Deliberately placing yourself outside of your comfort zone will do one of two things; make you into a stronger better person, or cause you to shutdown and not accomplish the task at hand. While most high school juniors spend their year studying, excelling in sports, hanging out with friends, and thinking about colleges, I pushed my boundaries and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. No, I did not go skydiving or join the US National Volleyball Team. I accepted the challenge of the Congress Bundestag Scholarship program to spend a year in Germany living, learning, and experiencing life in another land. The life skills and memories that I acquired in the past twelve months have put me a step ahead of my peers and shown me that if I put my mind to it, anything is possible.
In October 2002 as I was sitting in my first year German class, my teacher recommended that I apply for what she called the ‘prestigious’ Congress Bundestag Scholarship to spend a year in Germany. Taking into consideration that I would have to leave everything I had going for me behind, made me a little leery of the idea. However, when I realized what an honor and opportunity it was to take part in an exchange, the mounds of paperwork seemed to shrink into a small homework assignment with a twist. After the final interview, reality hit me. I might actually spend a year in Germany! Along with the excitement came the panic: I can’t actually speak German. What should I pack? How do I say goodbye to everyone? What if I get homesick? Do the Germans really only shower once a week? These questions all came at once, and no matter how much I searched, the only answers I could find told me to wait and see.
Before I knew it, I was boarding a 737 an route to Frankfurt with 60 of my new best friends who, like me had the courage to enter into the unknown and spend a year in Germany. It was this group of teenagers that I spent a month in language camp with trying to learn the basics about German life and culture. We were like infants who had to do 18 years of growing up in 30 days. We worked together trying to learn the basics such as learning to eat and trying to work a toilet; to understanding the most complicated issues such as diplomacy, political debate, and how to be an ambassador for America. During this time, I grew as a person, learning empathy for those who were homesick and becoming open minded to people and activities that to me were not the norm or routine. Little did I know, these kids would be my lifelines in times of need. They could always relate to what I was experiencing, and they were also flying on the ‘roller coaster’ of emotions.
When the time came to leave my new friends and move on, I was extremely excited to immerse myself into the German culture. The language, a new school, new friends, and a new family seemed like a dream come true, but in reality it turned into a nightmare.
When my host family picked me up, we had a three-hour ride home. Make that a SILENT three hours without air conditioning and five people plus four suitcases crammed into a small Passat. At home, we unloaded the car and I went to see my new room. As I looked out of my window something white and black caught my eye, whoa cows less than ten feet from my window. I could not believe it, my organization said I would live in the country, but I did not realize that the next closest town was an hour away.
As my stress level hit a high, my new host mom put me over the edge. She began to unpack my suitcases that were filled with unwrapped gifts for her and the family. It was at that point that I counted to ten and reminded myself that it was a different culture, and possibly that was one of their customs. The only problem was, my German skills were not good enough to politely ask her to stop. So she continued and I smiled and hoped my rocky start would smooth into a healthy open relationship.
Three weeks later, I was getting into the swing of things. Going to school, riding my bike and the bus, making friends, and yes getting used to the smell of cows. I was adapting well, being responsible and beginning to understand the German spoken in school. I had gone beyond everyone else’s expectations and mine. Life was good, even though the Germans only showered twice a week.
After the honeymoon phase was over, my host mother turned on me. She thought I was being disrespectful and not telling the truth, where as the problem was that I couldn’t fully understand what she was saying, causing a lack in communication between us. When I realized this, I worked extra hard to regain her trust and persevere through what I perceived as a small bump in the road. When things worsened and I could no longer adapt to the situation, my community representative intervened and placed me with a new family. Even though my first host family was a challenge, the experience showed my true character. In the face of adversity, I was able to handle myself maturely and attempt to find a solution to the problem. It was not a failure by any means, but an opportunity to grow.
Not only did I develop in times of trial and hardship, but I learned just as much in a nurturing situation. During the last six months of my stay in Germany I stayed with a truly wonderful family. I was treated as an adult, and I assumed full responsibility for myself. My host parents’ generosity of welcoming me into their heart and home made me appreciative of all I had accomplished in the last year, and encouraged me to give back. Through this pattern of giving and receiving I gained a sense of compassion and consideration for others. I surrounded my self with positive people which in turn brightened my spirits and reminded me that when the going gets tough an optimistic attitude can make a world of difference.
When I boarded the plane at the end of my year there were only 52 of the original 60 students who completed the program. My commitment and perseverance helped me overcome adversity and succeed in a situation where the odds were against me. Not only did I accomplish the task at hand, but I had the time of my life while doing it. The rewards of spending a year abroad are endless, but I was most affected in a few ways. I learned compassion and acceptance first hand by being treated by others with kindness when I was down.
I have become accountable beyond my age by being entrusted with responsibilities that are typically given to a person 22 and over. Now as I move on, I am better prepared for what awaits me. I have a whole new set of life skills and memories to keep in my quiver and use when called on. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone was the best thing I could have done, I was up to the challenge and I passed with flying colors.