Three years ago, this simple sentence would not have been of much significance to me. I would be interested in what an exchange student had to say, but I would then pack the entire idea away and carry on with my studies. Today, three years later, that very same sentence holds an entire new world of wonder and discovery.
Today, I am proud to say that I am a Muslim, South African teenager of Indian descent, living in Namibia and currently studying abroad for a year, as an exchange student in Germany.
The question of how I ended up being an exchange student in Germany is a question I’m asked often by people I meet, and also a question that I often ask myself when I look back at the past few years. I came into contact with Rotary International when I joined the new Interact club at my school, a club that focused on improving lives and helping those in need in one’s own society. Around the same time, a good friend of mine revealed that she would be going to Europe for a year as an exchange student, with the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, and so name “Rotary” began to play a more frequent role in my life. I always knew that I wanted to travel to Europe at some point in my life, and perhaps even study at a university there, though I never thought in detail about it, and the idea always stayed a vague dream for the distant future, that is, until I started reading posts from my friend who just departed for her year abroad. It was then that I read all available material about this program and I slowly started visualizing myself actually taking part in an exchange. I looked at a series of exchange programs, but decided on Rotary, because I knew the organization best, the prices were most economical, and I was already in contact with amazing Rotarians.
After discussing the idea with my parents and applying, I was extremely excited to go through the application and preparatory process. I attended the orientations last year, was accepted to go on exchange to Germany, and the time just flew by. The idea that I was actually going overseas didn’t sink in until I was explaining the concept of exchange to my extended family. I didn’t receive many negative comments, though I did have to often explain why I wanted to spend a year abroad to many people, because it was a concept many members of my somewhat conservative family didn’t fully understand because it was something that hadn’t really been done in our family before. Nevertheless, I had lots of supporters and well-wishers at the airport, and despite the tears, I boarded the plane to Germany, which I believe will always be one of the best decisions of my life.
My arrival in Hamburg was a strange experience. The biggest change was the temperature, which had been 30 degrees in southern Africa, and dropped to -12 degrees in northern Germany, and the scenery, which went from browns and greens to bare trees and snow. In a matter of hours, everything was suddenly different, but it was an amazing feeling to realize I was finally there and at the start of my exchange. I didn’t have extreme homesickness, though in the beginning, I did miss my family a lot, especially my parents and sisters. As I got used to my new home, school and life, the weather improved and we had our first exchange student meeting on an island in the North Sea, off the coast of Germany. It was really interesting to meet other exchange students from all over the world, and I found so much in common with the Indian exchange students because my great-great grandparents were from India, and I grew up with an average Indian traditional extended family, even though they lived a few thousand kilometers away in South Africa. As the days got longer with the arrival of spring, and then summer, the time began to fly by.
With Rotary, we were also privileged to go on Eurotour, a three week tour around Europe. The main cities we visited were Prague, Vienna, Venice, Florence, Rome, Vatican City, Savona, Monaco, Paris and Amsterdam. We also had a few other meetings during the year in different cities around Schleswig Holstein. The summer was amazing, though it was sad to go and say goodbye to the exchange students from the exchange year 2013-2014. As an exchange student from the southern hemisphere, I arrived in January 2014, and I will be returning home in January 2015, because the school year in southern Africa starts in January instead of August. I also got to travel around Germany, to so many different cities, as well as to other countries such as Belgium and Denmark. The trip is amazing because the company also plays a huge part in any trip. I have been blessed to have had the most amazing two host families, make some of the best friends I will ever have, and having had the opportunity to meet and get to know people from every corner of the world, of every race, culture, religion and nationality. Despite being fluent in German now, the beauty of being part of such an international community is learning a little of every language. Learning a new language is hard and though I am not perfect at German grammatically, I have become quite fluent at it after speaking it for 11 months.
The year has flown by, and in less than a month, I will be returning to Namibia. I have been so privileged to not only experience so much of Germany, specifically the northern part, but also the whole of Europe, and with that, the world. I appreciate being given this opportunity to represent who I am, and where I come from. I would genuinely recommend every teenager to do an exchange, because I myself have learnt so much this year concerning my personality, beliefs and ambitions. It will be extremely hard saying goodbye to all the wonderful people that I’ve met, but the beauty of the German farewell “Auf Wiedersehen”, is entirely appropriate, with it’s meaning of “until we meet again”.
I am proud to be an exchange student and be part of this worldwide network of young people working together to create bonds of understanding between nations and their different ways of life.
|Nabeelah Suleman is a South African teenager of Indian descent, living in Namibia and currently an exchange student in Germany. She serves on the Editorial board of JeevanMag.com as its Africa correspondent.|
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