Prep Work: Marc Mueller from Germany Shares His Exchange Experience

 How I Became a Foreign Exchange Student

by Marc Müller

First of all I would like to introduce myself. My name is Marc Müller, I was born on the 28th of May in 1996 in Bochum, Germany and I’m currently in Iowa, USA. I have a twin brother who is in Arkansas right now. I came to the United States through a German exchange organization called TREFF and a partner-organization here in the U.S. called ISE.

Everything started a little more than one year ago, when I and my friends came back to school from summer break. In the first few weeks, our teacher gave us handouts about different organizations, which were offering a student exchange program. When I arrived home from school I showed the handouts to my parents and I asked them if I could spend a year abroad. They were skeptic at first, but after we started furnishing information from the internet they started thinking more serious about giving me such an opportunity.

There is a huge variety of different organizations and countries you can choose, so we started thinking about what country I should visit. I have always wanted to be a pilot when I grow-up, so I eliminated all non-English speaking countries. I think the English speaking countries offered were Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain and the USA. Australia, New Zealand and Canada were about twice as expensive as the USA and Great Britain, so I eliminated those. I don’t know why, but I kind of liked the USA better than Great Britain, so I chose the USA.

The next step was to choose the right organization. We went to several events, where different organizations introduced themselves and I looked up reviews and personal opinions about the different organizations on the internet. This is an important step, because it helps to know how long the company has been around and what kinds of experiences others have had with them in the past.

I applied for a nonbinding interview with other students and their parents. For the interview I had to fill out one or two sheets, identifying which country I preferred and other general information. The interviews were offered in different regions all over the country. I think the main point was to answer questions, introduce the organization to the families, and explain in detail, how the whole thing works. They also had a little English test for us to do, but it wasn’t very hard. I think it was just to see if we had at least some basic English language skills.

After the interview the organization sent an e-mail or a letter to let you know if you are accepted or not, but I think almost everyone gets accepted. Then they sent me a package that they call “the application” with about 30 sheets to fill out. It is also offered online. I didn’t fill it out online, but I think it would have been a better idea because after a while it became difficult to keep track of all the different pieces of paper, and I always had to copy each sheet in case I made a mistake. In the package was lots of stuff to fill out:

The first thing I started with was my host family letter. It was a lot of work, especially because I had to write it English. There were also several pages for my physician, my teachers, my school, for my grades and lots of other sheets to fill out. I had to get new immunizations, get a tuberculosis check and several health checks. It was a lot of work and it took me about three months to complete every section of the application. My German organization offered to choose a state or a region in the U.S. for a charge. I chose Florida, but there were already too many exchange students, so I looked for a different state to choose. After a while I decided not to choose a state, “because,” I thought to myself, “You can’t say that one state is better than another; there are nice places and not so nice places everywhere you go.” Without the state guarantee I also had the chance to get a “better” host family, because they search a bigger area.

After I sent it to my German organization, I had to wait a while, but in the meantime I had to get a new passport. Then I got the information that ISE accepted me, that my application was sent to them, and that I was assigned to the region Midwest. I got a form from ISE called DS2019 and a certificate which declared that I had paid the fee for it. Next I needed to apply for my visa, which is important and very complicated step.

I had to fill out lots of pages in an online form again. I also had to pay for the visa and for my appointment in Frankfurt to apply for the visa. That is a big disadvantage when you want to go to the USA. My application was much more complicated than the one my friend had to fill out to go to New Zealand. But it is worth it in the end.

I had a preparation meeting in Cologne with lots of other exchange students. It was very nice to hear about experiences from students who had already been abroad. They gave us lots of advice and it was all in all a very nice day.

I hated waiting for my host family because other students already had their host families for several months. But then, finally, when I least expected it, we got a call. My mom answered, and the organization told us that ISE had found a host family. My twin brother and I were not sure if it was my host family or his host family. It turned out to be mine, so I felt a little bad for him.

