Last year, students from Wauwatosa East and West high schools closed the gap to German culture and language through the German American Partnership Program.
The students, all sophomores in German classes, hosted a student from Fulda, Germany, for two weeks before attending classes in Fulda for two weeks and sightseeing for a week.
Through the trip, the students had conversations about fascism, walked through a muddy wheat field, picked strawberries at 2 a.m. and overcame misconceptions in a foreign land.
GAPP differs from other foreign-exchange programs in that it isn't run through a travel agency. The American and German teachers travel with their students, planning the sightseeing. Since the students don't stay in hotels, Eva Tuinstra, the German teacher at East, said the costs stay low. The typical program price is $2,400.
This is the 26th year Tuinstra, called Frau Tuinstra by her students, has participated in the American-German exchange. GAPP started in 1977 to encourage German-American exchanges and is a non-profit jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and German Foreign Office.
Saying a main function of GAPP is to destroy stereotypes, Tuinstra added, "Most high school students see Germany through the eyes of World War II, and it's hard for most of American kids to disassociate Germany with WWII."
When the Germans arrived in fall, they were surprised, excited, shocked and outraged by a clash of cultures.
East students Lauren Boeckmann and Morgaine Pratcher likened their exchange student to having a sister — a football-loving sister. Morgaine's family went so far as to take the exchange student to Lambeau Field to watch the Packers.
There are no school sports or football in Germany. There's also no homecoming, an event most of the exchange students attended.
"That was a culture shock," Claire Bucanto said.
The Germans weren't used to dances, but some bobbed their heads to the music while others even worked up the courage to dance.
Another culture shock was when Ben Titera took his exchange student to The Cheesecake Factory.
"He was totally outraged at the size of the plate. He was like 'I can't believe this,'" he said. The German ate the entire cheesecake in his outrage.
The American school structure of eight-hour or longer days also tired the Germans, who were used to college-type, varying school schedules. When their two weeks were up, they traveled to Chicago to sight-see.
The Wauwatosa students wouldn't leave until after school let out in June.
Their first day in Germany was, according to them, rough. They boarded their flight early in the morning, flew for nine hours before traveling to Fulda and then heading directly to class. Claire was awake for 24 hours straight. Ben knocked over a chair in his chemistry class after falling asleep. The weather was shocking as well, being much warmer than Wisconsin.
Claire remembers saying to herself, "Wow this is intense. This is crazy. I'm in a foreign country."
The students, while well-versed in German, weren't as skilled at the language as the German students were in English. For example, Ben had a conversation about fascism with a German student in English, but at the beginning of his experience he could only say sentences like "What do you have on your pizza?" in German.
Immersed in learning
After the difficult first day, the Wauwatosa students began to settle into their new German homes. They soon began to notice cultural differences in diet and how Germans treat their children.
They noticed the emphasis on recycling in Fulda. They would buy a soda and the store owner would be adamant they return the bottle. Their temporary families would compost and sort the recycling.
The Germans gave their young much more freedom, East student Maddie Hantzsch said, adding, "I would see little kids walking around and doing their own thing, and in America you'd never see that."
The school was different as well. It was an open campus with multiple buildings and a schedule that differed daily.
When their two weeks were up, the students hopped on a bus and traveled through Germany, Switzerland and Austria. They saw castles, hiked up mountains, visited an island of flowers and walked through a field of wheat.
The sightseeing trip was coordinated and scheduled by Tuinstra. She's been to the castles so many times, she said, "I could give the (castle) tours myself but to see these kids function independently of parents and teacher leadership is very daring and courageous of them and, to me, it feels good."
Looking back, forward
Each of the students brought back something from their time in Germany.
At the end of it all, Lauren said the students became a family.
Claire, who said she was a socially anxious person, said surviving and interacting with people in a foreign country gave her new-found confidence.
"It made me believe that I wasn't a complete idiot, especially when I'm speaking my own language," she added.
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