‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or at least, that’s what everyone kept telling me...
The journey to becoming an exchange student in Germany has been similar to a Kansas road - rough, bumpy, never-ending, and full of potholes. But, as I countdown the days until I leave, talk with my host family, and excitedly pack my suitcase full of more junk each day - it’s been more than worth it.
My interest in becoming an exchange student began from hearing the stories about my German ancestors from my grandpa. He detailed his side of the family and talked about certain customs and traditions that they brought here, including polka and recipes. Due to growing up hearing this, when I entered high school my freshman year, I decided to join German class.
I had an amazing teacher who helped me fall in love with the language, customs, traditions, and really everything about Germany. I had a strong connection towards Germany, and because of this, I wanted to connect myself more with where my family came from - and what better way to do that than to become an exchange student!
There was an interesting opportunity that my high school offered, it was a school sponsored exchange for American and German students. Twelve students from my school would be accepted and paired with twelve German students from a Bavarian school, and in the fall around Homecoming time, the German students would stay as an exchange student in America with their respective American pair for two weeks. In the summer, the Americans would go to Germany and do the same thing. To me, this seemed like a good opportunity to dip my feet in the exchange pool, so I worked endlessly on my presentation, essays, etc., but when the time came to reveal who was accepted, no freshmen were on the list (It’s also important to remember that there were only 12 spots and maybe 32 applicants, with three of those being freshmen who would have the opportunity to apply again their junior year).
After I saw that I was denied, I was devastated. I remember receiving the letter during second hour math class, and I just started crying - I really wanted it. But, I continued taking and learning German, and despite being a tad crushed, I decided why not take a chance at a scholarship my German teacher had mentioned my freshmen year, as a substitute for the program my school offered?
Sometime during November of my sophomore year I remembered this scholarship Frau Calhoun had mentioned - the CBYX program. Truthfully, my only thought was, ‘I want to be an exchange student in Germany and this is cool because it works through the government and is affordable.’ This decision was uncharacteristic of me, because it was very last minute and spontaneous (but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life). I opened the application and filled it out, then pleaded to my mom to sign the paperwork, saying that I really wanted this, and finally submitted my application.
I didn’t know how much this opportunity meant to me until I became a semi-finalist in January 2020. I got the email at night and started crying out of happiness, something I had never done nor expected to do in my life. I called my whole family, who were all pretty much against me becoming an exchange student, and told them how excited and happy I was.
In February, I made a trip to Denver, CO, for my in-person interview with CBYX. When leaving the event, I was confident in myself. I thought I had made many new friends, my interview went amazing, and I finally got to see the mountains for the first time! But, in March of 2020, the pandemic hit - something that was on my mind at that time was, ‘Will the program get canceled?’ Technically, no.
In April I was staying at a family friends’ house for a few weeks while doing online school. Around 5 p.m. my mom called me and asked if I had checked my email. I hadn't, so she excitedly told me I was a finalist for CBYX, and would be going to Germany in January.
Due to COVID-19, the program would be shortened, and we were supposed to leave in January for Germany and come back in June, but you'll see what happened to that in a minute.
I called everyone I knew, saying, ‘I’m going to Germany! I’m going to Germany! It’s finally happening!’ At least, that’s what I thought would happen.
September 2020 - I had just received my passport and had opened my first bank account a day prior. I was just dismissed from my online German class, and started scrolling through Instagram before math started. While swiping through stories, I saw a photo of a guy crying and it said his exchange year was canceled due to the pandemic. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m glad I’m not in that organization’, and then I realized we were in the same organization, CIEE. So, I headed straight to my email where I saw the dreaded message. We wouldn’t be going to Germany, although the program would still continue virtually. I just started bawling.
My mom decided to call me out of school because of my state. I had envisioned living out my exchange year my junior year, finally grasping what I wanted freshman year, but there it had been, taken away...again.
My family was very against me leaving for an exchange year, but after this day, that’s when they all realized how much this meant to me. My grandma picked me up, bought me food and took me to her house to relax. Then my Nana took me to the camp she was camping at. I was sitting at the swings at the campsite, breathing the air, taking in the moment - being surrounded by nature helped calm me.
I was devastated, and I didn’t know what the virtual program would contain, or if I even wanted to try being an exchange student anymore. It seemed like every time I tried, something happened - I was denied... a literal pandemic... but as I went through my junior year, I thought to myself about maybe trying one more time. Third time’s a charm, right?
