Saturday, March 18, 2017

Then & Now: Exchange Programs

When I was 17 and in 11th grade, I left home for six months to participate in an international exchange program. The exchange was between my hometown (Sheboygan, Wisconsin) and its sister city (Esslingen, Germany) and organized through People to People International. The program was designed so that students from Esslingen came to Sheboygan in July for six months and returned home for Christmas, and in February the Sheboygan students flew to Esslingen for six months. The foreign students attended school and lived with their partner's family in a homestay arrangement.

In June of this year the two cities will celebrate their Golden Anniversary - 50 years of partnership. The exchange began three years later, in 1970. For the next 32 years the exchange program flourished with students on both sides of the ocean. Not every exchange was perfect, but all-in-all there was great success throughout the years. Since then there were years here and there where no students applied from Sheboygan, so the program floundered a bit.

Recently some life was breathed back into the exchange, and now that I'm living here I'm involved in the program from an organizer assistant's standpoint. Namely, I spend two weeks in Esslingen near the beginning of the Americans' stay to help them boost their German skills before they head off to the Gymnasium. I also am one of the chaperones who take them on a 3-day trip to Berlin and remain a contact for them in case things go wrong.

Sheboygan & Esslingen: Partners since 1967
Credit: M
Since I was recently in Esslingen with this year's group of three, the idea came to me to write a "Then & Now" post about the exchange experience. Much has changed in those 31 years.


I haven't seen this year's students take many photos yet, but I suspect they are using their smart phones. I use my digital camera, and I can transfer them to my laptop and upload them to our Facebook group the same day. The parents in Sheboygan can see photos of their kids the same day they were taken.

In 1986 I not only used a film camera, but I took mostly slides. In order to look at my pictures from back then, I need to find a slide projector and a big screen or an empty white wall. In order to see my pictures or slides while on the exchange, I had to first take 24 pictures without being able to see whether they were any good or not, bring my used film rolls to a camera shop, wait three days for the developing, and pay (I don't remember how much - 20 Marks?). Only then could I see if the photos had turned out or were blurry.


When the kids choose to (and apparently they don't choose to often enough to suit their parents), they can send a short message over Facebook or other social media, or send an email to their parents, either of which the parents will receive the minute they wake up. We have a Facebook group where students, host parents, and parents can post messages or photos, and I imagine they all send SMS (text messages) with their fancy smart phones.

Back in my day...(you know you're getting old when you start saying that!) I wrote letters to my friends and family and mailed them. There was no internet, no Skype, phoning was too expensive, and there were no mobile phones. My letters and postcards took 5-7 days to get to Wisconsin, and if the recipient wrote back immediately, I would get a reply 6-8 days later. So we're talking two weeks between "How are you doing?!" and "Fine thanks, how are YOU?!" By the time I received a reply, I'd forgotten what I'd written!
To give them a sense of "what it was like in my day,"
I had them write postcards to mail home to Sheboygan.
I asked my host parents if I could call my best friend on her birthday, which of course they let me do. I don't know how long we talked, but afterwards I told my host mom to tell me what I owe her when the bill comes. She just quietly said, "That's ok. You wouldn't be able to afford that." Yikes!  I also got a call one morning from home. My parents called to tell me that the U.S. had bombed Libya during the night, and I should know that before being confronted by it in school. I didn't even know where the hell Libya was back then.


In 1986 my group (seven of us from Sheboygan) traveled with our chaperone to Berlin for five days. Berlin was still divided then, and there was no indication that it would ever be otherwise. One day we went over to East Berlin - through the underground checkpoint at Friedrichsstraße - had to change 25 German Marks for 25 nearly worthless East German Marks, and were warned that we needed to get the hell out before midnight if we didn't want to have problems at the border.  Another day we peeked over the barricade at the Brandenburger Tor and walked along the graffiti-covered Berliner Mauer to one of several outlook platforms. We went to the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie which focused on escape attempts and successes, we attended an evening operetta, and we spent a sunny afternoon at the Wannsee, where the lads among us ventured into the FKK section - where they were easily pegged as the Americans because they were the only ones with "a white zone".

