Foreign exchange students experience American culture

by Ashley NguLydia Zhang

Photos courtesy of senior Elias Kaufhold & junior Matthew Streicher

Everyone has had to be the “new kid in school” at one point or another. But for senior Elias Kaufhold and junior Matthew Streicher, their experiences are further magnified by the fact that they are not the average new kids on campus. Instead, they have the unique distinction of both coming from foreign countries.

Kaufhold, who is originally from Berlin, initially decided to travel to the United States in order to challenge himself intellectually. Streicher traveled from Graz, a city in Austria, to California for pretty much the same reasons. “I decided to come here mainly for the new experience and also to improve on my English skills and learn the culture because it’s completely different here,” Streicher said. According to Kaufhold, he previously took part in a four-month long foreign exchange program to France during his freshman year as part of a scholarship he was awarded.

Kaufhold and Streicher say their school systems are similar to each other’s but differ widely from the United States’ educational system. Similar to other places in Europe, students in Austria and Germany are separated into advanced and normal schools by the time they reach fifth or sixth grade. Their equivalent of American high schools encompass fifth through twelfth grade students, with about 100 students per grade. In Germany, the students in a grade are split into classes of about 25 to 30 people, who will usually stay together for the whole year. “You get to know the people in your class really well because you stay with those same people for a year or more,” Kaufhold said. “But there isn’t much drama or anything like that.” In Austria, it differs slightly in that the students in a class may stay together from fifth grade all the way to tenth.

In Germany and Austria, only the students who attend advanced schools are able to apply to attend college. The only items taken into account for the application are their grades for the 11th and 12th grades and their test score on the final exam taken at the end of 12th grade. Streicher wishes to attend college in the U.S. but is unsure about the expenses for U.S. colleges. In both Germany and Austria, students can attend college without tuition as long as they have the proper credentials.

Kaufhold and Streicher both feel that the school atmosphere in Palo Alto is much more liberal and spirited. “Probably my favorite thing here is the school spirit,” Streicher said. “Homecoming is really exciting because we don’t have anything like it. We don’t have school spirit at all. We don’t even have school colors.” Streicher participated in Homecoming Week by dressing up throughout the week, like as Sonic the Hedgehog on Wednesday for Nintendo. He also used the week as an opportunity to introduce the students he meets to his own culture. “When we went to the Homecoming dance, he went to the corner and started teaching everyone German and Austrian dances,” his host sister senior Anna von Clemm said.

Both students agree that their experiences in Palo Alto have been enjoyable, although they admit the homework load is more than they are used to. “Back home, we have maybe ten minutes of homework everyday so at about 3:10 p.m. we go to sports or arts clubs, hang out at a park with friends or watch a movie on weekdays,” Kaufhold said. In Germany, he had time to participate in a local soccer organization and a karate club. He also started an amateur rock band with his friends. Kaufhold says that here, it’s a lot harder to find time to join activities after school, through there are more opportunities.

However, the pair says that the topics they cover at Gunn are fairly similar to what they would be learning in their home countries and that the difficulty level is nearly the same. Though the learning is similar, they say that school is still full of new things for them. “Matthew just completely doesn’t understand some of the things we do here,” von Clemm said. “It’s really fun because he will always come home from school and tell us about his day, and everything is so interesting and new to him.”

According to Kaufhold and Streicher, American culture is not at all new to them as parts of U.S. pop culture are found in both Germany and Austria. Much of the popular music played in their home countries comes from America, like Justin Bieber and Enrique Iglesias. Both Kaufhold and Streicher watch the same shows and visit the same Websites that American teens often enjoy. “We have everything Americans have,” Streicher said. “We have Lady Gaga, Skype, Facebook, Youtube, De Simpsons, Family Guy, Scrubs, Sony, HP and even Crocs, those ridiculous shoes.”

Both Kaufhold and Streicher say that they are glad that they took the opportunity to come to America. “As much as I love Germany, I will definitely come back and visit after college,” Kaufhold said.