Quaker Valley's German student exchange program going strong in 40th year
Marieke Meyer loves everything she has discovered about America: The strangers who say hello as they walk by on the street, the mountains she drove through recently on her way to Niagara Falls and the cooking classes she attended at Quaker Valley High School.
“I would stay here forever if I could, but I don't think that I'm allowed to,” said Meyer, 17, of Buxtehude, Germany.
Twenty-one students from Halepaghen-Schule High School in Buxtehude are spending three weeks with families from the Quaker Valley School District as part of an exchange program that is now in its 40th year.
During the exchange, the German students are shadowing their American peers while attending school at Quaker Valley, visiting Niagara Falls, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and New York City. In June, nearly a dozen students from Quaker Valley will head to Buxtehude to learn about German culture.
“What is special about this exchange is being able to live the American way of life,” said Christina Pape, head of the English Department at Halepaghen-Schule. “They're living everyday life with the host family, forming friendships, getting in touch with people on a very different level than just meeting them as a tourist. I think all of them have some idea of what an American high school would be like and they get a chance to really experience that.”
The students are often impressed by what they find in America, Pape said. But more importantly, they learn to become open-minded and how to work with people who are different from them, she added.
Niklas Boehme, 17, a senior at Halepaghen- Schule said he was taken aback when the students arrived at LaGuardia Airport in New York City and stopped to take a selfie. People began moving out of their way and stopped to let them take the picture. That doesn't happen in Germany, he said.
“Everybody here is very nice and everybody is like, ‘thank you,' and in Germany it's so much different. The attitude is much different. The attitude in Germany is more serious,” Boehme said.
Amy Karst, the German teacher and exchange coordinator at Quaker Valley since 1999, pairs German and American students based on their likes and interests. She has spent nearly a year and a half planning for the visit and fought back tears recently as she talked about the students' experiences.
“It's a really special program. They're realizing first-hand the language and the culture and the way that people live,” she said.
More than that, lifelong friendships are being made. Karst talked about families who traveled across the ocean to attend weddings or serve as godparents after meeting years ago during Quaker Valley. “When they go to the airport, I always tell them bring tissues, because everybody cries,” she said. “These are lifelong relationships that are being formed.”
Matilda Gould, 16, a junior at Quaker Valley, has visited Germany three times — once as a part of the exchange program. Her family is serving as a host this year for a German student.
Through the exchange, Gould, who loves the German language, said she has learned about the similarities and differences of teenagers in the U.S. and Germany. “I know our cultures are so different, but we're also so alike,” said Gould. whose brother keeps in touch with the person he hosted during an exchange in 2011.
“I think it builds lots of friendships.”
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.