Imagine this: You’re 16 years old, and you’re living with a family you’ve never met, in a place you’ve never been, and speaking a second language. Your friends, family and the culture you’ve grown up in are oceans away, and you won’t be returning to them for almost a year.
This has been the reality for Chiara Pernet, a German exchange student who’s been attending Davis High School throughout the 2016-17 school year. She arrived in the fall and is returning to Nuremburg with this month’s end of the school year.
When she walks into the room, the first thing you might notice about her is the positivity she radiates.
“I’m always happy,” she said. “I try to be nice to all the people.” This unfaltering positive energy is displayed through the smile that is guaranteed to adorn her face at any given moment.
In addition to the kindness she shows others, Pernet has been surprised by all the kindness she has received. She mentioned that as a whole, people in Germany don’t often talk if they don’t already know one another. Here, she showed up and a family she had never met was willing to let her live with them.
Upon arriving, she quickly noticed other differences.
She mentioned the lack of public transportation in Yakima. After being accustomed to having buses and subways to get where you wanted to go, the more rudimentary systems available in the Yakima Valley didn’t quite measure up.
Other major differences in culture appeared in the education systems. Even though English is a second language for her, Pernet decided to take advantage of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Davis, and enrolled in the IB level math, history, biology, English and French classes.
She mentioned that these classes are vastly different from those she took back in Germany. For her, high school started in fifth grade, and there was much less personal choice back home when it came to the classes she enrolled in. At the beginning of each school year in Germany, schedules were given out, and the classes on them couldn’t be changed.
There is also much less variety in the types of classes offered. For example, there is only one math class, and one English class, and there are different schedules for different days of the week. Attendance policies are also not near as strict. Absences aren’t closely monitored — even for the teachers. If a teacher doesn’t show up, that just means there isn’t class on that day.
Despite all of these cultural differences, Pernet values the opportunity to experience a totally different culture. She said: “Sometimes it’s really hard to adjust to all the new things, but I think I am pretty good in that.”
Her exchange is facilitated by CCI Greenheart, a branch of Greenheart International that creates international exchange and volunteer opportunities. After completing her junior year at Davis, she will repeat it once she returns to Germany. Then after high school, she has plans to attend a German university but, like many other teenagers in this day and age, she doesn’t have much idea as to what to study.
To other students considering a similar exchange, her recommendation is: “Just do it.”
Then she added: “It’s a really good experience. You learn so much about a different culture, and you meet so many new people. Friends for a lifetime, I would say.”
• Kathryn Conley is an incoming junior at Davis High School and a member of the Yakima Herald-Republic’s Unleashed program for teen journalists.