Music interest leads McCandless student to Germany

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

A connection with music idols has given Bernice Yu one of the best summers of her life.

Yu, 16, of McCandless took a monthlong, all-expenses-paid trip to Germany, sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of German, or AATG. She scored in the 93rd percentile on the 2013 National German Level 2 Exam for high school students to be considered for this cultural experience.

She was selected from 24,000 test takers. Each year, 39 sophomores and juniors are chosen to study abroad, explained Keith Cothrun, executive director of the AATG.

“The program is in its 54th year and has been supported by the German government since then,” he said.

Although Yu, a junior at North Allegheny Senior High School, had studied the language for three years, her interest in the culture began when she was a sixth- or seventh-grader.

“I became a fan of Tokio Hotel, a rock group from Germany,” she said. “I wanted to bring myself closer to them by learning German.”

And so she did.

Later, her love of the band faded, but her study of the language continued.

“It's easy for me,” Yu said, “and I like the German culture and the history.”

Her Nuremberg host family was happy to share their country with her. With a group of 12 teens from across the U.S., Yu visited Berlin, Würzburg, Pottsdam and Munich.

“It was so picturesque,” she said. “Every city was a postcard. Everywhere was like Busch Gardens.”

Winning the trip was a surprise. She thought the Skype interview had gone well but then put it out of her mind. And she and her mother almost missed the email announcements, which went to their spam folders.

“Big stuff like this doesn't happen to me,” she said. “I'm never the kid who wins the jelly bean count.”

But Mark Demkee, 43, her German instructor for two years at North Allegheny Intermediate High School, wasn't a bit surprised by her accomplishment.

“She's a bright young woman,” Demkee, a 12-year North Allegheny veteran, said. “She knocks it out of the park anytime it involves something verbal.”

He linked to her blog and followed her German experience day by day.

“She totally embraced the experience,” the Swissvale resident said.

Yu had most looked forward to “seeing the typical touristy stuff,” in addition to viewing the culture, architecture, lifestyle and infrastructure more closely.

Being immersed in the foreign language had made her more than a little nervous.

“German in the classroom is different than fluent German. Reading and writing is easier than conversing.”

But her group started to speak in German as soon as they arrived.

“It was hard,” Yu said. “We were jet-lagged, and the first day was very difficult. But we did more German listening,” she said, as they toured.

She found the German people to be very hospitable and welcoming and noticed differences in lifestyles, such as diets with more wholesome foods and attention to exercise. But she also noticed something else.

“There's a lot more public smoking there,” she said, “where here it's been uncool for a very long time.”

And she discovered that Germans know how to throw a party after she and her host sister attended a few festivals. Being of age there, she sipped some Bavarian beer but didn't like the taste.

With her final wrap-up essay on the trip — all in German — completed, she can concentrate on the new school year.

“(Students) consistently report that the time in Germany was by far the most significant life experience, providing an opportunity … to learn and grow both intellectually and emotionally,” the AATG's Cothrun said.

After high school, Yu plans a return visit with some of her new American friends from the trip.

“I'd definitely go back to Germany,” she said. “I didn't want to say goodbye.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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