Connecting cultures through exchange

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Current German exchange student and junior Pia Ohlsen, left, poses with junior and future exchange student Monica Caroll for a pre-homecoming picture. -photo by Ali Barlett

By Kaela Vecchia-Zeitz

High school is often categorized as one of the most unstable times in a person’s life. Teenagers are in a strange demographic in which they are neither adults nor children. Throughout the past school year, the regional high school has hosted two exchange students — teenagers who looked adolescence in the eye and decided to step out of their comfort zones.

Juniors Jurek Wille and Pia Ohlsen, raised in Germany, have been experiencing American — and Island — life for the past school year. Similarly, the high school is sending off a couple of its own to experience another culture. Junior Monica Carroll will be spending next year in Spain, and junior Sophie Bonneau will be living in Japan.

Jurek is from Berlin and is enrolled in the high school as a junior, but is actually only 16 years old. Not only is he studying in a foreign country, he is also surrounded by students one, if not two, years older than he. As his time in America comes to a close, Jurek said, “My favorite part of my exchange was not an event. In my opinion, the best part of it was finding a second home, a place where I had a family and friends, and I didn’t feel like the stranger anymore.”

Pia is from Bremen in northern Germany, and is following in family footsteps in her exchange. She said, “My brother did an exchange year in Vermont, so he told me about it. But honestly, when my parents asked me about doing an exchange year in 10th grade, I didn’t want to — it was scary! You are so far away from your family for so long. Once I thought about it, though, I realized that it was my last chance to do one, and I really wanted to experience something different than German culture.”

Monica was a member of one of Pia’s three host families, and will be embarking on her own yearlong exchange to Tenerife, one of Spain’s Canary Islands. She said, “I have been interested in a long-term exchange, and did a short one last summer, and Pia convinced me about next year. I think knowing her has given me a better understanding of Germany. I’ve learned how to share a small space with another person. She is very open to life, and that has helped me be more interested in things I was not before. An exchange may seem like a long time, but it’s better to do one knowing you might not have a great time, rather than opting out and regretting it later.”

Sophie will be traveling to Japan in August. She said, “I want to be immersed in the culture of Japan. It’s so different from anything here. The language is so beautiful — difficult as well, but that’s why I’m so intrigued, because it’s so challenging. The Martha’s Vineyard Rotary Club is sponsoring me, and they’re trying to get me several host families. They want me to have as many different experiences as I can. Some parents might work a lot, some might want to travel and show me around the country — every family is so different. I’m most excited to be part of a different culture and experience life from a totally new point of view. My personal goal is to come back completely fluent.”

Jurek said, “In the past few weeks, I have realized what an exchange is all about — and I have realized that I already have a perfect one. Of course, there were challenges to overcome with the culture, people, and homesickness, but I have so many wonderful friends here, and they give me the feeling of being part of a family. That’s what the highlight of this exchange was — feeling accepted and loved by the ones who have made my year so great.”HSV