Getting to know people from other cultures can have a huge impact on a person's life. International friendships not only help people learn about other places and cultures but also to eliminate stereotypes about foreign countries.
Chiara Koswald and Rebecca Schrei, two exchange students from Dortmund, Germany, experienced this firsthand during their stay in Buffalo. My family hosted Chiara at our house, and the experience has opened my eyes and taught me many new things about the way of life in Germany.
Chiara, 16, and Rebecca, 17, arrived from Germany in August and attended Sacred Heart Academy until mid-December. They both agree that the biggest differences between America and Germany are in the two nation's education systems. In Germany, a student's academic ability determines which of the three levels of "gymnasium" (similar to our public high school) he or she will attend. Students take more subjects than we do, but have each class only once or twice a week, with longer breaks in between each lesson.
Both girls noted that they have been assigned much more homework here.
"You don't do so much in class," Rebecca said.
"You mostly learn from doing homework," Chiara said, adding that German schools rarely give tests.
"We usually have two really big tests in five months, and they are very important," she said.
In addition, Rebecca says that almost every aspect of the American teenager's life -- sports, extracurricular activities and friends -- revolves around school.
"Everything here is about school: You go to school, you stay for activities, you go home to do homework."
As a swimmer for Sacred Heart, Rebecca experienced this firsthand. It was a big adjustment for her because in Germany, she says, there are no clubs and only a few sports teams.
However, America and Germany are very similar as far as pop culture goes. There are some popular groups, such as Tokio Hotel, that sing in German, but teens in Germany usually listen to American music as well as songs from a few other European countries. One of the things that surprised Chiara most about America is that we hear so little music from European countries. Movies such as the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series are popular in Germany as well.
Chiara says, however, that American movies have created exaggerated stereotypes about the U.S.
"We think of America as 'High School Musical' ..." she said.
Both girls agree that teenagers in Germany can go places by themselves much more easily because they have a much better public transportation system. Almost everyone uses subways and buses to get around, and many teenagers, Chiara included, ride their bikes to school every day.
"I have to do everything with my host parents here, but in Germany I can do everything for myself," Rebecca said. "I can ride my bike or walk to all my friends."
She also believes things in Buffalo are more spread out.
"In Germany, 20 minutes is far away. Here in Buffalo, it is close," Rebecca said.
She said that the most important reason she wanted to come to the U.S. was to meet new people and have new experiences. Having never been to America before this trip, she says she is happy to have made so many new friends.
Both girls would like to visit Buffalo again, and I think many of us at Sacred Heart are just as eager to visit Germany. This program has helped many of us develop a deeper appreciation for foreign cultures and form relationships with Chiara and Rebecca that will last long past their departure.
"I see myself, in five or 10 years, coming back to Buffalo and meeting again with all the great friends I have made here," said Rebecca.
Meredith McCaffrey is a sophomore at Sacred Heart Academy.
"Everything here is about school: You go to school, you stay for activities, you go home to do homework"
– Rebecca Schrei, 17, left, with fellow exchange student from Germany, Chiara Koswald, 16