Story by Kaitlin Flanigan
My fears and anxieties grew as I scrambled to fit a year’s worth of belongings into two suitcases the night before my flight to Germany. The next morning, bags in hand, I turned the corner past security and left my family at the gate. As I looked back, I saw my mother in tears. It was at that point that I could feel my heart beating in my throat. My stomach flipped as a voice nagged inside my head; “You are walking into this blind.”
No one’s exchange is a piece of cake. If they can claim it was, they’re either lying or they were drunk the entire time. My experience abroad was challenging, but nonetheless rewarding.
I went to Dresden, Germany my junior year of high school without a clue about what to expect. I was naive, silly, and ready for any adventure that I thought might cross my path. I look back now and tell strangers that I loved every second of my exchange experience. But that is a lie.
That doesn’t mean I regret my stay in Germany. Despite homesickness, loneliness, and personal crises, I never felt cheated out of the “picture perfect” exchange. And while I didn’t make friends right away and there were moments when all I wanted was to go home, my time in Dresden helped me understand that I am capable of standing on my own.
When I left Sherwood, Oregon, I knowingly gave up many typical high school experiences such as prom, football season (pretty big in my hometown), and an array of antics that my high school friends were planning to carry out the ensuing school year. Despite this, my head and heart drove me toward the unknown path of studying abroad, and I happily grabbed the opportunity that was, and still is, unique.
In retrospect, what attracted me to Rotary International Youth Exchange probably had more to do with the fact that I hated high school. (I was a teenager; can you blame me?) To my sophomore mind, a year abroad was my “golden ticket” to a land of surprises and new beginnings—it was my chance to start over.
I started my exchange for all of the wrong reasons: by thinking I could escape my problems, when in reality, they were waiting for me when I got back. Yet, when I arrived in Dresden in August 2005, I chose to stay for all of the right ones: for the sake of making a new beginning and being a representative of my home country.
I may have stayed for the right reasons, but the right reasons aren’t always the easiest.
Homesickness set in as soon as the leaves began changing colors, and it only intensified when I got into a fight with my German classmates. It turned out, they didn’t trust me the moment they met me, simply because I was an American; a citizen of a country that had recently re-elected George W. Bush. The situation worsened when they interpreted a moment of me crying alone during a class trip as a sign that I, too, hated them.
School only got harder as their taunting intensified. From school supplies to verbal insults, I was the target of adolescent angst. Once, my classmates actually had the gall to find a picture of the World Trade Center, draw planes crashing into it, and then move the “artwork” closer to where I sat. They were out to get the American girl.
The day I realized my comprehension of the German language was improving was the day I overheard a group of girls at lunch insulting me by saying how stupid I was. I was shocked—I had never been bullied before—and added to the stress I was already experiencing from culture shock and homesickness.
Throughout the course of my exchange, I missed the familiarity of my American high school. However, despite the pain caused by some of my classmates, the rest of my German peers treated me with respect. I also made some good friends outside of class. Once virtual strangers, these people were able to give me insight into German culture that few get.
Although my German classmates and I had a rocky relationship for most of the academic year, we did learn to respect each other by the time I left. In the end, they taught me to be stronger and to develop a thicker skin.
During this difficult adjustment, I found a support system amongst my peers who were in the same exchange program. I spent many memorable weekends with my new group of international friends. Sometimes we would meet up on a Thursday night for a cheap dinner of bratwurst or doener, lamb gyros, and talk about how different our lives in Germany were compared to our lives back in our respective countries.
Our heated debates about geopolitics and the differences between American English and British English helped me forget my troubles in school. My new friends kept me hopeful and helped make my exchange worthwhile.
Regardless, I always missed home. My homesickness was only compounded by the fact that members of my family were struggling with major illnesses. Worse, I was served with a healthy dose of Catholic guilt every time I opened an e-mail, made a call home, or just thought about my time apart from my family.
Less than a week before Christmas that year, I received a phone call from home: my grandma had passed away after struggling with terminal cancer for four years. Before my exchange, I realized that I would probably never see my grandma again. But She was the one who ultimately encouraged me to go.
In her heart, I think my grandma figured that if she could never go on such a “grand adventure,” her granddaughter should do it for her.
That holiday was the hardest I’ve ever gone through, knowing that my family was gathering for a funeral before gathering for Christmas. Then three months later, my grandpa—her husband of nearly fifty years—passed away from heart failure.
Some days, even now, I look back and ask myself why I didn’t just end my exchange and fly back home immediately at Christmas; at least then I would have had three more months to spend with my grandpa.
However, he would have never stood for it. Like my grandma, he was living vicariously through me, and my exchange represented the adventure that he never had in his youth. To have it end for him, or for my grandma, would’ve been a disservice to their memory.
Although it was a tough decision, I know that by staying in Europe, I made them proud. After all, if I had returned home, I wouldn’t have been able to call them from Germany to tell them stories about what I was doing and describe all of the characters I was meeting.
Looking back, I think my host family helped me cope with my losses the best. I remember my host mother, Dagmar, wrapping her arms around me as I sobbed after I hearing the news about my grandma. The next day, I found a box of German chocolates and flowers waiting for me when I got home from school.
Although it was difficult going through these times without my real family, I discovered a new family in Germany that was just as strong and supportive.
The year I spent in Dresden was the hardest I’ve ever had. However, it was easily the most rewarding. Within three months of arriving in Germany, my German had drastically improved.
Currently, I’m in the process of completing a German minor. I have made friends who will be there for me throughout my life, and knowing that their love is there helps me get through difficult moments.
Since Germany, I’ve realized that I’m my own worst enemy but also my own best friend. I learned that I can get through the toughest of situations, and that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. No matter what, I will find love wherever I’m blessed enough to find myself.
The lessons I learned, the adventures I had, and the good people I found are what made the sacrifices I made that year worthwhile.