Last year I accompanied the same chaperone (who is now my Schwiegermutter) as her assistant with the group of four Americans. The wall is gone though there's a trail through the city that shows where it was, we could walk right through the Brandenburger Tor, the hub of the city is now in what was East Berlin, and the Ku'Damm, where we had stayed in 1986 and again last year, is nearly dead (compared to the bustling Western central it was in 1986). We roamed freely around the city making use of the underground, which was only functioning in the West back in my day. In order to give the students an idea of what life in Berlin was like with the wall, we visited the Asisi Panorama as well as Bernauerstraße, where there is a viewing platform over a reconstruction of the wall, the barbed wire, the mine field on the east side and a guard tower.

We also visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which opened to the public in 2005.


When I was in high school, it was still common for Americans to learn a foreign language. I remember a decent enrollment in my German classes, and all four Sheboygan high schools - North, South, Lutheran and Christian High - offered German. It made (and would still make) sense because there are many families with German roots in Wisconsin. I didn't knock anyone's socks off with my expert German-speaking skills, but at least I had the opportunity to learn it for several years before coming to Esslingen.

Nowadays due to budget cuts, foreign languages other than Spanish are a rarity in Wisconsin schools. I know of one German teacher who teaches in both public high schools, but both private schools have cut German. Last year's group of Sheboygan students had had virtually no German before the exchange, so our classroom lessons consisted mainly of learning basic conversation. This year all three have had some German (between several months of an online course and three years in the classroom), so we were able to do some grammar as well as conversation and vocabulary building.

It frustrates me no end that world languages get cut so easily and quickly in American schools. Sure, they are electives, but if we want to be part of a global society, we need to learn more about other languages and cultures, not less. 


In the year I applied for the exchange there were fourteen applicants from local German classes who wanted to spend six months in Esslingen! Seven of us were chosen, and we had a great time together. I don't think there were ever that many applicants again, but back in those days there were surely more than there have been recently. As I said, since 2002 there have been several years when no one at all applied from Sheboygan, and in the years when there have been applicants, there have been usually just two or three. 

There are always applicants in Esslingen - part of the education program in German Gymnasien (college-track high schools) focuses on world languages and opportunities to travel to France, Greece, England, Spain, Italy... even in the younger grades as class trips. But for most students in the U.S. it seems friends and sports are more important than exploring the world independently. Of course, the flight overseas is not cheap, and that presents another huge obstacle. One of the current students mentioned college preparations and the ACT test as a reason students don't want to miss half of their 11th grade, and that's surely a weighty reason. It's possible to get around that, though, as one of the other students - an 11th grader - is proving. Where there's a will, there's a way.


The final big "then & now" difference that has occurred to me is the way students have kept record of their time abroad. I kept a hand-written journal, which I still have on my bookshelf and consider an important possession. Every now and then I pull it out to read what I was doing this day 31 years ago. There are many events and incidents I would have forgotten about had I not written that journal.

Today students can keep an online journal - a blog! - as one of ours is doing. It's a great way to combine journaling and communicating with friends and family back home, killing two flies with one swat, as the Germans say ("zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen"). 

I am really proud of the exchange students we have had since I got involved with the program, who have broken out of their comfort zones and ventured to a foreign country where the local language is not their own. I would like to see exchange programs - especially the Sheboygan-Esslingen exchange - flourish again in the coming years as they once did. Students all around the world want to travel to the U.S., and I would like to see more young Americans get out and experience the world as more than tourists.


  1. When I was at school you HAD to learn one language until age 16. Now you can drop all languages at 13. It makes me sad.

  2. Anonymous21/3/17 09:23

    It drives me nuts that foreign languages are not a big deal in the States. Even in college it's seen as this annoying gen ed by most students, if they are even required to take a language at all. When I was in high school, I thought languages were stupid because I was never going to get out of small-town Missouri (haha, see how that went!). Faced with attending a college where I would have to pay for two semesters of a language unless I took two years in high school, I opted to do it while it was free. Courses were only available from the age of 14, and I started when I was 16. However, in that Missouri school system you can get by without ever taking a langauge class.

    I didn't even attend that college in the end nor did I attend one which required language courses, but I did continue studying Spanish in my chosen college which ultimately led to my first study abroad experience. I wish I had started learning much earlier, because it's so hard to learn a language now alongside graduate studies. I was trying to take German classes at my uni, but have given up on those and will just self-study at this point. The time constraint and quiality of courses is just not there (I have been doing the same grammar and vocab over and over despite taking four different courses and am only at an upper A2 level after three semesters of living here). I can't help but feeling like our country has done me and other young people a disservice by not requiring at least two languages and starting well before high school.