Isabel Althoff speaks to JA third graders (from left) Lila Eubank, Addison Comer, Isabel Althoff, Patrick Robinson, and Blake Jones about life in Germany.
Confessions of a German exchange student: “I can’t imagine my life without sweet tea.”
Isabel Althoff’s friends were scattering to multiple countries on different continents-to New Zealand, Australia, France, and the United States. And the fifteen-year-old resident of Mainz, Germany had her heart set on traveling, too. She wanted to study in Canada.
After all, her mother had been an exchange student, and in her home country, popular international exchange programs for high school students abounded.
As travel to Canada was falling into place, though, a technicality shifted her plans. The Canadian exchange program required she turn age 16 before she could participate, and that would not happen until February of 2014, a month after schools resumed.
Fortunately, through a Mississippi connection made years ago by a previous generation of exchange students, Isabel has spent a semester at Jackson Academy. She has loved the experience so much she doesn’t want to leave.
“I had heard about Southern hospitality, but it was the first time I had really ‘heard’ Southern hospitality.” –Isabel Althoff
“I really like the Southern hospitality,” Isabel said. On her way to Mississippi, when she entered a Dallas airport store during a layover, a clerk greeted her exuberantly with, “Hey, how are you doing?”
“It was so cool!” exclaimed Isabel. “I had heard about Southern hospitality, but it was the first time I had really ‘heard’ Southern hospitality.”
Although Isabel was one month shy of the age requirement for the Canadian program, she could arrange other study abroad through EF Foundation if she found a host family. In stepped JA family Gary, Emily, and Madeleine Pettus.
Emily Pettus had been an exchange student in West Germany the year before she entered college in the mid 1980s. Her host family included Ulrike, a girl close to her own age. They became and remained such close friends that they later traveled together and attended each other’s weddings. After Ulrike gave birth to a daughter, Isabel, in 1998, the two friends visited again.
“I was a tiny little baby,” said Isabel about meeting Emily Pettus. Isabel does not remember the moment, but has a photo of her Jackson host mother holding her. She also does not remember their second meeting, when Pettus took the nearly two year old out in a stroller for an adventurous spin that had the child calling out “Noch mal! Noch mal!”” (“Once more! Once more!”).
This year, after preparation by EF Foundation about a visa, what to expect, and cultural differences, Isabel was on her way to Jackson, Mississippi, traveling alone internationally for the first time. It was a bit of an adventure, too.
“I was extremely nervous the whole flight,” said Isabel about the 11-hour journey. Things became tricky when her connection in Dallas was cancelled and she had to wait six hours in the Dallas airport after the overnight flight from Germany. She had to make a call to the Pettus family to make alternate plans. She then located Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, which helped pass the time that was closing in on nearly 24 hours of no sleep. Her fluent English was a big benefit in the situation.
“In Germany, it is mandatory for everyone to learn English from fifth grade on until they graduate,” she explained. “I really love the English language for some reason. I also love listening to movies and reading books in English.”
In Germany, Isabel actually takes three languages simultaneously-English, Latin, and ancient Greek. Germany’s language requirement is one of the big differences between the two countries. And it is not the only one Isabel and her JA friends have discovered.
She has a new love of Southern food-biscuits, cornbread, and sweet tea, none of which are on the menu in Germany. “I’ve become addicted to sweet tea,” Isabel said. “I’m going to make it at home. I can’t imagine my life without sweet tea.”
Pettus agrees that they’ve made a lot more sweet tea this semester. She also calls Isabel the “ideal” exchange student. “She lives as part of the family, not as a long-term guest,” she said.
“In Germany, it is mandatory for everyone to learn English from fifth grade on until they graduate,” she explained. “I really love the English language for some reason. I also love listening to movies and reading books in English.” –Isabel Althoff
Another difference Isabel has noted is fashion. While blue jeans and cute tops for girls are popular in both countries, fashion diverges there. There are no uniforms at schools, and casual outfits like Nike shorts, sweat pants, or pajama pants would not be worn out in Germany.
The driving age begins at age 18 in Germany, but with ample public transportation, driving earlier is not really necessary to get around.
The academic approach varies considerably, too. Extracurricular activities are held after school and not connected to the school. Sports clubs occur in separate organizations from school, as do choirs and music lessons. Once a week, Isabel swims, sings in a choir, and takes violin, an instrument she has played for almost 10 years.
Also dissimilar is changing classes. “In Germany, you only start changing in eleventh grade. You are with the same class from fifth grade on,” she said. “You go through 13 grades, rather than 12, and classes go into the summer, with the exception of grade 13, which ends in the spring. At JA, you have the same schedule every day, but in Germany you have blocks of classes on different days and more subjects. Breaks are spread out throughout the year: two weeks at Christmas, fall and Easter, and six weeks in the summer.”
Another significant difference Isabel has found at JA is the emphasis on and availability of technology. “In Germany, we have the blackboard, chalk, books, and workbooks,” she explained. “At JA, I was asking for help with the computer and saying, ‘Can you help me with Turn It In?’” Turnitin.com is a web-based program used to help students submit writing assignments and avoid plagiarism.
Isabel is wrapping up her semester at JA with something she is really excited about-a trip to Disneyworld. She serves on the set crew for Encore, JA’s Upper School show choir (another thing not found in Germany). The show choir traveled to Fame in Orlando for Encore’s final competition at the beginning of April. A visit to Disneyworld was on the agenda.
“I love show choir,” she said. “I would have auditioned had I been here when auditions were held. Encore is like a great big family.”
As a person who likes to step out of her comfort zone and prove what she can do, she has learned a few things from the experience. “First, have all your important information together when you travel and, second, ask for help if you need it,” she advises. She remembers going to three different counters when her Dallas flight was cancelled. Had she not persisted, her layover might have been longer.
“I really don’t want it to end. That’s one thing I can say for sure,” she said. “I’ve made very close friends. At one point, I’m sure some of them will be on my doorstep in Germany.” –Isabel Althoff
International travel just seems to fit Isabel. “I love traveling. I love meeting new people. Traveling is not just to learn a new language, but also to broaden your horizons. It also sounds good if you can tell stories from other countries!” she said.
“International study and travel both provide the immediate benefit of adventure: seeing different sights, meeting different people, trying different types of food,” said Pettus. “They also provide the long-term benefit of seeing and evaluating your own culture in a broader context. I learned a lot about Germany during the year I was an exchange student, but I learned just as much about the United States-about how other people see our culture from a distance, good and bad.”
She would love for her daughter Madeleine Pettus, a JA fifth-grader, to have a similar experience one day if she expresses interest. “As a mom, it’s hard to imagine letting her go so far from home for an extended period of time. But as a former exchange student and now a host mom, I know it’s a valuable experience.”
Part of that experience has included JA’s openness to working with a student for one semester, handling the application, and setting Isabel’s schedule. Pettus is grateful for the willing support given by Dr. Pat Taylor, headmaster, DeLeslie Porch, director of admission, Paula Pratt, coordinator of student services, and all of Isabel’s outstanding teachers.
After this experience, Isabel is considering college in the U.S, although she has three more years of high school to go before that time. “I really don’t want it to end. That’s one thing I can say for sure,” she said. “I’ve made very close friends. At one point, I’m sure some of them will be on my doorstep in Germany.”