Meghan Fatzinger landed on the idea of doing a high school exchange when she was just 14 years old. The Pennsylvania native, now 27, remembers how she heard about the possibility from a Swedish student and his host family while attending a wedding. “This sounded like the best thing ever—living abroad, learning a new language, and exploring foreign places,” Fatzinger said. She immediately began an online search to find out what kinds of programs were available. Her first search brought her to the AFS program. At the time, AFS had a partial scholarship to study in Thailand. She applied and was accepted but couldn't come up with the remaining money for the program. Then she heard about the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) program.
Founded in 1983, CBYX began as a means of creating stronger ties between the United States and Germany. The program receives its funding from the U.S. Congress and the German Bundestag. The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs manages the program. Students who are selected for CBYX receive a comprehensive scholarship covering the costs of round-trip airfare from Washington, D.C. to their placement city in Germany, tuition and academic materials, cultural excursions, pre-departure orientation and in-country support, room and board, and secondary medical benefits.
Fatzinger applied for the CBYX program, found out she was accepted and had 30 days to pack and leave. She arrived in Germany on her seventeenth birthday and was welcomed by a family in Stendal, in Sachsen-Anhalt. The experience with her host family was fantastic, she said, adding that she developed a particularly close bond with the mother or “Mutti” of the family.
“When I arrived, I spoke no German, nothing,” she said. “Mutti only knew one English word: appendicitis. Everyday she would drill me on vocabulary. I was forbidden to use English from day one.” Fatzinger said the language barrier proved fundamental in bettering her German. Everyday Mutti drilled her on vocabulary and encouraged Fatzinger to practice. It paid off. Fatzinger spoke great German by the time the year was over.
The adaption process did come with challenges, especially at the beginning. Fatzinger remembers going to a festival with her host family the second weekend after she'd arrived. She left to explore the small town on her own and was supposed to call Mutti later to meet up for tea. “My language skills got a work out that day,” she said. “I was so frustrated trying to talk on the phone...in a language I barely knew. When I did find her she had tea, a warm hug, and a big smile.” They then watched fireworks over the Elbe from a historical castle on the beach together.
The high school exchange year was full of highlights for Fatzinger. She said visiting Berlin and seeing history come alive at the Berlin Wall and the holocaust memorials was especially moving. She also enjoyed meeting new people and finding out how much they had in common. “The people who study abroad, especially in high school, are a certain kind of people,” Fatzinger said. “Not everyone is able to do it.” She met people from all over the world: Chile, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, the French-speaking part of Canada, Thailand, Japan, China, Norway, and Finland.
For Fatzinger, one of the toughest parts of the experience was coming home. She was warned about the homesickness and culture shock going to Germany but was not prepared for the tough process of reentering the world of a typical U.S. teenager. “You come back a different person,” she said. “You have had this life changing adventure and you want to talk about it and share it, but no one else gets it.”
She had become so used to the German way of life, many aspects of life in the United States felt strange. “The food was wrong, people wore shoes in the house, and left doors open,” she said. And being back in a U.S. high school was tough. “If you think people in high school are immature before you live abroad, they are one thousand times worse when you return,” she said. She couldn't wait for college.
Looking back, Fatzinger said she sees how the experience set her on her current career path and made her a world traveler. “Once I started living abroad, I made it my mission to return,” she said. She studied abroad again during her university years in Cologne, Germany. After finishing her university studies, she received her Masters in TESOL Education and moved to Shanghai, China to teach English for English First (EF).
“Being in China was a whole lot more challenging than being in Germany, but my experience as a foreign exchange student at 17 provided me the tools to handle it,” she said. The exchange experience also made her want to work for the U.S. State Department. Fatzinger is currently working as a Fellow for the U.S. State Department in China and is studying for the Foreign Service Officers Test.
Fatzinger's advice for students considering a high school exchange in Germany is simple. “Do it!” she said. “It was and is one of the best experiences of my life,” adding that the friends and family she made there are still with her today. Fatzinger's host family attended her wedding in the States, and they try and visit each other every few years. She said her host Mutti even sends her favorite chocolates and tea for birthdays and Christmas.