On the other hand I was happy to finally have my host family. I would be living with two men, one named Friedhelm, one named Jeffrey, and a dog named Alex in West Des Moines, Iowa. I also learned that I would go to Valley High School.

After I got my new bag for the plane there wasn’t much left to do except going to the consulate in Frankfurt for my visa. We had to drive to Frankfurt very early, because visas are only available in the morning. After the usual check for weapons and contraband I got a number and then I had to wait for about one and a half hours. My number was called and I had to hand them my passport and my other documents. After another hour or more the officials asked me some questions in English and told me that they would send me my passport with my visa in about a week. I was still in school, but I had to take a day off. It was about three weeks before I flew when my brother got his host family in Arkansas. He was going to go to Florida with his host family before arriving in Arkansas, so he had to fly two weeks earlier than me. We would both be staying with other exchange students in Washington D.C for a weekend before any other trips took place.

When I called my host family for the first time, I asked them, if they could pick me up at the airport on the 14th of August, after I went to Washington D.C. So my flight date was the 12th of August and I would fly on Friday morning from Frankfurt to Washington and on Sunday from Washington to Chicago and from Chicago to Des Moines.

We drove to Frankfurt two weeks before I flew, because, as I said, my brother would fly two weeks earlier than I. I was very excited too and also a little sad, because I could not waist to fly. I drove back home and had a few more days together with my friends.

Finally, the day came, but I wasn’t very excited because it felt like a regular holiday. Usually I fly with my parents to other countries for a couple of weeks just for vacation, but this was going to be ten months of not vacation, but something similar. Again we drove to Frankfurt early in the morning. I had my big luggage, a backpack, my laptop and my camera-bag. After taking a quick breakfast we went to the security check and I had to say goodbye to my parents. Saying goodbye was not easy, but for me it still felt like vacation.

The students in my group were all from TREFF, my German exchange organization. There were about twenty students, but we met at least sixty exchange students from a different organization, so our plane would be full of exchange students.

We arrived at the gate and after about an hour the boarding began. We had some problems because several students were missing some documents, but in the end they let us all on the plane. I didn’t expect a boring flight, because I usually like flying, but it was a little boring because we flew about eight hours and I cannot sleep when I’m not tired.

I think I talked a lot to other people, listened to music and watched two movies and maybe a slept for a few minutes even though I wasn’t really able to. I was very happy and tired and also totally hot when we stepped out of the plane. The whole summer in Germany was rainy so I wasn’t used to the heat.

We had to go through lots of entry processes and checks but when we finished them we realized that one of the students who forgot the documents wasn’t there. As we found out later on, he was sitting in some office alone and they almost sent him back. After two to three hours we finally took the shuttle bus to our hotel. I was very happy to relax for a few minutes, but then we had to go to dinner. I ordered my first real American burger and it tasted very good, but I couldn’t even finish it half. I didn’t feel good that day.

Afterwards we went to the pool in our hotel and swam a bit. I was very tired and had already up for about twenty-two hours, so we finally went to bed. The next morning was horrible because I was still tired, but we had to get up, take a shower and eat breakfast before we went to the sightseeing tour through Washington D.C.

We went to the Hard-Rock-Cafe, several memorials, the capitol and some museums. After a long sightseeing-day we came back to the hotel and after dinner, swimming and packing we went to bed because we had to get up early on the next morning.

Another day of being tired started when we drove to the airport. I had struggled with my luggage, because, as I explained, I had so many bags and I was a little nervous, but it worked out well. So after the regular security checks we (I think four other exchange students and me) flew to Chicago. I ate a hot dog in Chicago before I had to fly to Des Moines alone, but it wasn’t a problem because I’ve already flown a few times. After about one and a half hours with really annoying people around me, I finally arrived in Des Moines and got picked up by my host family. It was actually just Jeffrey, because Friedhelm was on a climbing trip in Lima, Peru.

