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GAPP 50 years anniversary
Miles Johnson

To say Miles Johnson has a gift for languages would be an understatement. The young engineer from Charlotte speaks multiple languages: Mandarin, Spanish, Swahili and German, amongst others. We sat down with him and talked about trust in teenagers, eating habits and why keeping an open mind can only be of personal advantage.

Miles Johnson - Alumni Portraits - German American Partnership Programm© Goethe Institut New York

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where do you come from and what do you do?
My name is Miles Johnson and I’m originally from Charlotte, North Carolina. I was a student at South Mecklenburg High School. Then I studied Physics and Mandarin Chinese at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. After my gradation in 2021, I moved to Boston, Massachusetts. One day, I would like to manage engineering projects overseas.

You speak German very well. Why did you decide to learn German as a foreign language?
I was always interested in foreign languages. In addition to English I speak Spanish, German, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as some French, Swahili and Sign language. I started German classes in middle school at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. One reason was that I have extended family that are from North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, and this was my original motivation for learning the language. I had a chance to visit them in Germany while in middle school, and although my German level was decent back then, I still wanted to improve further and increase my understanding and abilities in the language thereafter.

Tell us a bit about your time in Germany.
Our GAPP exchange took place in 2015; I was 15 years old at the time. We stayed in two different towns, for two weeks each. First, we went to a small town called Schorndorf in Baden-Württemberg. Then, we went to Frankfurt am Main. Though I had of course been to Germany before to visit family, my trip with GAPP was very different. We experienced differing city environments having lived with host families in differing areas of the country and attended school during this time. I became deeply immersed and fascinated by the culture, and felt a warm welcome from my host families who helped to shape my experiences in an amazing way. It was extremely interesting to see the differences between everyday lives in the more close-knit town of Schorndorf, compared to the international city of Frankfurt. Both places had unique things to offer; I really appreciated the close-knit community of Schorndorf and got to know more people on a personal level, however was also intrigued by the similarities between Frankfurt and my hometown as both have the atmosphere of a larger city.

What was it like being a visiting student at a German school? How did it differ from your school in the U.S.?
To me, I saw more similarities than differences, especially between student life in Charlotte compared to Frankfurt as both are very globalized cities. However, the main difference I noticed was the independence of students. For example, in America we were never allowed to leave school property during breaks, and were always supervised. Therefore when we attended school in Frankfurt, I was astonished that our German classmates were able to leave school in the middle of the day and walk to a pizzeria a short distance from school for lunch. Additionally, students could leave campus to go home and return later in the day if they had a large gap in between classes, say early morning and afternoon classes spaced far apart. These norm made much more sense to me as a student, and was one of the many examples of independence I saw among the students during my exchange.

If you had to pick one event or memory during that time what would it be?
It is hard because there are so many memories. But two memories really stuck with me:
My host family in Schorndorf once said to me “If there is anything we can ever help you with, please let us know. We are always here to support you in the future!” I will never forget this and was very appreciative of this.
Another memory I have is: Before returning to the U.S. we had a big party in Frankfurt with good food and music. Everybody was present, including the students, the teachers, and the parents taking part in the exchange. I remember one parent said to us “You are going to make the future world a better place”, which still inspires me to this day. We all exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch; I am still in contact with my host families as well as many of my former classmates and teacher.

What are the things you liked most about German lifestyle?
I appreciated the amount of trust that German teenagers are usually given. My exchange partner lived in a small village outside of Frankfurt. Every day he took public transportation to get to his school in Frankfurt, which took him about 40 minutes. And after school he had various sport activities in other parts of the city and always went by himself, which was definitely interesting as such confidence traveling great distances alone is not often the case in my country.
I also liked the food very much. When I went to Germany for the first time, I had to take some time to adjust to the food as it was more freshly made, contained less sugar, and was often of smaller portion sizes. For the first three days, I felt really tired and was craving sugar, however thereafter I got used this way of healthier eating and had more energy every day. That was a very positive experience and inspired me to continue eating healthy even after I returned.

Looking back now, how did that experience shape your future path?
Becoming embedded into a different culture for a month showed that there is more that goes into understanding a culture and people’s way of life than what you can learn in a textbook. The GAPP exchange made this real as the day-to-day interactions we had really shaped our understanding of the language and culture. Also, I took better care of myself after the exchange and started to eat healthier and become more active. I now believe that being in a different environment sometimes helps to question whether your everyday habits are the best.

What advice would you give to a current high school student who is just about to participate in a GAPP exchange?
Cultural differences are something that students need to embrace and not run away from. Things might be very different from what you are used to at home, but at the end of the day, many people live and thrive in this new country and culture and are having amazing experiences separate from what is in your home country. And they are sharing it with you, literally as you visit them. Try new food, make new experiences, and take advantage of every new opportunity so you can see what else is out there. The world we live in today is becoming so globalized, that you are truly at a disadvantage if you chose to not explore other perspectives and a more globalized worldview. What do you feel you can take home with to make yourself a better person? But also, what do you think is better at home and why? Challenge your beliefs!