By Madeline Bonner
“Hallo, Wie geht es dir?” Students from Union High School may have heard this phrase from some of the 19 German students that came to Iowa as part of the German American Exchange Program. It means, “Hello, how are you?” in English, which is a basic greeting that many cultures share.
Over 20 years ago, Union High School was approached by a principal in Germany and asked if they wanted to establish an exchange program. Holly Dunkelberger, the German teacher from Union, began communicating and setting up the exchange on her own.
“The idea is to promote cultural understanding and getting to know people. We also went from just being a private exchange to participating in the German American Partnership Program between the German and American governments supporting the exchange and so now we work with the GAPP program,” Dunkelberger said.
After years of operating between the two schools, the principal retired and Dunkelberger was left to figure out a different opportunity for her students. Dunkelberger reached out to another school, and soon the partnership between Union High School and Alexander-von-Humboldt-Schule Lauterbach began.
“The school is in Lauterbach, Germany and then we also usually travel to several places in that area and then usually Munich, Salzburg, sometimes Berlin, we’ve gone to Hamburg, it depends on the group it’s kind of tailored to to what that group is really interested in and where it would be good for us to go. So a lot of other towns besides Lauterbach, we get around,” Dunkelberger said.
Ulrike Walter and Thomas Zulauf, teachers from Alexander-von-Humboldt-Schule Lauterbach, began asking students if they would want to go on a trip to see America at the beginning of the school year and many signed up. Walter and Zulauf were the teachers that brought the students to America in early April.
“The difference is that we went to a travel agency to help us because we have 19 students and I think that’s a lot of responsibility and I wouldn’t have wanted to book all the flights because we went to Chicago first and then we came here and now we are going to New York on Tuesday for four nights and then we’ll go back home,” Walter said.
On April 15, Walter, Zulauf and their 19 students began their trip by flying to Chicago and spending three days there. Then they flew to Cedar Rapids on April 17 and met their host families at Union High School. Sarah Roberts, a sophomore from Union High School, hosted a German student for two weeks while the group was here.
“When they first called us down to the office of go get them, I thought ‘oh my gosh, they’re not going to like me’, but I think that the more you get to know a person, the better and less awkward it gets,” Roberts said.
During the weeks they attended school with the American students, German students also took time to experience different parts of Iowa.
“We’ve went to the Hall of Pride, the Living History Farms, and we went to Colona, it’s an Amish community, and they are very interested in knowing where how German heritage came from Germany to the United States,” Roberts said.
Peggy Kleinschmidt, a German student traveling to America through the exchange program, commented on her thoughts about coming to the United States and using it as a learning experience.
“I think it’s all the best part because we see the new parts of the city area and the rural area and see the difference between Germany and America and it’s sometimes quite big because the school systems are completely different or I think the best thing is that we go to school here and live with the families,” Kleinschmidt said.
Roberts enjoyed spending time with her exchange student and getting to know her more, but the most educational part of the experience was learning about the differences between Germany and the United States.
“Getting to know about their culture, like what things overlap and what things are different, is super important,” Roberts said.
Walter remarked that it’s more about the experiences outside academics that make the trip worthwhile.
“The personal stuff more that has nothing to do with school, which is why I’m here and why I want to go this so bad for the world around me. Making connections with people, making friends.” Walter said.
The partnership between Union High School and Alexander-von-Humboldt-Schule Lauterbach built many relationships over the years. The main goal of this exchange program is to give students a new perspective on accepting the differences between cultures and people.
“Well there’s an infinite number of things they learn, some good some bad, but just making friends. We’re trying to make the point that not just German, but any other culture that we are all people and we all have a lot of things in common we should be caring for each other rather than going to war or cutting people down. We need to understand each other and learn from other cultures and what they can contribute to us and what we can contribute to them,” Dunkelberger said.