Laughter breaks out as German exchange student Felix Perschen (front right) tells a joke while posing for pictures with senior John Simmons (from left), Matthias Lowenicht, 17, junior Dillon Woods and Simon Loehr, 17.
Northside Junior Megan Alexander (left) consoles her exchange student Cathrin Borowski, 17, as she struggles to part with her new friend.
Mona Hultz, 17
Felix Perschen, 17
Story and Photos by Mitchell Alexander, Northside High School
Two typical teenagers sit together in a Roanoke Starbucks.
They like movies, they like music, they like socializing with friends.
They’re bonafide All-American teens. But they’re not American.
Felix Perschen, 17, and Mona Hultz, 17, are just two of the 24 exchange students who traveled over 4,000 miles from their homes in Germany to Roanoke for two weeks in March.
Hultz sipped on her beverage as she told me the story of their arrival.
They went to Washington first, she said. “We saw the White House and it was a lot of fun.”
She and Perschen went back and forth, excitedly telling me about their experiences in America.
One highlight of their travel? The deals. All the clothing at Valley View Mall was priced to move for these students; similar garments are significantly more expensive back home.
Fast food restaurants, an American staple, were naturally destinations they couldn’t skip.
I asked Felix if they had Taco Bell in Germany.
The answer was ‘no.’ “And I’m really glad that we don’t,” he said.
It’s safe to say he wasn’t a fan.
All of these adventures are possible in part to the American hosts who house the students during their stay.
Northside students look at profiles of the German students and hand-pick who they will be hosting before they arrive; boys are paired with boys, girls are paired with girls. Usually, the pair become good friends within a matter of days.
Northside junior Jessica Younts hosted Hultz.
“It was really fun,” Younts said. “Mona spoke English well, so I didn’t have to use much German and my parents could talk to her, too.”
The two weeks were packed with fun: hosts and the students went bowling, had sleepovers, and there was even a field trip to Monticello.
However, there was nothing remarkable about this exchange. In fact, for some students at Northside High School, it’s almost normal.
The German program at Northside, taught by Alan Strecker, hosts a group of students every other year.
“We have the largest German program in the entire county,” Strecker said. “That’s something that I’m really proud of.”
On a year when students aren’t being hosted, a group from Northside takes a trip to Germany. While there, they visit Gymnasium Nonnenwerth, the private school that partners with Strecker to maintain the cycle of exchanging.
Mary Grace Agner, a junior at Northside, went on the trip last summer.
“It was my first time on a plane, and it was really scary,” she said. “[But] we all had a great time once we got there.”
Having a great time is common during exchange trips, but, like all good things, it can’t last forever.
It was a Thursday morning when the exchange students were set to depart. There was an uncanny easiness in the air; everyone knew that they only had a few hours left together, yet no one mentioned it.
Perschen, standing with his friends, sipped one of his last Mountain Dews.
“We don’t have Mountain Dew in Germany,” he told me. “I’m going to miss it.”
Then he hugged his empty can.
Students returned from a vending machine with packages of Pop-Tarts.
They said they didn’t have those in Germany, either.
“I’m not going to cry,” said junior Hasel Islas-Gonzales while hugging her student. But she was crying.
Some hosts were rocking out to German techno music in one corner of the classroom; others were taking pictures.
Then, the bus arrived. Taking their last walk through Northside High School, the exchange students exited to the parking lot where they began to load their luggage.
The easiness in the air was no longer present as emotions began to grow stronger.
More tears began to fall as students said their last goodbyes to one another, and the hugs they gave were much tighter than the ones earlier that morning.
“We have the memories,” said junior Dillon Woods as he told his friends goodbye.
The bus pulled away; some students chased it, waving, while others went inside.
But for the German students on the bus, they left with more than just memories; they also left with new friendships, cheap clothes and Pop-Tarts.
Students yell “Auf Wiedersehen!” (goodbye!) as the German exchange students depart to Washington D.C. to catch their flight home.