Exchange student learns about life as an American teenager
On junior Lotte Giza's first day of school, she was like many Blazers who might have been asking themselves, "Why am I here? I should be at home!" What separated Giza from the others was the fact that Giza's home is across an ocean, thousands of miles away in Hamburg, Germany.
She is attending Blair this year as a foreign exchange student through Youth for Understanding (YFU), a program that sends over 2,000 students from 50 countries to the U.S. every year, according to the YFU website. Laura Conaway, an admissions counselor at YFU, says that despite a temporary decline in the volume of applicants, due to the events of September 11, the foreign exchange program has been increasing in popularity because of the many rewards it offers. "[Students] benefit from learning another language and learning about another culture from the people in that culture," Conaway says.
When she first arrived, Giza was unsure about her decision to spend a year attending a U.S. school. After all, she was now in a new country with a new language and a new American culture to absorb. "We call it the 'culture shock.' That was hard," Giza says, commenting on the flood of new and different ideas she has been exposed to. "Everything was new and different for me."
Nina Matschy, former exchange student from Germany who is now an intern at YFU, says Giza's reaction is not unusual. "The first few weeks you miss home. You're really insecure," she says.
Lockers and lunchtime
Giza got her first glimpse of Blair shortly before the beginning of the school year, when she came to take her placement test for math and English classes. To her, Blair seemed modern and bright. Luckily, going to school with more than 3,000 students did not intimidate her much. "It's huge, but it's structured," Giza says. "After the first or second day, I knew where to go. It was easy to figure out."
Although she was a little nervous, Giza's first day was positive experience. She enjoys her classes, especially concert band and photography. The arts are underemphasized in German schools, so Giza tries to take advantage of the opportunities she has here. She even joined the marching band. "The music program is awesome," Giza comments. "That's probably the best thing here."
Giza also experienced typical locker trouble. "Oh my gosh!" Giza exclaims, hiding her face in her hands. "It wasn't working. It was so confusing. I had real problems opening this locker. It was terrible!"
She finds her teachers to be nice, funny and helpful. She was concerned because she did not have any friends at first, but her friendly, talkative nature has made it easy for her to find new ones.
She does notice a few discrepancies in teaching style, noting the way both teachers and textbooks explain concepts. It was hard for her to explain how they were different, just that explanations of the material in Germany seemed different than the explanations she received of the same material at Blair. She has the most trouble with that hallmark of American standardized testing, the scantron. "It was a new system, this bubble-multiple choice test," Giza says. Before arriving at Blair, she had never bubbled in an answer. Most tests at her school have few multiple choice questions.
Lunchtime is another new experience that Giza had to become accustomed to. In Germany, unlike at Blair, the school day stretches from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. without a break for lunch.
The amount of homework was also a big change: Giza is used to doing little or none. These days, the only time she really wishes she were back at home is "when I have to do homework," she laughs.
"I was very curious"
Before coming to the U.S., Giza had asked many students in Germany about their experiences as foreign exchange students. It was their stories and her desire to learn new things that convinced her to become one. "I was curious to figure out how people in a foreign country lived their life – their culture, a different language, maybe different religion," Giza says. "I was very curious, open-minded about everything new."
Giza loves how being a foreign exchange student gives her the chance to experience life far from her familiar home, to live on her own and build self confidence. She is eager to meet new people and, of course, improve her English.
Like Giza, Matschy came to the U.S. to improve her language skills. She attributes her fluency in English to her experience as a foreign exchange student, but believes that personal growth is the most important benefit. "You grow, you learn a lot about yourself," Matschy explains. "You learn not only the language, but how to be more mature, how to be more open to new things, how to appreciate new things."
By the time Giza returns to Germany next spring, she hopes to know whether or not she can live on her own, away from her country, friends and family. She will leave behind her host family, air conditioning and heavy traffic, but she will return to her horses, family, and friends in Germany. And like the other exchange students who convinced her to come to the U.S., she may have stories to tell to prospective foreign exchange students about the time she spent at Montgomery Blair.
Lois Bangiolo. Lois Bangiolo was born on March 14, pi day, an auspicious date as she is now in the math-science magnet. In addition to writing for Silver Chips Online she runs track and is secretary of the MBHS Key Club. More »