By Tom Cagney ‘16
After spending a year studying abroad, senior Liam Flood returns home from Germany and shares his experiences with German culture, education, and society through the Youth for Understanding USA exchange program and the CBYX scholarship.
Liam was a sophomore when he discovered the CBYX, or Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, scholarship. The requirements for acceptance were high, with a required unweighted GPA of 3.0 or higher and highly developed written and oral communication skills. Besides the academic requirements, the applicant also needed to demonstrate certain personality traits such as flexibility, an open mind, and a sense of humor, all traits necessary for someone to properly adjust to a new, strange culture. These demands didn’t discourage Liam, though. He filled out the application and was accepted. He was due to board a plane to Germany at the end of summer, 2014.
“I was very excited to go to Germany but the emotions kind of sneak up on you,” Liam said when asked what was going through his mind as he started packing for his flight. “There’s this moment when you realize that you’ll be leaving your home for a year. It wasn’t necessarily a feeling of excitement or fear. I just felt numb.”
During his time as a transfer student, Liam lived with three host families. The first one he stayed with for less than a month since they were a family that wasn’t sure whether they wanted to host a foreign exchange student. Liam was a sort of trial run for them before the real thing. Liam’s second family, a military family, is the one that Liam spent the most time with and identifies as his true German family. It was a family of five with three children: two boys, a fifteen year old named Fabian and a twelve year old named Christoph; and an eighteen year old girl named Anja. Anja had actually been an exchange student in the US for a year, so she was able to relate to Liam’s situation and help him to adjust. Carsten, Liam’s host father, worked at the Bundeswehr Infantrieschule (Army Infantry School) and his host mother, Ines, used to be in the biomedical industry. They are a traditional, loving family who Liam adopted as his family away from home. But even the support of his host family couldn’t stop the shock that came after the honeymoon months where the whole trip felt like a vacation passed. This feeling hit Liam the hardest during the winter months when the idea that he was going to be spending a whole year away from home set in.
Liam studied at the Armin-Knab-Gymnasium, a prestigious high school in Kitzingen, Germany. The education system in Germany greatly differs from that of the US with one of the main differences being that the German system is broken into three tiers. Depending on how well a student performs in school, he or she will be organized into different programs. Hauptschule is the lowest tier and equivalent to basic education in the US. Realschule is the middle tier and functions similarly to normal, academic education. Both Hauptschule and Realschule last until about the tenth grade after which the students are given the choice on whether to join the workforce in a lower level job, train in a profession, or continue their education. The top tier is known as Gymnasium which is the equivalent to AP or honors programs; this lasts until the twelfth grade after which the students are awarded a diploma that allows them to be accepted to a university.
Liam was placed in a Gymnasium program and immediately noticed the differences in how the German school curriculum differed from the American curriculum.
“You didn’t attend the same class every day,” he recalls. “Each day you rotated between a roster of almost a dozen classes.” Not only did the schedule differ from what he was used to, but the way the students were tested on the material taught during class differed as well. Multiple choice was non-existent with most of the assignments and tests consisting of short answers and essays.
“You needed to understand the material at a deeper level. You actually had to demonstrate that you knew and understood the material in words instead of just filling in bubbles on a scantron.” The system was more rigorous but seemed to be much more effective. Liam recalled how a group of his new German friends took a practice ACT online and most of them scored a 34 or higher. The test that a lot of students struggle with in the US was mere child’s play to the German students.
Outside of school, Liam was surprised to find that Germans are very conservative when it comes to technology. “I remember taking out my iPad to play Monopoly with my host-siblings and my host-mother freaked out.” The internet in particular was treated very carefully with the source of the fear being the lack of privacy that comes with technology. For a country as advanced and innovative as Germany, it was surprising to hear that there’s a great phobia towards something we treat as normal in the US.
As his journey came to a close, Liam was both sad and relieved. Despite having a great time in Germany he was ready to come home. “I had my fill of Germany,” Liam said.
It didn’t make leaving any easier, though. He was leaving behind the place and a people he had come to love after calling it his home for a year. “The Germans are a warm and traditional people,” said Liam. “They aren’t the coldly efficient robots that popular stereotypes paint them to be.”
The plane ride home was similar to the plane ride there with Liam’s mind entering a state of emotional numbness. The other returning exchange students on the plane were a mixed bag with some of them crying about leaving, others numb like Liam, and another group that simply couldn’t wait to get home.
After being in a foreign environment for so long, Liam knew that he was going to have to readjust to American culture. “I think realizing that readjusting was going to be difficult helped me. Some people came back thinking they were going to slip back into society easily and they were hit the hardest by the culture shock.”
Liam missed a lot in his time outside of the US and he’s still getting caught up slowly but surely. He’s still in touch with his host family and talks to them once in a while just to update each other about what’s going on in their lives. While he’ll always treasure the memories he made overseas, Liam’s happy to be home and looks at his life in the US with a new sort of appreciation. “When you’re away from home you don’t really miss the big things. It’s the little things that really get to you.”