Free soda refills, big cars and fast food, oh my! These are a few of the surprises a group of German exchange students staying at Dalton High School this fall found most noteworthy about the U.S.
It started when DHS German Teacher Ava Wyatt visited the town of Elbingerode, Germany in 1996 and contacted Gymnasium Hochharz to begin a partnership (a "gymnasium" is a German college prep high school). That school closed in 2006 and a new school, Gerhart Hauptmann Gymnasium, took over to continue.
The now 22-year-old partnership sends groups of students back and forth every other year, both from the United States to Germany and from Germany to the U.S. A group of DHS students travelled to Germany this summer. This fall, it was their turn to host their international friends and show them a piece of the south.
Frau Wyatt, as the students call her, said it is an extremely gratifying privilege to watch students on both sides immerse themselves in new languages and cultures.
"The German program at DHS has been brought to life with this exchange," she said. "Learning how to learn is a difficult skill to teach. Students have the opportunity to meet people their own age and learn independently."
Highlights of the itinerary included living with local families to experience the small-town culture of Dalton and how U.S. schools might differ from their own, visiting Chattanooga, TN to see Rock City, traveling to Atlanta to visit The World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium, and finishing their stay in Washington D.C.
The living experience helps connect the students to their host families on a deeper level that lasts far beyond the partnership.
"Watching students maintain their relationship with their German 'brother or sister' throughout their lifetime has definitely been one of my favorite aspects of the exchange," said Wyatt. "This really does ensure lifelong learning."
German teachers Cornelia Bunge and Annette Steiner mentioned that one of the students is typically very shy and reserved but the program has helped him come out of his shell.
"Louis's parents have learned a lot about their son through this partnership," said Bunge. "They were surprised he wanted to participate. He has begun speaking up more, not only improving his English language skills, but also learning grown-up things."
Below are some of the major takeaways from some of the German students.
Nele Graf (17)
I love it here more than Germany. I wish I could stay!
Dalton High School is smaller than ours, and there are more opportunities to take classes of interest, like culinary arts. However, the breaks between classes and at lunch were too short!
We got to participate in Teen Maze and learned to be more responsible. That was something special and exciting for us because in Germany those lessons are not as expressive.
We are already planning when we can come back to visit Dalton, again!
Lucas Loessner (17)
The amount of drink you can get at a restaurant for free is mind-blowing. I expected the fast food here to be cheap, but it is much tastier than what I expected for the price. I was also surprised to see teenagers driving at age 16, and the cars here are cheaper.
This visit for me was less about learning English itself and more about learning to use puns or make jokes in English.
Janika Willingmann (15)
Families here have so many cars! Families in Germany only have one or two, max.
Getting to elect which classes you take at school makes it more fun. I will never forget the marching band at the football game.
I have traveled on the east coast of the U.S. often as a tourist doing mainstream attractions. This way I was really able to visit more local places and understand the lifestyle. The weather here is hot, but I like it that way. I also noticed church is more important here than along the east coast.
Louis Wedde (15)
I really liked living with a Mexican family to see what that was like. I had some funny moments with new friends I won't forget.
I was impressed by the restaurants here because it is a different feeling– it's more free and relaxed, whereas it is often more strict in Germany.
I also really enjoyed the game we attended in Atlanta.
I am looking forward to seeing the museums, capitol and German Embassy in Washington D.C.