My life as an exchange student

Gina Dauenheimer, Staff Reporter

Almost 1.21 million international exchange students travel to the US each year, and stay 6 to 10 months. I’m one of them. Seven months ago I left Germany to start this new crazy journey. I’ve always wanted to travel to America, get to know the culture, improve my English, and get a involved in the high school life.

After a full year of preparation, meetings, interviews, web chats, and so much more readied me for the journey, but are you ever ready enough to leave your friends and family behind and travel to a whole new country? I thought I was. I prepared myself for so long.

There are many requirements to become an exchange student, first of all I needed to pay. . a lot: $16,000 minimum and about $400 each month for school supplies, food, toiletries, and other things I wanted to buy while in the States. Also, students need to be really good in English. I had an English test and an interview in English.  Once accepted, I had to take care of my visa and book my flight. Students who want to be exchange students can’t be shy; they need to have a friendly and outgoing personality. Students should be ready to try new things, and get out of their comfort zone.

This my exchange story:

8/8/2018, Travel-date. I’ve waited for this day so long. Crying as I got on the airplane, it was not easy saying goodbye to my family. After a long flight, we finally arrived in New York, where I stayed three days with other exchange students in my program, and we prepared for living with our host families and played games.

My father, Arnold Dauenheimer said, “It was hard letting my daughter go, but we knew that it will benefit her in the future.”

“I really enjoyed being in New York with exchange students from all over the world”, said Vicky Haydu an exchange student from Germany. “It was fun being around so many students that were in the same situation as I was when everything began.”

Tessa Geist, another German exchange student said, “I loved being in New York. Seeing this big city was amazing. I’m from a really small town in Germany, so it was really different being is a big city like New York.”

8/11/18: I walked down the stairs of the Bloomington-Normal Airport. I had never seen such a small airport, but that did not matter. When I finally saw my host family standing there with a bunch of “Welcome” signs, I remember being so nervous and I thought, ”Okay, this is really happening”.

My first week was incredible. America is just so different from Germany, everything is much bigger: cars, roads, houses and shops. My first time in Walmart actually scared me, too many things in too many flavors.  Also, the jet lag I experienced made it more difficult for me to take in all these wild first impressions.

My host mother, father and two younger host siblings (10,14), showed me around the town and I felt welcomed from the first day on.

My host mother Missy Russell said, “We are so glad to have a exchange student in our house. We learn something new everyday, and are able to share our love and our American culture, we would absolutely do it again.”

8/16/18: First day of high school. Nervous was not enough to describe my feelings on the first day of school, but I survived. Everyone was really nice to me and helped me out if I had any questions, and I didn’t get lost which made the whole situation even better. After school I went to talk with the dance coach to join the team, and got to know all the dance girls. They all were incredibly friendly to me, and I made some future friends on the first day.

My host sister and I visiting Normal West before school started. Photo by: Missy Russell.

The first few months were exciting. I had no time to worry about my life in Germany. Everything was so perfect, just like I imagined and hoped it would be. Finally, it felt like home. I stopped asking permission to eat something or where certain items belong. I was just going with the flow of life in Normal, and it never felt so good. I built a relationship with my host family and became closer and closer with the kids from school. I started practicing dance with the girls. I went to my first football game, a typical Midwest corn festival, and ate my first s’mores, danced at Homecoming and took typical Homecoming pictures with my new friends.

I love my American life. When I am out of my normal space I can express myself totally differently; it’s almost like I found the new me. Sometimes I wondered if people would like the “German” me. When you speak in a different language you automatically act differently and speak differently because certain things just get lost or come out differently in the translation between the two languages.

My American friends got to know me in another way, and to be honest, I got to know myself differently too. I started caring about myself more and the people around me. I became more aware of my actions and how they affect my lifestyle.

America made me see life from another angle. It made me independent. In Germany, I never needed to do my own laundry, make my own appointments, or be on my own that much. I became more understanding, and started to appreciate things more. I’ve always appreciated my family and friends,  but not as much I have this year. My family at home does so much for me, and I realize that more than ever. I also appreciate the German food and just my daily life back in Germany.

My fellow exchange students agree. Geist said, “This year in America is the best year I ever had. I made so many experiences, met many amazing people and visited so many new places. I recommend an exchange year for everyone because it is an amazing change to find out who you really are and meet new people.”

Elaine Abonal, who has her own blog about her exchange year on a website called said in her post, “Being away for 10 months and living alone in a completely different world has taught me a lot of things. I have grown and my perspective has changed in ways I never would have imagined. I now can say that I am independent, appreciate my family and friends here more, open to new ideas, aggressive, and more confident about myself. Having my own adventure has proven to me that anything is possible and that I can do anything.”

Being an exchange student can still be difficult sometimes. Many students struggle with homesickness, especially when it is their birthday or a holiday like Christmas. I turned 17 in the US and my day was awesome. I got presents and had a dance performance that day, so there was no time for being homesick.

Christmas was nice too, I heard from other exchange students that they were really homesick, but I did not need to worry about that. I actually got a lot of gifts for Christmas too. My host family, including the grandparents treat me like a real family member, so I got as many presents as the other kids. Christmas is not about gifts, that’s for sure, but their true gift to me was that they share their love and home with me.

My first time being homesick was in the beginning of February. February was just kind of a lame month; everyone stayed home because the weather in Illinois is not the greatest and dance season ended. I just had too much time to think about home, and what my German people were doing.

Homesickness pulled me into a deep black hole, and it took me a while to recover. I just lay in bed and cried and nothing seemed to help. I started thinking about how my life is going to be when I’m back in Germany. I started to worry if the people even missed me, or if they will even want me in their life when I’m back from my long trip. Time didn’t stop when I left Germany; my friends and family’s lives moved on. I started to worry if l even will fit in anymore.

My host mother started to notice. My host family did a lot with me to help my homesickness. At some point it got better; I asked friends to hang out to distract me, and my mindset was that I almost made it; only 4 months till I’m home again, so I should make the best out of my time while I get the chance to live the ‘American Dream’.

Now there is only one month until I leave the US. My feelings are mixed. I can’t imagine leaving everything so soon, but I use my time as best as I can. My host grandparents invited my host family to Disney World in Florida in June, and are paying for the entire trip. Not only that, but the weather is getting better and I’m really excited for my last month and all the adventures ahead.

Overall I had a great experience and the best year ever. I can’t wait to see my family again, but I’m already planning a return trip to visit Normal, Illinois.