Sarah Johnson learns German and makes friends abroadSome of Sarah Johnson’s friends questioned her judgment when she decided to delay college for a year and spend 10 and a half months in Germany. “But it was a great experience,” Johnson reports.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
Some of Sarah Johnson’s friends questioned her judgment when she decided to delay college for a year and spend 10 and a half months in Germany.
“But it was a great experience,” Johnson reports. “It’s hard to put it into words. I think I have always been confident and outgoing. I just learned that it’s OK to show it -- that just being myself is OK.”
Now she’s ready to take on life as a student at UW-Stout in Menomonie, where she will be studying digital filmmaking.
“I’m just ready for change -- ready to go off to college and meet new people and try anything,” the 19-year-old from Hudson said.
Johnson returned in mid-June from Puttlingen, Germany, where she lived and traveled with a host family, learned to speak the language, attended school and made friends.
Puttlingen is a small city near the French border in the southwestern German state of Saarland.
She stayed with two medical professionals, Dr. Oliver Goette, a gynecologist, and his wife, Roma, a radiologist. The couple has a 16-year-old daughter, Leya, who left two weeks after Johnson arrived to spend a year in Powell, Wyo., as a Rotary exchange student. And they have a seven-year-old son, Kay, who became Johnson’s little brother.
Johnson and the 30 to 40 other Youth Exchange students in Saarland first got a two-week crash course in German at Germerscheim.
Once in Puttlingen, Johnson spent the first half of the school year (which began in mid-August) in a German language and integration course designed for immigrants to Germany. She attended the language classes three days of the week, and went to a local secondary school the other two days.
In the second half of the school year, Johnson attended the secondary school -- Albert Einstein Gymnasium -- every weekday. A gymnasium in the German language is a type of university preparatory school.
Johnson also traveled with both her German family and fellow exchange students, and made friends at school and with other Rotary students.
“I had a lot of German friends, and they were really nice,” she said. “We would take a train to Saarbrucken (the capital of Saarland), go shopping, do girl things, have sleep overs, movie nights, go dancing.”
Her closest German friend was Evi Schmidt, who had spent a year in San Diego as a Rotary exchange student. She also spent time in classes and socially with a girl from Venezuela who was in the Rotary Youth Exchange program.
The Goettes’ daughter, Leya, showed her around Albert Einstein Gymnasium and introduced her to people before leaving for Wyoming.
Johnson said her teachers at the school weren’t quite sure what to do with her. She was placed in the 11th grade because the 12th-graders were very focused on preparing for an end-of-year test that could determine their future.
“It feels more like college than my senior year of high school here did,” said Johnson, a 2011 graduate of Hudson High School.
She said she was too busy to feel homesick until around Christmas, when she missed her little Shih Tzu dog, Izzy, parents Jamie and Jean Johnson, brother Lukas and sister Alex.
It helped that her host parents were so good to her. They took her to Paris to celebrate her 19th birthday on Feb. 15.
Later, she revisited Paris with a group of exchange students from two of Germany’s Rotary districts.
The group of around 60 students spent three weeks touring Europe by bus. They visited Brussels and Paris, then traveled south to Monaco, through Italy to Rome and Venice, and finally back north through Hungary and Austria.
“We were like an international family. We just immediately bonded. Everyone was so close,” Johnson said of her fellow Rotary students.
On another Rotary trip, Johnson went snowboarding in the Italian Alps.
“It was beautiful. That was the best week, I have to say,” she reported. “I felt so accomplished and proud of myself that I learned to snowboard by the end of the week.”
Johnson learned to speak German well enough to make it her new language. She made mistakes, she said, but people thought they were cute.
Some German students would want to practice their English on her.
“I told people, I need to learn German. I’m not here to teach you English. Sorry,” she said with a laugh.
She gained an appreciation for the Germans’ modest-sized homes and lifestyle.
“They just get as much as they need and they’re done,” she said. “They don’t live to excess.”
The country’s public transportation made it easy to get around and be independent, she said.
Johnson also enjoyed the food -- the fresh-baked bread, rich milk and chocolate, and locally-grown produce.
Overall, it was a great year, she said.