Last Saturday, Oct. 19, 12 exchange students and two teachers arrived for their three-week stay through the German American Partnership Program (GAPP). These individuals are from Kirchheim unter Teck, a suburb of Stuttgart, Germany, St. Louis’ sister city.
This unique experience is something WGHS has been involved with for several years.
This three-week exchange, coordinated by German teacher Brent Mackey, develops a partnership between a school in Germany and in the United States.
GAPP works somewhat interchangeably; in June, the same 12 WGHS students who hosted will get the chance to be an exchange student in Germany with the very same students.
Before their arrival, former and upcoming hosts were asked what foreign exchange students brought to the WGHS community in their limited time here.
For the first semester of the 2016-2017 school year, senior Lily Orinau’s family hosted 16 year old Florentine Vogt from Homburg, Germany.
On this experience, Ortinau shared, “We decided to host her mainly because we wanted to give someone an opportunity to study abroad. We wanted to give exposure to culture, meaning that we could learn about Flo’s culture, and she could learn about ours. Hosting Flo not only met our expectations, but it exceeded them.”
On their immediate connection, Orinau said, “The first night that she was in the U.S., we stayed up until 3 a.m. talking about our lives and getting to know each other, so we immediately got along very well. She was very adventurous and open to trying anything, so she taught me how to be more outgoing. Flo was not only a sister, but she was also one of my closest friends that year.”
Similar to most exchange partnerships, Vogt and Ortinau still stay in contact. Last summer, Vogt even came back to Webster to visit.
Senior Ella Castleman’s family hosted Vogt for her second semester at WGHS. Castleman said, “My family was contacted through the Rotary program that brings exchange students to Webster because they knew that my family had hosted a few students in college before, asking if we were interested in hosting a high schooler.”
“It was a lot different than the other times we’ve hosted because we were so much closer in age, which was a really amazing experience for me. I got to have a stronger bond with her. We became friends very quickly because I got to see her at school everyday. We were in Orchestra together and had mutual friends,” said Castleman.
After only hosting older students in the past, Castleman said Vogt was “someone who could really fit into our family.”
Similar to Castleman, most students experience a quick connection with their partners.
Exchange students spend a substantial amount of time with their host, in and outside of school. This time includes school activities, everyday classes, and more.
Castleman shared, “I still keep in touch with her and have even seen her again since her year here. I would not change anything. I am so glad I got to be a part of her time in America.”
Junior Sarah Ahrens is a part of this year’s GAPP, hosting her 17 year-old exchange student, Elena.
Before her arrival, Ahrens said, “I really just hope to gain a better understanding of the culture. For me, at least, it is very important to better myself by learning about things I don’t know yet. Going to a different country and learning from a person who is coming here was really something that I wanted to experience before going to college.”
“I hope to gain a better understanding of the world around me and a new perspective. I really wanted to host someone because I wanted a best friend in another country. I wanted to get to know someone who was so different from me, but similar at the same time. I really wanted to have the full experience of the exchange and be completely immersed,” Ahrens said.
About 2018-2019 WGHS exchange student Sofia Lerchundi from Orio, Spain, senior Scout Broshears said, “She became one of my best friends, and I know she will always be. Sofia was always positive and willing to do anything. She taught me a lot about Spain and different cultures in general.”
Broshears and friends are even going to visit Lerchundi in Spain next summer.
German teacher Brent Mackey has been a part of GAPP since he has taught at Webster.
Mackey participated in the exchange when he was in high school and shared that he still keeps in touch with his exchange partner after 20 years.
“He came to my wedding, and I visit him whenever I am in Germany. I want that for my students,” said Mackey.
About what he personally gains from the program Mackey said, “It’s not so much what I get from it as what the students get from it. There’s no better way for my students to learn about Germany and its culture than to live there. It’s also great for the host families and community here in Webster. Exchanges like this bring the world a little bit closer together.”
To learn more about the exchange students, check out the bulletin boards in the hallway across from the library entrance closest to the main offices, decorated by GAPP participating WGHS students.
This will be Emily Stisser’s first year on ECHO staff, but she made several contributions while taking journalism class her freshman year.