Education, Friendship Are the Highlights of Southern Regional’s German Exchange Program

Oct 11, 2017
Photo by: David Biggy Some of the Southern Regional and Gersheim Gymnasium students gather for an Oktoberfest party on Oct. 6 as part of Southern’s German exchange program.

For 19 years, Vicky Matthew has watched education and friendship collide in an intricate way through the Southern Regional High School’s German exchange program. On Oct. 6, she, several colleagues and dozens of students had the chance to celebrate some of that common ground during a small Oktoberfest gathering.

“For these students, they develop a cultural understanding and friendships that can last forever, so it’s a big deal for them,” said Matthew, one of Southern’s German teachers, who oversees the program of about 140 students at all grade levels. “Our program really has a lot to offer, and the students enjoy it. Many of them have an ancestry in Germany, so this gives them a way to connect to that. But for all of them, being a part of the program gives them an education they wouldn’t get in a classroom.”

Through a direct link to Gernsheim Gymnasium, a school situated between Frankfurt and Heidelberg in southern Germany, Southern students in the exchange program spend several weeks visiting Germany in April and stay with host families during the stay. In October of the following school year, the Gernsheim students who were hosts come to the United States and stay with the Southern host families as they visit the region, which also includes a two-day stay in New York City that is separate from the exchange program.

According to Matthew, Gernsheim Gymnasium is a school of approximately 1,500 highly motivated and engaged students, all of whom play a string or wind instrument, and has a rich natural sciences department. The 18 students and two teachers from the school arrived in the area on Sept. 28 and stayed through Tuesday, Oct. 10.

“It’s really good for global awareness, for the students to share what they have in common,” said Sue Craig, the Southern district’s supervisor of world languages. “But what’s really important for our students is that they get to show off our area of the world. And our kids are proud to do it because we live in a wonderful place.”

For many of the German students and their Southern hosts, the 12-day stint was an opportunity not only to further develop the friendships first acquired earlier in the year – many of them are connected via social media, anyway, so this stretch simply was enhanced by more-personal interaction – but also to do some of the things the Southern youngsters love and enjoy most.

Kaitlyn Ward, a Southern junior, and Enya Ebermann had planned to visit New York’s Broadway to catch a performance of the show “Wicked.” Southern student Rose Mohr and her German friend Katharina Auer spent some time at the beach and climbing Barnegat Lighthouse, while John Ruela, who is hosting two German guests, including Jan Deflize, had planned to watch Southern’s football game against Jackson Memorial later in the evening on Friday.

“I’ve watched American football on TV,” said Deflize, who also had visited California earlier this year. “But everything is different here. It’s big and there’s a lot of space. I like it here. I’m going to come back.”

Ebermann, who claims Oktoberfest is celebrated more in America than back home in Germany, plays the flute and handball, a big-time sport in most of Europe. But while here in the States, she found out just how well some seafood mixes with other foods.

“I really like lobster mac and cheese,” she said. “The food is very good, and everyone here is very friendly, not like back home. Everything is bigger here. It’s overwhelming.”

Considering the relatively small size of their school, which houses students from grades five through 13, Auer and her schoolmates all were enthralled by the size of Southern’s building, grounds and student body. And they were intrigued by the constant schedule, with Southern students taking the same classes, with the same teachers, every day.

“The school is very different from what we have at home,” said Auer, who enjoys reading and the viola. “Going to the same classes with the same teachers is an interesting thing.”

Not surprisingly, each of the Southern students enjoyed their time in Germany, paying plenty of compliments to the culture, architecture, food and historical features. Ward even went so far as to say she’d consider moving there for some time at some point in her life.

“I can see myself living there,” she said. “It’s a beautiful country, and the culture is great.”

But, without question, probably more than a few of the German students may end up back in America later in life as well.

“I’m having a good time here,” Auer said about her first time in the U.S. “I think everyone wants to come to America at least once. I’m hoping to come back.”

— David Biggy

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