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Being an exchange student in Gwinnett

This year, we have been very fortunate to be able to spend time with a German exchange student at our high school. Jan Engel arrived from Germany in July, just in time for the beginning of marching band camp.

Ella and Dawson Thomas and German Exchange Student, Jan Engel.

Needless to say, it was most likely a whirlwind of jet lag, exhaustion, and culture shock. However, he has made it this far, and seems to be enjoying life here in America. I sat down with him recently to ask some questions about how life here compares to Germany.

Q: How does Brookwood differ from the school you attended in Germany? How is it the same?
A: In German schools, students have their own classroom, not teachers. Teachers rotate around to the students’ classroom, instead of the students moving from classroom to classroom like they do here. Also, school ends between 1pm and 5pm depending on the day. Lunch is at school only if it goes longer than 1pm. And, school is a lot harder in Germany.

Q: How does your life outside of school here differ from your life in Germany?
A: Here, I participate in many after school activities such as track and marching band. In Germany, I wasn’t able to because there weren’t a lot of them. Also, in Germany I have greater mobility without having a car, while here everything is farther apart.

Q: What surprised you the most about America?
A: I was surprised by how patriotic everyone is. I don’t see nearly as many German flags in Germany as I see American flags here. There is also the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school.

Q: What stereotypes did you have in mind when coming here? Were they accurate?
A: First, I thought that Americans would have many weapons. I think that this stereotype is accurate. Another cliché is that you eat a lot of fast food. This may also be true, but it is good food.

Q: What do you like most about America?
A: What I like most about American culture is that people are nice to each other. At my school, some people were annoying and not very nice to the other students. I haven’t met many people at Brookwood who are like that.

Q: What do you miss the most about Germany?
A: I miss my family and friends the most because I haven’t seen them face-to-face in a while.

Q: How was America portrayed in the movies you watched before coming here? How does that compare to reality?
A: Movies tend to exaggerate, so it’s not really the same. You often just see college students that are having a crazy party.

Q: What is your favorite American food?
A: Burgers are definitely my favorite American food. There are burgers that you can buy in Germany (McDonalds, etc.), but sadly, they are not nearly as good as they are here.

Q: Overall, what is the biggest difference between America and Germany?
A: A big difference between Germany and the U.S. is that you need a car to get everywhere. You can’t really walk, and there is not a lot of public transportation. American food is also pretty different from German.

Q: What is the biggest lesson you have learned from this experience?
A: I learned to be independent. When you new in a host family, you don’t know how independent they expect you to be, and I have definitely learned from that aspect of life here.

Jan will be going back to Germany in May, once school ends. I am very thankful for the opportunity we got to meet him, and learn about the cultural differences and similarities between us. We will most certainly miss him when he goes back!

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Email me at
Ella Thomas is a freshman at Brookwood High School.