The first days were very nice and relaxing, because school had not yet started. We took some trips around the city. The next fun thing we did was to go to the Iowa State Fair. It is an agricultural outdoor event that takes place every year in Iowa. It is pretty much like a temporary amusement park with lots of different foods. They even had fried butter there, but I didn’t want to try it.

School started, but it was a lot different than in Germany. My favorite class is woodworking, because we built lots of stuff like a cutting board, a goblet and right now I’m building a table.

In Germany we have nearly only academic classes, so it’s a very good alternative.

After a few weeks of school I went with my host family and some friends to my first baseball game. They even had fireworks afterwards. A week later or so we went to Kansas City, Missouri, where we saw the Kansas City Chiefs play. They had a big memorial ceremony because it was on 9/11.

I also went windsurfing at a nearby lake, as you can see above. I think I did well for my first time. Me and lots of other exchange students around went with ISE to a place called Living History Farms. It’s like an open-air museum where they show you how farmers lived 200 years ago. It was nice to meet some other exchange students from all over the world and to share our experiences in the USA.

More schooldays passed till I had my next exciting event. It’s a school event called homecoming. Actually it’s a whole week: During the event everyone dresses up in costume for a topic that was published earlier. After a few parades on the weekend there was a football game. The purpose of homecoming is to welcome back alumni. Sometimes, when it’s attached to a football game, homecoming is to celebrate the football team coming home from the longest road trip of the season. Almost every school has a ballgame on the homecoming weekend, too.

Now we get to the more recent events. I joined the swimming team and we started practice in early November. It’s a lot of fun, but it takes lots of time. I had so much stuff to do for school recently so be prepared if you do a year abroad. It’s not all fun; it can be a lot of work too, but it’s worth it!

About three weeks ago, we had a Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, but we had it a few days earlier than Thanksgiving, because we drove to Florida for the Thanksgiving break. The dinner was very good though.

Florida was awesome; my host family has a condo down there so we will go again for Christmas and spring break. We went to several beaches including my favorite beach, Fort Desoto North Beach, St Petersburg. If you ever have the chance to go there, I would recommend it to you. Over Christmas we will go to Orlando and visit some amusement parks.

School isn’t very hard right now; I just have so much stuff to do. I don’treallyhave a lot of free time anymore because I have swimming every dayexcept Sunday and I usually come home about 8 p.m. and then I still have to do homework, even though I’m usually very tired.

That’s what I experienced so far and I hope I helped you a bit.

Some are Leaving Us, but They are Never Really Gone

In a touching farewell to his host family and friends, Brazilian exchange student, Jose Baiao, admitted that while adapting and adjusting to his life in America was by no means easy, it was an experience he says he will never forget.

Jose’s story is somewhat atypical in the sense that he came for a short stay and managed to take away so much. Despite the shortened time frame of the five-month program he entered, Jose made friends everywhere he went and tried hard to absorb the country around him. When asked to describe his time here, he replied “In the beginning of my placement…it was not all that I was expecting it to be. Small town, five months without soccer…but five months later I really wish that I could stay.”

We always say that students who find a niche, who carve out a little nook for themselves within the community they are placed are the ones who have most success. In order to really become immersed in the program a student has to find ways to apply their skills and cultural understanding to the American way of life, and then they come to fully realize what the country and what ISE have to offer. Though he had to give up soccer, Jose took up football and adopted the hobbies of his fellow classmates and athletes, and his academic and athletic success have provided him with a host of memories to take back home: “I will never forget the…football games. I will never forget all the jokes. I will never forget Moutain Dew! I will never forget anything. And…one day I will come back, and you guys better be here to see me.”

Jose’s host family described him as a “model student” and they are sorry to see him go, but we know that when Jose finally boards his plane and waves goodbye, that it will not be the last time we see him. ISE wishes José and the rest of the returning students a safe trip and happy holidays. We cannot wait to see you again! Bon voyage!