Interview with an Exchange Student

Nadine Wickford is from Germany, but she graduated with the Dora High School Class of 96. She was an exchange student who attended Dora in 1995 and 1996. She recently signed up on the website and I asked her if she would mind doing an interview. She agreed and what follows is her story.

Q. Tell us a little about where you are from and anything about your family you’d like to share.

A. Right now I live in Berlin, the capital of Germany. When I came to Dora I was living in a small town, Gorleben, in lower Saxony, somewhere between Hamburg and Berlin, in the former West Germany. The town has about 700 inhabitants and there is really nothing going on. When I was younger I enjoyed playing with the other kids in the woods and near the river Elbe, which is one of the biggest in this country.

I grew up with a brother, who is 6 years older than me, but he went to Boarding School when I was 9, so we couldn’t really get into a good relationship, which is different now. My parents own a trucking company, which my grandfather built up and had its 50th anniversary in 1996, the year when I stayed in Alabama. All my close relatives live Gorleben as well, and I enjoy going there nowadays to see my whole family.

Q. Tell us a little about your childhood and the schools you attended. How were they similar or different than school here.

A. As I said, my childhood was pretty nice. When I wasn’t in school or Kindergarten I was having fun with my friends. We were about 15 kids at my age, and we enjoyed annoying the elder people, ringing the bells and running away and stuff like that. The children here grow up very different from the ones in Alabama. We do not have any clubs or school teams; we organize the free time by ourselves.

School is very different, too. Once you are finished with kindergarten you go to the elementary school. If you are a good student you go there at 9 and get out at 12 o’clock. The kids with learning disabilities have to come in at 8. We leave Elementary school after 4 years, usually at the age of 10 and go on for a two-year orientation school. There we start learning English, in fifth grade (now they even start in 3rd grade). During these 2 years the students get divided into different groups in English and math, according to their skills. After the 2 years the teachers and parents decide which kind of school the kid should attend. We have the Hauptschule, which finishes after 9thgrade, the Realschule, which finishes after 10th grade, and the Gymnasium, finishing after 13 years total. Kids who attend the Hauptschule or Realschule usually do an apprenticeship after graduation. Kids that go to the Gymnasium get a diploma and can go to college or university after that.
Besides that, the school itself is very different from your school also. We have a different schedule everyday, which means that we i.e. have English three days a weeks, math 3 days a week, geography twice a week and so on. Usually we go to school from 8 till 1, we don’t have lunch at school and we don’t have things like homeroom etc. Skipping school and coming too late to class is not that bad over here. We don’t get punished for that, and if you don’t feel like attending the art class for example, you just don’t go there and tell the teacher that you were sick. Sounds pretty nice, but if you want to get a descent job, you have to learn self-discipline pretty early in your life.

Q. What are your interests?

A. I love to go cycling, whereas I have to say that cycling is not really a hobby or interest over here. Bicycles are a kind of transportation; we use it to go from one place to another. Almost everybody over here owns a bike and I usually use it to go to university, which makes a ride of about 25 miles every day. I hate the subway, and gas prices are too high in Germany that you can’t afford driving a car everyday.
I like to go swimming and snowboarding also, and right now I’m pretty much into Kite-Surfing, but I guess I have to practice a lot.

Q. How did you get involved with the exchange program?

A. I don’t really know, I told my parents that I would like to go to the states for one year, and then somehow the whole thing started.

Q. How did you come to decide on Dora High School?

A. My uncle’s sister lives in Cordova, well; at least officially it belongs to Cordova. I stayed with her for 6 weeks in 1994 and then in 1995 I came over for my exchange year. So actually I didn’t choose the region where I was going to in the US.

Q. Tell us about the folks here that you stayed with while attending Dora.

A. As I said, I stayed with people that somehow are related to me. I actually knew them because they came to Germany every now and then when I was younger. Since my “host mum” is originally from Germany I had a hard time to get over the language barrier towards her, but I think after a while it was okay. And of course it was a big help having someone around that could understand my language, someone who knew where I was from, and we could talk about people from my home. Especially in the beginning it was hard being in a different country, thousands of miles away from home, not knowing anybody and not really knowing how to speak the language.

