Sea and the Alps, where youth between 15 and 18 years of age come from the Americas, Asia, Africa and other parts of Europe looking for new friends and experiences. They spend a half-year or an entire school year here and get to know not only more about themselves but also more about the world in general. Like thousands of other exchange students every year in Germany, it was “the best experience of my life,” says Belén from Chile. Getting a handle on everyday life in another culture and on the German language is a big challenge for these young people. But why even travel in this globalized world where the Internet, Facebook and Twitter already connects everyone?

Motivation for the journey

There are a number of reasons for coming to Germany. Some students just want to experience something different, enliven their German course with a bit of reality, or get to know the land of their forefathers. Young people from Asia, for example, are especially attracted to Germany because of the ecological awareness here, academic strength, classical music tradition being played all over the country by orchestras, and even because of the performance orientation ascribed to the culture on a whole.

All exchange students want to improve their German skills, particularly through practicing with native speakers. Yi from China is actually excited about being allowed to show weakness: “In China I was always afraid to speak another language because I might make mistakes. But since I’ve been in Germany I’ve become braver. By making mistakes, others were able to correct me. Saying something that is incorrect is not a bad thing. But not talking at all is much worse!” Mariam from Georgia discovered unknown inner strengths while learning a foreign language: “I thought my exchange year would be really important for my language skills, but I ultimately realized that there are more important things. I focused on building a second life for myself…had some incredibly formative experiences and learned loads.”

Intercultural learning

Language opens the doors, and an individual’s personal perspective gradually creates the new world. We pay close attention to life in the foreign environment and ideally lose our prejudices. New personal experiences and adjusted opinions take the place of old images. During their time abroad, exchange students experience a vast range of emotions and feelings while in the new culture, from “happy, excited and sad to bitter, sweet and harsh,” as Yi from China explains it. People everywhere have their own traditions, habits and rituals and are defined profoundly by their culture. Understanding and tolerance first begin to develop when we have a chance to reflect on new experiences; and intercultural experiences are not always positive. There are even preparation and follow-up seminars at nonprofit or commercial exchange organizations that help to expose and work through cultural differences.

Interpersonal encounters take place at host family homes, where the families themselves range from traditional, with mother, father and two children, to single mothers with seven children and a cat. If the chemistry is right, the students stay. In 30 percent of the cases, however, exchange students will change families two or three times during their stays. The rules of the house, their visions of common living, or a lack of freedom tend to be the reasons why it doesn’t work out. In any case, an intercultural exchange accompanied by a needed shift in perspective takes place among the hosts and guests.

New formats for student encounters

Partnerships between native speakers and foreign-language speakers can also develop over great distances. A virtual European effort called eTwinning provides teachers from different countries with a platform on which to carry out exchange projects and regularly work with interested classes. Insights into foreign lifestyles make it possible to organize visits of just a few days or weeks during which young people can take advantage of partner school initiatives.

“It’s not all easy, but if you don’t pursue your dreams you won’t be able to make them come true. I think the most important thing is that we have taken the first step. We have begun to discover the whole world,” is how Carolina from Argentina describes it. Despite the difficulties, the number of students who cut short their programs is only about five percent. In addition to personal maturity, an exchange year can help students find out more about where they are in their lives and develop tolerance for other ways of thinking. Bianka from Hungary says, “I think after an exchange year people have more respect and confidence and are able to better understand others.”