I continued my junior year by attending the virtual CBYX program. I took German classes online through the Goethe program, got to know some amazing German friends, and attended virtual seminars. Although I wasn’t in Germany, there is no doubt that the virtual program was amazing.
But, my junior year was pretty painful - with the ACT, college stress, my mom getting sick, and dealing with the hybrid pandemic classes. Despite the struggles, I learned a lot throughout this year, and one of those lessons was how durable I am. That I will keep trying, trust my gut, and reach for my dreams.
So my senior year, I came in with a bit of a vengeance, but it was probably that genetic stubborn trait that comes from my family. I spent tons of time dedicated to learning German and it’s complicated grammar, studying their politics, and understanding more of their culture and history. I also talked more to my German friend, sharing our cultures with each other by talking about it or even sending packages of food.
In September, as soon as the application for CBYX came out, I started working on it. Although the first application was a piece of cake to me, this time it was super hard. Maybe due to being hesitant or the fact that in almost two years I had changed so much and that was weighing on me (I mean, I did live through a pandemic, and still am). It took me until the December deadline to complete the application, it was that hard for me to do it, but I like to compare this time to a Nickelback quote, ‘That first step you take is the longest stride.’
It was almost like I was on edge the whole application process, continuing on like I would go to college in the fall and ignoring the CBYX program. I wanted to ignore it as much as possible to not get too excited until I was finally... there - in Germany, accepted and living the dream I’ve been wanting for four years. Through every milestone and achievement this year, being a semi-finalist and going through the interview - it didn’t feel real. I let myself get lost in the college acceptance process, my high school journalism career, and expanding on my favorite hobbies and passions. I was stubborn about being an exchange student in Germany, and though I spent maybe eight months trying to ignore it, the excitement was always there no matter how much I tried to suppress it.
In fact, for how smooth and great my first CBYX interview experience was, my second one was the exact opposite. I was nervous, shaking, had to ask for questions to be repeated multiple times, and even teared up talking about a very personal question. I left that Zoom interview feeling like I was definitely finished with my journey. I had failed, holding this dream for years - I had gone through this process before, I knew what the questions would be, and I just couldn’t keep it together.
I told my friends and family that my interview went okay and told my teachers that it sucked and I wasn’t going to get accepted again. But, on March 31, 2022, I checked my email and found out I was a CBYX finalist!I would be an exchange student in Germany!
For a few hours I kept it to myself, almost not believing it. When I got home, I let it all out. A smile, tears. I let myself hold that moment dear to me. I told all my German friends first, that I had made it, then I called all my family members and texted all my friends - it should finally be happening.
I canceled my admittance to university, stopped looking for roommates, and let myself finally finish this journey. When I got to school I told Frau Calhoun, who saw me endlessly work on German grammar and had seen me from the first day I started learning German. She saw me get denied from our school program, saw CBYX turn virtual due to the pandemic, and when I told her this time, she just hugged me and said, ‘I’m so happy for you!’ I was so excited at that moment, and so was she.
My friends, although sad that I would be leaving them, were so happy that I would finally have this. And my family, who weren’t too happy that I wanted to go to Germany, were all excited for me too. I think it’s because when the program turned virtual, they all realized how much being an exchange student meant to me, and though they didn’t want me to leave, I was happy and either way I would’ve been leaving (for college or Germany). And this was a dream four years in the making.
Being accepted was still unbelievable, but, as I sit here writing this, at 25 days until I step foot on German soil, talking with my host family every other day, stuffing new things into my suitcase every now and then, and talking to other participants - it’s starting to feel real, and I love it!
There’s no doubt that it’s been a long journey, full of some pain, anger, and a lot of sadness, and even at one point, the thought of giving up my dream - but it’s finally here. I can’t wait and hope you can follow me on my exchange year in Germany, seeing me live through a dream that has been in the making for a while - it certainly was a long time coming...
As I get closer and closer to leaving the great, flat land of Kansas, I’ve been making sure to live every moment as much as I can while I’m here. I’ve been spending extra time with those who I love and who I know will miss me, and I’ve been getting all my vaccinations up to date, figuring out what gifts to get my host family, and meeting all the other CBYX participants.
Right now I’m just an 18 year-old girl from Topeka, Kansas. I love photography, writing, picnics, and scrapbooking like a grandma. In a few months I’ll be living in Krefeld, North-Rhine Westphalia, living my dream as an exchange student in Germany.
Wish me luck and check for updates, I’ll make sure to document my exchange year as much as I can. In the meanwhile, look through the photo slideshow I made to introduce myself and my hometown. Enjoy!
Mit freundlichen Grüßen,