Four years ago Bryan and Dorianne Long hosted German exchange students when their son Garrett, then a senior at Turlock High School, told them about the opportunity. In exchange Garrett was able to visit Germany. Since then the family has continued to host students every other year, something Bryan Long called “nothing but a wonderful experience.”
Last week a group of 15 German exchange students bid Turlock farewell after a nearly month-long stay with host families from Turlock High School.
The students, which would be the equivalent of juniors and seniors in the United States, hailed from Witzenhausen, a small town of about 15,000 located in the central region of Germany.
Ellen Stocker-Gerhold, the student’ English teacher in Germany, said about 50 students sign up for the exchange program each year at their school.
“We tell them they will be visiting Turlock and they don’t know where that is and then we tell them in California and they immediately get excited,” she said.
Of course, the highlight of the exchange program for the students is traveling to various sites in California, with the most popular being San Francisco.
“We take them to Hollywood and Los Angeles but they don’t seem to be very star struck. They like the ocean a lot,” said Bryan Long. “The only coast in Germany is the North Sea and it is not nearly as nice as San Francisco.”
Thanks to Turlock’s centralized location, the students were also able to visit Yosemite National Park, Sacramento and Monterey.
Besides the experience of traveling, the German students said they are making life-long friends and learning a tremendous amount about different cultures.
Rona Gashi, 17, called the trip “the highlight of my teenage years.” Rona bunked with the Long’s daughter Michaela, who is also 17.
“The relationships you get to form are unforgettable and you make such good friends. Michaela is like a sister to me now,” said Rona.
Unlike most students in the United States, the kids from Germany speak multiple languages. In Rona’s case she speaks fluent English — and so do her fellow exchange students. Rona went on to describe some of the differences between California and Germany.
“This is such a beautiful place with so much open country. A real contrast to Germany,” she said.
As part of the exchange program the German students shadowed THS students. According to Rona, there isn’t much difference socially between German teens and American teens.
“We all like to shop and travel,” she said.
Stocker-Gerhold said the students enjoyed themselves tremendously and that they certainly got their fill of fast food in the U.S.
“The only thing that always surprises us is how friendly everyone is and how giving they are. It is always hard for us to give back as much as these families give to us,” she said. “The students develop so much as a result of this. They really develop their English language skills and their self-confidence.”
She went on to note the differences that she has noticed between American and German teens. She said German teens seem to be more independent and freer.
“It is not uncommon for a 16-year old in Germany to hop onto a train and travel across the country without parents. They are just more independent,” she explained.
She applauded the sense of identity American teens have with organizations like their school or communities.
“The unity you see here is never seen in Germany. Everyone wearing the same colors and being part of a community or team like in sports is nothing like us. Uniforms of any type are strongly discouraged in our country because of our history. I think we should have more of that in our schools,” she said.
In June THS German teacher Julie Shipman will take a group of 13 students to Germany for a month-long-trip.