Witzel hails from Cologne, Germany and is currently a sophomore. She arrived last August and has been staying in the home of host parents, Kim and Kirk Eldred.
The teen’s interest in other cultures, combined with a desire to improve her English speaking abilities, were motivating reasons behind her decision to study abroad.
“I had done weeklong exchanges before in France, England and Israel,” she explains, “but I really wanted to spend a year someplace and get to know the culture. As I had never been to the U.S., I thought it would be cool to come here.”
The Eldreds chose Witzel based on her Aspect Foundation application, which is how she ended up in Woodinville. And she’s glad she did. “It’s a really nice place,” she says. “People are very friendly and I like the scenery here.”
As to the rain, she notes that Cologne can be damp, too, but not quite as gray as this area. Though it’s been many months since that first day of school back in fall, Witzel still remembers her emotions vividly. “I was very nervous,” she comments. “I thought no one would like me or that no one would be able to understand me.”
It was a relief for her to discover that the students were friendly and that her English was more than passable. “I adjusted easily,” she adds, “because everyone was helpful, both students and teachers. They made me feel very comfortable.”
During the course of the school year, Witzel has taken an array of classes including Spanish, English, tech drama, math, history, ceramics and aerobics. She has also served as a teaching assistant in a German class. Her favorite courses have been Spanish and tech drama.
“I like learning languages and I especially like the sound of Spanish,” says the multi-lingual teen, who also speaks German, English and French. “Tech drama has been very interesting,” she adds, “because it’s shown me that there is so much work that goes on behind the scenes.”
Culturally, Witzel notes that there are a few differences between the two countries. She points out that Americans are more open than their German counterparts and friendlier at the first encounter. They also don’t mind sharing personal information; whereas, Germans tend to keep such facts to themselves until the relationship has had time to solidify. As for education, she says, “We have more required classes in high school in Germany. Also, the schools are more separated. After fourth grade, your teacher advises you about the next school you should enter, where you will then stay until you graduate high school. High level academic students go to a university bound program.
Then there are those who go to a secondary school and then there’s another choice for others who are less academic-minded.” Witzel also notes that teachers here take more time and effort to ensure that students understand the material.
“That’s not the case in Germany,” she adds. The teen feels that her study abroad experience has been very valuable on many levels. “I’m much more confident speaking English,” she says. “I’ve made good friends. And I’ve learned a lot about American culture, which makes me understand it better.”
When she leaves the U.S. in late June, Witzel explains that she will truly miss the people she has met here, especially her host family. “They’ve been great,” she says. “They treat me like I’m one of their kids and have made me feel a part of their family.”
Rasmus Jorgensen, the other foreign exchange student at WHS, is from Thyboron, Denmark, a small fishing village with a population of about 3,000.
Originally, he was supposed to attend Aviation High School in Seattle, but an issue arose with his host family situation that altered these plans. “My host family had cats and I found out that I was very allergic to them,” explains Jorgensen. “I was temporarily sent to Bellingham where I stayed with two different families for two weeks before I was sent to Woodinville to live with the Berkey family. At first, the school wasn’t going to let me in because I was starting late, but they did.”
Jorgensen wasn’t too disappointed to learn that he would not be going to Aviation High School, despite his career plans to be an airline pilot.
“Woodinville offered lots of sports and activities that Aviation doesn’t,” he comments, “and I like sports and wanted to be involved in them while I was here.”
The teen adapted to his new surroundings relatively easily, but he admits that hearing English nonstop was like “being smacked in the face” in the beginning. After a while, though, his language skills improved and he no longer felt communication overload. His course load at school has included a variety of subjects including French, drama, English, U.S. history, precalculus and aerobics. Most challenging have been English and precalculus, but both have gotten more manageable during the course of the school year.
Drama has been one of his favorite classes, primarily because of the people involved in the acting program. “I have a ton of friends there, and it’s like being a part of a family,” he comments.
As for the teachers, Jorgensen notes that most are very passionate about teaching and care about their students. He adds, “But, they have a lot of control in the classroom, compared to teachers in Denmark. Here, the environment is more restricted and teachers have a lot of power. In Denmark, teachers are more on an even level with students.”
As for the students, the teen says that everyone has been friendly and outgoing, though he points to the tendency of people to stay on the “surface.” He explains: “They say ‘hi’ and ‘how are you?’ but then that’s it.”
He has also noticed that American teens are more modest about their bodies than their counterparts in Denmark. Playing sports has been one of the highlights of Jorgensen’s experience at WHS. He has been involved with both the cross-country and soccer teams. “We don’t have school sports in Denmark. If you want to play, you have to find a team outside of school. Here, there are tryouts and cuts and it’s very competitive, but I like it. I also like all the school spirit that the students show for their teams.”
Life in the U.S. has basically agreed with the teen, with the exception of Seattle’s rain and American food. He thinks there is too much fast food in this country and all of it is “awful!” Since he’s been here, Jorgensen has done some traveling around the state, as well as to California and Las Vegas. This isn’t his first time to the U.S., as five years ago, he and his family took a trip to the East Coast and Canada. Visiting a country as a tourist, though, provides a very different experience than actually living in it. “You really get to know the culture when you live in a place for a while,” comments Jorgensen. “You can understand why people do things, why they think and believe certain things. That’s why I feel that being a foreign exchange student is such a good opportunity. It’s a chance to see the world and open your mind.”