Summer fun for Portaloo exchange students

Pictured are, from left, Jessica Ubbelohde, River VanVeghel, Kate Schneider, Abby VanVeghel, Carter VanVeghel, German student Gina Beiersdorfer, Kelsey Tiemann, German student Anna Franken, Aleah Larsen, Wil Schneider and Ryan Geiler. (submitted photo)

When Anna Franken and Gina Beiersdorfer left Saturday morning, the travel portion of the Sister Cities of Portaloo’s foreign exchange program ended for 2018.

Franken and Beiersdorfer came to Waterloo July 29. That was after Waterloo students Wil Schneider and Aleah Larsen visited Germany from June 26 to July 27.

With the program over for another year, these students reflected on their trips.

Waterloo students
The exchange almost did not happen this year, at least on the Waterloo side. That is because Larsen was the only person who wanted to go. Since she was 15 at the time, Sister Cities did not want her to go alone and were going to cancel the trip.

Larsen found Schneider, however, and trip was back on.

Larsen said she fought to go to Germany to be able to travel internationally.

“I’ve never been out of the country before and I thought this was the best and easiest opportunity and the only chance I would get this young,” the Waterloo High School junior said. 

“I wanted to see what Germany was really like and just to experience a new type of culture and way of life,” Schneider, also a junior, said of why he wanted to go. 

Even though it was only the two of them, Larsen and Schneider still completed the application process, which involved writing an essay and being interviewed by Sister Cities officials.

While in Germany, they stayed with two host families.  Larsen and Schneider traveled across the western part of the country. In addition to Porta Westfalica, they visited Cologne, Hamburg, Heidelberg and The Black Forest.

Schneider said he particularly enjoyed one of those German expeditions.

“My favorite thing was Cologne because you were able to see the massive cathedral there,” he said.

The duo even went out of the country, going to Paris and Strasbourg in France.

Larsen said that latter destination was her favorite part of the trip.

“We were in Strasbourg the day France won the World Cup,” she explained. “We were going to watch the party there, but the family we were with said it would be too crazy. So we went back on the other side of the border and watched it. That’s like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

It was not all sightseeing, however, as the students also went to school for a week. Both described that experience in similar terms.

“The German school was much more relaxed than the American school,” Schneider said. “The teachers and the students seemed to have a much closer relationship. It’s not class after class after class in Germany. It’s two classes then maybe a 15-or-20-minute break between every two classes.”

“It was way different,” Larsen agreed. “When we got there, Wil and I were like ‘wow, school here is awesome.’”

Larsen and Schneider adjusted rapidly to the school, as they did to the overall culture, which they said was not that different from here.

“The culture didn’t feel too alien,” Schneider summarized.

Overall, both said they loved and recommend the experience.

“I really enjoyed the trip overall,” Schneider said. “I will definitely encourage people to take this trip. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“I think a lot of people are very sheltered and being able to go and see how people live differently is great,” Larsen added. “It was a great learning experience for sure. I think everyone should consider applying.”

Porta Westfalica students
Similarly, the German students said they valued their trip, echoing most of what their American counterparts had to say.

Franken and Beiersdorfer both attend a school called Gymnasium Porta Westfalica. Franken is a junior and Beiersdorfer is a senior.

To apply to come to America, these students had to email their teacher expressing interest and get approval from Sister Cities. Four people applied to travel here.

“There are not really many people who know about this program and two were too late,” Franken explained.

Franken said she wanted to come to America to see what it was like.

“I always wanted to come to America to experience the lifestyle,” she said. “I’ve watched all the movies and stuff like that. I wanted to just go here and experience it. Also I love traveling.”

Beiersdorfer had a similar motive.

“I wanted to see how the school worked here because I heard it was really different,” she said. “Plus, I like to travel.”

Like their American counterparts, the German students traveled, visiting St. Louis, Springfield and Chicago. Both went to a St. Louis Cardinals game.

“That was really cool because we don’t have baseball at all,” Franken said. “It was my first baseball game.”

Although it was her first baseball game, Franken said her favorite part of the trip was Chicago.

Beiersdorfer also liked Chicago, but she said she comparably enjoyed her trip to Six Flags.

“We have something similar to Six Flags in Germany but the roller coasters are more extreme here,” she said. “I love roller coasters and it was very cool.”

The Germans also agreed with the Americans about the differences in school.

“It was interesting, but I am happy to go to my school again,” Beiersdorfer said with a laugh. “We have lots more freedom and we are very close to our teachers.”

Both students said they found the culture different, but easy to adjust to.

“I just think in America everything is bigger: houses, cars, people whatever,” Franken said.

Franken and Beiersdorfer said they plan to encourage friends to participate in the exchange program.

“I’m a triplet and my sister wants to come, so she’s coming next year,” Franken said.

“I think the program is a very good idea,” Beiersdorfer added. “It’s a valuable experience because you meet so many new people. You make so many new friends. It’s an experience you will never forget.”

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