The American high school culture, with all its social awkwardness, drama and complexity can overwhelm even the natives. Yet some foreign students throw themselves into the mix while still studying the language.
Placed with American families through the International Exchange Student program, several high school students from Europe and Asia are living and learning in Medina County.
Studying in America
Five international students gathered for an interview at Sully’s Irish Pub in uptown Medina to share their experiences and opinions of studying abroad.
Many had studied English since grade school — “Oxford” English, in fact —“I can’t speak American English,” joked Kristina Dany, 17, from Germany, pronouncing her vowels with a British accent.
All five students spoke the language well as they explained some of the challenges and benefits of studying in America.
“I always wanted to see how it is to interact with (teenagers) from the U.S. because you see how it is in the movies, and I’ve been here two times before,” said Mikkel Madsen, 16, from Denmark.
“I was always interested in politics and languages,” added Kristina, who said she could study them in-depth here. She added that some of her friends had good exchange student experiences, which inspired her to study abroad.
Several of the students said the biggest challenge was fitting in at school.
“I think adjusting to America is kind of difficult, but you have to see it from different sides,” said Alex Muhlbach, 16, from Germany. “It wasn’t difficult to adjust to a host family, it was difficult to adjust to school. The first weeks you felt like you didn’t really fit in there. School is kind of shorter in Germany; and getting adjusted to the schedule, it needed some weeks to do.”
“The thing for me was not being able to walk everywhere,” added Tatjana Solscheid, 17. “Public transportation (in Germany), even in the rural areas, is pretty big.”
In Medina County, Tatjana said, she and the other students were dependent on others to give them rides.
Some of the biggest differences the students noted between teen culture in their home countries versus America were drinking and driving — but not at the same time.
“We can drink legally, and we have more freedom with our parents,” said Mikkel. Teens can purchase alcohol in shops by age 16 and drink in bars in Denmark by age 18.
While teens in America drink, the way they do it is different, the exchange students said.
“They just don’t do it where anyone realizes it,” Tatjana said of American teens. “If you drink here, it’s just to get wasted. In Germany, when we drink, we’re more aware of what we’re doing.”
“We drink socially,” Mikkel said.
“There’s a lot of students driving. I don’t see that in China,” added Song Sihao, 18, from China. “There’s a lot of student driving here. Driving age is 18 in China. There’s 10 or 11 hours of school every day (in China). So that’s different.”
Sihao also noted significant cultural differences that took time to adjust to.
“I can’t watch when someone’s eating. My host dad told me when you’re eating with someone you have to look across at them. In China, if you do that, it’s pretty rude,” he explained.
Despite a rough adjustment period to the American high school culture, most of the students said they will take many positive experiences home. Most have traveled to other cities, including Washington, D.C., with student groups or their host families, and they have formed strong bonds with their host families.
One thing they said they will all take back is immeasurable.
“I’ve gained a lot of self-confidence,” said Kristina, to the nods of her friends. “You can’t be shy here.”
International Student Exchange area representative Karen Hamilton, a Wadsworth native and former German teacher, said she has no host families available for next year’s exchange students.
Hosting a student, she said, is rewarding and requires much less financial commitment than people may realize.
This year’s host families are taking a break for a year before deciding to take in another student, Hamilton said.
“The biggest responsibility is to give the student a loving, supporting and caring environment,” she said. “The basic responsibility is to provide room and board for the students.”
Families do not receive a stipend for hosting the exchange student, Hamilton said, but students are required to have access to $300 of spending money a month and must pay for activities such as going to the movies or restaurants with friends.
Hamilton described most of her host families as “average middle-class families. They don’t have a big budget, but they are very open-minded.”
Hamilton said anyone who wants to learn more about hosting exchange students to visit www.iseusa.com, call her at (330) 334-2410 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Kaitlin Bushinski at (330) 721-4050 or email@example.com.