Like most students at West Ottawa, Sr. Lindsey Drost gets up early for school. She gets dressed, eats breakfast, and brushes her teeth. She rides the bus to school, chats with friends, and prepares for her classes. The only difference? Drost is currently going to a school thousands of miles from home in Sankt Wendel, Germany, where she is spending time as an exchange student. Last summer, Drost boarded a plane out of Grand Rapids to Sankt Wendel where her journey as an exchange student began to unfold.
“It´s hard for me to pick an exact moment when I knew I wanted to be an exchange student,” Drost said. “We hosted an exchange student from Japan for two weeks when I was in 8th grade, and that definitely made me more interested in learning more about other cultures, but I didn’t think about being an exchange student myself yet.” For Drost, this moment came later, when she began to explore her interests in language and culture. “The biggest reasons I wanted to go on exchange were the opportunities to learn and become fluent in another language and to experience another culture,” Drost said.
But Drost isn’t the only one interested in the cultures of others. In fact, she’s found in her time in Germany that many share this interest. “I am amazed by how much people [in Germany] are interested in and know about other countries,” Drost said. “My entire class is taking three foreign languages: French, English, and Italian. My host brother, who is only 13, stayed up the entire night to watch the US election. At least 4 out of 18 people in the class, and my host mom and sister have been short term exchange students in the US.”
For Drost, this environment of international interest is surprising compared to that of the United States; “A lot of people focus mostly on their own country, but that is not true here,” she said, “It’s amazing.”
However, the adjustment to life in Germany has not been without its challenges. “The first question I was asked in my interview for exchange was ‘This will be the most challenging year of your life. Are you prepared for that?’ I didn’t realize how true that was until a few weeks after I arrived here,” Drost said. “One of [the challenging things] is the language. I hadn’t taken any German classes, and then suddenly I was listening to German all day every day.I spent a good amount of my first few months having no clue what anyone around me was saying.”
Not only is the language barrier a nuisance, but it also can lead to pure fear. “One time, my bus got in a small accident and had to stop. The bus driver pulled over in the middle of nowhere, said something to us, and then everyone stood up and started walking along the road towards the next city,” Drost said. “I followed, with no clue what was going on.”
Other times, Drost’s misunderstanding of German has been a laughable mistake. “Another time, someone asked me in German, who I thought would win the election,” Drost said. “I thought they were asking me where I was born. I answered ‘San Jose, California, about an hour from San Francisco’ and got a really weird look…oops.”
Besides the difference in language, the difference in culture also can be a difficulty. Even the small things prove to be quite surprising to Drost, as she has adjusted to the new culture. “There are so many everyday things that are just done differently here,” she explained. “People here open their windows every day even when it is below freezing outside. I’ve been told that not wearing socks in the house will make me sick. When my phone makes a noise in class, the “punishment” is that I have to bake a cake for class the next day. All the water here is fizzy,” Drost said. “These aren’t all huge changes, but having everything change at once, is definitely hard, but, I have learned so much,” Drost said.
School culture is another part of Drost’s life that has changed from America to Germany. “School here is way more different than I was expecting,” Drost said. In fact, Drost’s daily school schedule looks nothing like it did during her time at WO. “Here, I have 13 classes, English, German, Italian, French, Politics, Ethics, Geography, History, Chemistry, Physics, Math, Gym, and Art,” Drost said. “We only have each class 2-3 times per week, so our schedule is different every day.” Not only are academics different, but school spirit and activities differ very much between WO and Drost’s German school. “There are very few school sports or clubs, and no school spirit,” Drost said. “School here is really just for classes and learning.”
All the differences aside, Drost cherishes her time in Germany. To all the students interested in following in Drost’s footsteps as an exchange student, Drost’s message is clear: “Do it,” Drost said. “It is truly a once in a lifetime experience, and you will learn so much and have a lot of fun.I have 3 families now. I have gone to Oktoberfest with an Austrailian, a Brazilian, and a girl from Taiwan. I have learned about the Syria refugee crisis from our neighbors, my friends, refugees, who came to Germany from Syria just over a year ago. I’ve even had a BBQ at a castle,” Drost said. “It will be a hard year, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
While in Germany Drost has also developed as an individual. Between the joys, struggles, and surprises, she has learned so much not only about travel and German culture, but also about herself. “[What’s surprised me most] is how much I would grow as a person,” Drost said. “I was expecting to learn a lot about Germany, and learn a lot of German, but no matter how many times people told me, I didn’t understand how much I would learn about myself, and how much I would change. I have become much more independent than I could have imagined becoming in just three months and I’ve really realized what is important to me.”
When it comes down to it, Drost’s experience as an exchange student is very different to the lives of WO students, but she loves it nevertheless. “ I would have had a great senior year if I had stayed at home,” Drost admitted, “ but I would have missed out on so many unique and amazing experiences like these.”