A scholarship in Michigan
You were in the USA as part of the International Parliamentary Scholarship programme. What happened during the application process?
First, I sent in my application papers and, after a few months, I was invited to a selection interview. There were individual talks, a group discussion and at the end of the day a test about our general political awareness.
Was it a tough selection process?
Yes, it was. But it is different for each constituency. In my constituency, Cuxhaven, many people had applied. I had to compete against a large number of other applicants. A few weeks later I received the news that my local MP had chosen me.
What preparation did you receive for the year?
There was a one-week preparatory seminar in Würzburg. We had to learn so much. It was mainly about topics such as American history and German–American relations. It was a fantastic week, and I found a few friends there who I still regularly meet up with.
Where exactly did you spend your year abroad?
It was only a few days before my departure that I found out exactly where I’d be going. The destination was De Tour Village – a very small settlement in Michigan with 300 inhabitants. The closest major town is directly on the border with Ontario, Canada. But to get from De Tour Village to Sault Sainte Marie you have to drive for about an hour. If you want to go shopping, see a doctor or go to the cinema, then you have to travel quite a distance!
How did you like it there?
The landscape was beautiful, which you would expect for the region containing the Great Lakes. De Tour Village is located directly on Lake Huron. There are a lot of forests in that part of the country, and in winter there was a lot of snow.
What did you do during the year?
I went to the local high school there. I don’t want to talk badly about the American education system, but once you’ve been to school in Germany, you won’t have any problems at school in the USA. The teaching system is really different there. It’s much more about memorising facts than applying knowledge, which is not a main focus. The overall level was lower than in Germany. But what mattered more to me at school was the social aspect – coming into contact with people, making new friends and getting involved in sports.
And did that work out?
Yes, definitely. My host mother was the volleyball coach at my school. She put me on the team right away, even though I was totally useless at volleyball. But the others accepted me from day one. Given that the high school is so small – in my year there were just 18 students, five of them on an exchange visit – it didn’t take long to get to know everyone.
Did you have to perform any representative tasks as part of the scholarship?
Yes, during International Week we visited the nursery school and told the children a few things about Germany. And we delivered a range of presentations to give the Americans a slightly better understanding of Germany. When you hear the kind of questions that American people sometimes ask about Germany, you can tell that they don’t have a high level of general knowledge. Although life is interesting there, they simply don’t learn as much about Europe as we do about the United States. You can tell there is a need for people to go out there as ambassadors on a small scale and tell a few truths.
What was life like with your host family?
I was really lucky with my host family; I had a younger brother who I got on really well with. My host father was employed at the local waterworks, so he was responsible for the water supply there. My host mother taught at the high school and was the head of physical education. The house was quite central in De Tour Village. I had my own room for the year.
Were you involved in family life?
The family did an excellent job integrating me and made sure that I found some friends. Naturally, I was a little shy at the beginning when I arrived there. My host parents prompted me into action and made it perfectly clear that I would have to take the situation into my own hands.
What was family life like in other ways?
It’s safe to say that the Americans are overprotective: Who are you going out with? Who’s driving? What are you doing? This attitude is pretty deeply rooted among the people there. Young people don’t get to experience a little more freedom until they really come of age. I would say that things are a little different back home in Germany.
Did you make friends quickly?
Yes, it didn’t take too long. Especially through sport it was easy to meet people. And as an exchange student, people soon find out who you are in a place like that, of course. Everyone is quite open and interested, and they approach you. Sometimes it might be only superficial, but it resulted in some really good friendships, too.
So is there any truth in the stereotype that Americans are always quite superficial? What was your experience?
I honestly found a lot of good friends. But I also experienced other things. For instance, some people gave me the impression we were close friends and that they definitely wanted to do things with me. But when I called a few times it became clear that they weren’t serious about it and didn’t really want to do anything at all. I certainly had to get used to that at first, because we Germans are a bit different when it comes to friendship.
Was it difficult to deal with that?
Yes, at the beginning it left a sour taste and it took me a while to get over it. It’s all part of culture shock, I would say.
What did you get up to in your free time?
We quite often stayed in with a DVD, sat around the campfire, went swimming or visited the cinema. I also saw a lot of my friends through sport; almost all of them were in a sports team.
Did you do other things than you would in Germany?
Because the village is so small, it goes without saying that you had to drive if you wanted to do something exciting – going to the cinema or eating out. In the winter, we went snowmobiling and ice-fishing a lot. If you are surrounded by snow for half the year, you have to put the days to good use. People spend a lot of time outside on the whole, out in nature. Many go hunting.
What did you like most of all about life in the USA?
The mentality. What fascinates me so much about the Americans is their attitude – the ambition and hope that they can achieve anything. If they really want something, they believe they can go out and get it. The Americans are convinced that it works like this: I want something, so now I’ll make an effort and I will reach my goal. I have taken away some of this mentality for myself – I think it’s a brilliant way to think, anyway.
Did you have any particularly nice experiences?
For me, the spring break was a special experience without a doubt. We went to Washington DC and saw the nerve centre of American power. We visited many museums and saw the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. Washington is an extremely fascinating city – everything there is so clean and tidy.
Was there anything you didn’t like so much?
I would say mainly just the superficiality of some people, which is something I was maybe duped by a little at the beginning. And it was sometimes a pretty lonely place in the winter with all the snow. But otherwise there was nothing negative.
What was the climate like, generally?
The winters are pretty cold and the ground is covered in snow for half the year. It melts in May. After that, I could relax on the sun deck and catch a tan in my bikini. Two days later it snowed again. The weather there can change fairly quickly.
In your opinion, has your year abroad shaped you as a person?
When I came back last summer and picked up my old summer job in the restaurant, my boss said, “Laura, you’re a completely different person.” In any case, I have become much more open and self-confident. I can notice that myself.
Were you ever homesick from time to time?
Back when I was in year 10, I spent three months in French-speaking Switzerland. At that time I was homesick. I guess I wasn’t quite ready to cope with things on my own. It was a nice experience, but I always felt an undercurrent of homesickness there. In the USA, though, I didn’t feel a trace of it at all. Having said that, I was really lucky with my host family.