Q. What did you like/dislike about the area?

A. Of course I like the taste of America, never ending roads, the malls, the stores that are open 24 hours a day. But I missed the closeness I was used to. I always depended on someone who could give me ride somewhere. Everything was so far away, and since a bike is not considered to be a transportation vehicle, it was pretty hard for me to get to places I wanted to go to. But I liked to be close to Birmingham, that way I knew that I’m not way back in the woods. And of course the closeness to Florida. When I was 11 I went to Florida with my parents, and that was a really big thing. Being in Alabama it was just a weekend trip, that was odd but nice.

Q. What kinds of things did you learn here?

A. First of all I learned English, even though my teachers here told me that I have a bad accent after coming back from the US. Well, that’s life. Unfortunately I have lost a lot of the language skills, I just got out of practice.
In school I didn’t learn anything actually, the school system here is far beyond yours. Things that were taught in Algebra II at Dora I already had in 7th grade here.
One big thing I learned is that church is cool. Over here nobody goes to church. It is old, people my age don’t get confronted with it and we only go there on Christmas. I liked going to church when I was there, especially on Christmas, when they played silent night, holy night, the typical German Christmas song.

Q. If you were mentoring students from there who were coming here on the exchange program, what would you advise?

A. I would probably encourage them to overcome the language barrier. At first I was pretty scared to open my mouth because I thought people would laugh because of my English.
Other than that I would tell them to get there about a month before school starts to get used to the environment. I did not have the time, arrived 2 days after school started officially. That way everything, especially in school, went pretty fast.
Another thing is, get your drivers license as soon as possible and try to get your own car.

Q. What would you tell the students here that want to do an exchange there where you live?

A. First of all, learn German. It is not necessary; we have schools like the Kennedy School in Berlin, that are completely in English. I even had a prof the first semester from San Francisco. She lived here for 3 years and could not speak a word German, and she got along pretty well in Berlin. But knowing the language makes life a little bit easier.
Other than that, well, just come over and see how it is. Germany and its culture change very fast, so it is hard to write a how-to-behave-in-Germany. Most people say what they think, so if you do something wrong, they will tell you.

Q. What was the best part of your experience here?

A. I think the best part of it is, that I’m still in contact with my family, that I came back 3 years after the exchange and was welcomed with open arms. Somehow this makes a cross-cultural person me.

Q. What impact did the experience have on your life?

A. It definitely encouraged my self-confidence and the decision to learn more about the world, different languages, and cultures. I’m not scared to leave Germany, I want to travel a lot, and I even plan on saying Good Bye to Germany forever.

Q. How was the exchange funded?

A. Well, my parents. There are some ways to get a scholarship, but back then my grades weren’t good enough. But they also look at the income of the parents, and since that was pretty high, there was no chance to get a scholarship.

Q. If someone from here was interested in coming there on the exchange program, what should they do?

A. There are a lot of organizations for exchange programs. One way is to ask them (just look for them on the internet). Another way is having contact to people over here. I know about people that got to know each other over the net (i.e. chat) and they organized it themselves, which is a lot cheaper. If anyone is interested, they can mail me (, my parents would love to have somebody in the house 😉

Q. What have you done since you left Dora High?

A. I went to school for 3 more years to get the “Abitur”, the degree we need to be able to got to University. Since 1999 I’m studying International Media Computing in Berlin, made a 4-months Internship in Italy and right now I’m working on my diploma-thesis, something between the bachelor and the masters degree.

A. What are your plans for the future?

Q. First of all, staying healthy. I would like to get to San Francisco or Sydney for one year, but first I have to finish my thesis. Maybe one day a family, but right now I want to enjoy my life, travel and learn.

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