Why is educational travel important?

LINDA

 

            This spring our lives were enriched by a visitor from Germany.  A 16 year old student named Linda came to live with us for 3 weeks and go to school with our older daughter Katerina. So what brought this sweet German from Bavaria into our lives?

Katerina has been studying German for two years at her school and every year her school does an exchange program with a German gymnasium (high school) from a small town called Raubling under the Alps in Bavaria. One year German students come here and the next year American students go there. This year it was the Germans turn to come here. The exchange started a few years ago thanks to a hard working teacher from Raubling who restlessly kept looking for an exchange partner in Southern California. After a long while she found it in Tesoro High School where Katerina goes to school. Katerina’s school is one of the few in Orange County that teaches German. In California it is more popular to study Spanish, Chinese, French, and lately also Korean. Most Europeans today are fluent in English; therefore there is not much motivation for Americans to study European languages.

            Katerina’s teacher is young, enthusiastic, and full of energy. She comes from German parents and has visited all of the German speaking countries. She also studied for several years in Germany. These two devoted teachers exchanged words and today both schools are sending their carefully selected students back and forth. We decided to sign up for this program as well, even though we knew that it would be time consuming and an invasion of our privacy.

 

            We did not hesitate for a minute to sign up for this program and agree to host an exchange student in our home. We were always planning to do that when our girls got a little older, because we both know how important these exchange programs are. For a young person with an open mind these trips change their view of the world and of life forever. We know it well because we also did these exchanges. As an 18 year old Bruce spent a summer with a host family in Halmstad, Sweden. I was also just 18 when I left my home for the first time by myself and traveled to the USA where I stayed at homes of different relatives for more then 7 months. It is not necessary to point out that our lives changed and found different directions after these experiences. I divide my life in two chapters: The one BEFORE my trip to America and the other AFTER my trip to America. My personal view of myself and life as I knew it were absolutely influenced. It does not matter what country you visit but it is important to travel alone, live with locals, and the sooner you do it the better. It does not matter if you have bad, good, or only the best experience. What counts is the experience itself, which nothing else can replace. To detached yourself from everything you know so far, to be forced to solve unexpected situations, to make decision without any help and influence of others in a strange place surrounded by strangers. All of this combines to make us look inside our souls and get to know ourselves better or perhaps even at all.

 

            We are scared of people who get into a position of power without any international experience and their view of the world is very limited. Traveling and everything that goes with it makes us think differently, farther, without any boundaries. No tunnel vision! Ignorance is dangerous, and if not dangerous than at least unpleasant or embarrassing. For example, here is my own experience.  When I moved to the USA and met many new people and started traveling more, I never cried because I was homesick. I cried because I was tired of human ignorance in the world. I understand that we all have some ideas about other nations or continents. But I was annoyed by people who didn’t know and yet were so confident to express their opinions of others. I was tired of ignorant Americans who thought that coming from a post-communist country is the same as getting out of the tree for the first time. During my visits to Czech I was tired of ignorant Czechs who were bombing me with criticism about Americans, describing them as a nation of illiterates. I was tired of ignorant foreigners (mostly from Western Europe) who were shocked by an opinionated woman who grew up in a communist country but was normal, with good teeth, and clean hair. I was annoyed by stupidity and closed minds.  It is always easier to criticize than to analyze. I learned from all of these experiences and now I do not argue about issues I do not know anything about. Analyzing takes energy but it is also the only way forward. Although I know we will never get rid of all of the ignorance in the world, I realize that being angry about it does not help. What helps is to educate a person who wants to know more, who wants to learn about the world and others, and maybe bring it back to his/her country. Today we are paying it forward, opening the door for the next young person as others did for us in the past.

 

The group from Germany made it to Orange County on April 18.  There were sixteen German students between 16 and 18 years old.  Katerina was matched up with German student Linda. The girls were already in touch for several months via email. They planned their days in California. Linda’s job was to be Katerina’s imaginary shadow. To be with her everywhere, during school and after. The program was very full for everyone involved. The school newspaper had a lot of material for writing. J

 

            Linda is a very polite, gentle, and nice girl. She got used to our family dynamics very quickly and it felt like we had always known her. Her English got better every day. She has studied English for six years, but understanding was hard for her. She needed practice. Linda was not shy to talk and liked to communicate. She wanted to share her daily news, thoughts, and new experiences. We could understand her feelings. Linda’s English had a melodic Bavarian accent and her pronunciation was different. It was good practice even for our ears. On the other hand, Katerina and Linda chose special days just for German language. That way Katerina could practice as well. Linda promised to use the High German that Katerina studies, because the Bavarian dialect is very hard to understand.

            All of the German students were very polite, smart, and curious. It seemed like they all liked their American families as well and fit in with them right away. We had a few questions to ask them and here is how they answered:

 

Q: What was the first difference you noticed between America and Germany?

A: Size. Everything is bigger in America; roads, cars, houses, washers, dryers, TVs, tables, food portions, even the people are bigger. J

 

Q: What was a pleasant surprise for you?

A: Most surprising was how nice Americans really are. You cannot tell when you meet them just in Europe as tourists; maybe they seem even a bit arrogant. Here in their country we learned the opposite. Everybody is so wonderful, nice, helpful, spontaneous, devoted, polite to each other, and treating each other with respect. Even the adults. Adults in Germany are not so friendly or kind to children or young people.

 

Q: What was the biggest surprise?

A: The biggest surprise was how hard Americans actually work. We absolutely did not expect it. From the student point of view, it seems that American students must study longer hours, get much more homework and their school is too long as well. Americans know two things: work and fun - a restless nation. J

 

            At the time the German students were visiting, many American students were learning about WWII in history class, a sensitive theme for Germans and European nations in general. Therefore the American teacher informed all of the High School students before the German students’ visit. She asked them not to make any negative comments about WWII or Hitler. It worked and nobody made any inappropriate remarks. We were very proud of all the young people.

I always liked Germans. I never saw them just as the enemy from the war. I did not experience WWII, and in my home growing up nobody talked badly about Germans. My mom always admired their talent for organizing, and my dad grew up during WWII in German territory taken from Czechoslovakia. He learned German at school and had German friends. He liked them; they were kids just like him. He also witnessed the horrible treatment of Germans after WWII when they had to leave their homes and move out of Sudetenland. His whole life he asked himself if it was fair. My grandpa liked Germans even though he fought against them in the war and was shot. He just saw young men fighting against other young men. The only one in our family who did not like Germans was my grandma. She was Russian and never forgave the Germans for how they treated Russian people and soldiers, especially in the battle of Stalingrad.

 As a Czech I never start a conversation about WWII with a German person. It is in the past for me and I do not feel any bitterness towards this great nation. Therefore I always wait for the other side to talk. And that is how it was with Linda. One day, we were driving to a shopping mall, just Linda and I. She felt like talking about lots of things. The past, how Hitler changed it all, what it meant for Germany, what her family taught her about it and so on. And then she continued about how important traveling is, getting to know another culture with an open mind. It is hard for any dictator to fool a country of open minded and well traveled citizens.

Traveling, experience, and education itself is not enough. It is important to be an intelligent individual and know how to put it all together. How to understand others. Linda was one of those intelligent thinkers. Her thoughts were deep and philosophical. I was very proud of her and also very happy for her that she could come and see a “different world.” She has a great future ahead of her.

KD J (2008)