Silver Chips Online

One year of new styles, new experiences and a new culture

The life of a foreign exchange student at Blair

By Rohan Oprisko, Sports Editor
October 1, 2013
Imagine walking off of a plane, experiencing that first smell that is now foreign but will be in time almost as recognizable as the one from home. Strolling through the aisles, catching glimpses of the landscape through the big paneled windows on either side. After the whole airport ordeal is done with, waiting in anticipation for the first view of your temporary home. Imagine walking into Blair, navigating the traffic on Blair Boulevard and realizing that for the next year, all instruction will be in the form of a language that does not come naturally.

These are the experiences that sophomores Olivia Grabas and Victor Devys have lived through as foreign exchange students in Blair. Both students are here because of the American Field Service (AFS), a non-profit organization that is 60 years old. The organization offers students over 142 programs in 35 different countries to study abroad in and experience a new culture.

Grabas is from Germany, while Devys hails from Nantes, France. Emma Strongin
Grabas is from Germany, while Devys hails from Nantes, France.
Even though they may be in the same grade and organization, because of their shared experience, these two exchange students are not so different. Although each one is from a different country, both stay with a host family in Takoma Park and experience difficulties in getting accustomed to life in the United States.

Grabas is of Polish descent but from Cologne, the fourth-largest city in Germany, with a population of approximately one million people. It is located on the Rhine River and is famous for the Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws at least six million people per year.

Devys is from Nantes, France, the sixth-largest city in France with nearly 900,000 inhabitants. It is located in Northwest France, a region that is close to the Atlantic Ocean.

So why would these students choose to come here? After a little while, they let out their reasons for coming to the United States. For one, the reason was as simple as becoming fluent in a language, "I wanted to improve my English skills, " Grabas said simply. For Devys it seemed like the answer was just common sense "I am interested in America," Devys said.

One of the most striking differences between the European cultures and that of the United States is the way that the educational format is set up.
Although Grabas and Devys hail from Germany and France, there have been exchange students that have come to Blair from other countries. Emma Strongin
Although Grabas and Devys hail from Germany and France, there have been exchange students that have come to Blair from other countries.


In Germany, elementary and middle school is combined and is only four years long. On the other hand, high school is a whopping seven years long. At the age of ten, German children decide which type of high school to go to. They have four choices of schools to attend: a school designed for the "manually" inclined named Hauptschule, a vocational school named Realscule, a school for the academically-minded called Gymnasium and a fourth school that is a combination of Hauptschule and Realscule. This school is called Gesamtschule. "The high school you go to depends on study habits," Grabas said. "There are no electives and not such a wide selection of classes to take," Grabas said with a disappointed look on her face.

Devys, in contrast, comes from a more relaxed society in France, but the French also share some principles of education with the Germans. "In France you do not choose your class. You have one class in which different teachers move in to," Devys said. A benefit of going to school in France is that their "lunch is two hours" Devys said with a smile. The manner in which students take tests in France is completely different than what most American students are used to, "In France, the tests are thirty little questions where you can use notes," Devys said.

In comparison with both of these countries educational systems, the U.S. has a system in which there is more liberty. Not only do American students have the freedom to pick electives, but American students interact with one another no matter what each persons academic level is.

Both Devys and Grabas have had many common experiences at Blair. "I get lost because it’s so large," Grabas said with a look of humor that expressed her feelings towards the size of the building. "Blair is big with a lot of people," Devys agreed. After the sheer size of Blair, the subjects that caused them the most pain were mentioned. "Journalism is the hardest class because the texts are difficult," Grabas said. Grabas believes that the advanced English used in the news are hard for a person who is accustomed to speaking in German or Polish. "English is the hardest class," Devys said.

Finally the most surprising cultural differences to both students were brought up. "The biggest meal in Germany is lunch," Grabas said. This may seem like a minor detail but as far as culture goes, the importance placed on the largest meal of the day can be meaningful. For Devys, the biggest surprise was the length of free time he would have here. "I do not have time. I never stop working," Devys said.

Devys and Grabas pose for a picture. Samuel Pinczuk
Devys and Grabas pose for a picture.
As with all people who leave their home for a long period of time, both foreign exchange students missed things about their countries. Grabas talked more than Devys about the matter, but they both thought about it for a long time, "I miss my parents. When we were discussing whether to [come to America] or not I thought that leaving my parents for a year would not be a problem. Now that I am here I miss everybody," Grabas stated. Devys also mentioned some sentiments, “ When I am in class I think of my friends and I miss them,” Devys added.

Both students are taking advantages of the opportunities they are given at Blair by continuing their studies of foreign languages. Grabas and Devys are studying French and Spanish respectively.

Even being new to Blair, Grabas has taken part in after-school activities. Grabas is on the tennis team. The tennis team has given Grabas the chance to do something that would not be possible back home. "There are no high school sports in Germany," Grabas said.

The life of a foreign exchange student is hard. Living in a different home for one whole year and only being able to talk to one’s parents over a phone is difficult, no doubt. But somehow in the face of all these difficulties, students still elect to travel to foreign countries to learn the different ways of living and thinking.

http://silverchips.mbhs.edu/story/12181