Learning the Language, Politics and Culture of Germany
“My parents were totally supportive and very happy that I wanted to go to Germany,” said Rebekah Elsen, who uses crutches from polio and studied abroad during her senior year of high school after receiving a scholarship to Germany through the U.S. Department of State’s Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) program. “I wanted to go because I’m really interested in other countries and seeing places.”
Elsen’s German teacher put information about the CBYX scholarship on her desk and encouraged her to apply. CBYX is a one-year exchange designed to strengthen ties between the younger generation of Americans and Germans, and primarily focuses on academic and cultural exchange, but also includes language study, professional training and an internship. “I wrote a few essays to get this scholarship – that was cool because we didn’t really have to pay anything except for my daily allowance,” she said. Once Elsen received the CBYX scholarship, she worked with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) to arrange all the logistics for her experience and begin planning for a year of high school in Germany. CIEE encourages students with disabilities to be involved in all of their exchange programs.
Surrounded by the social, political, economic and cultural life of Germany, Elsen gained firsthand knowledge of German culture. At the same time, she had the chance to share her own culture and perspective with her host family and the people she met in the host country.
“I noticed a big difference in politics between the United States and Germany. Because Germany is so much smaller [geographically], you notice things that are happening in the political world much more,” said Elsen, who is from the state of Washington. “In America it’s easier not to think about it. You can read newspapers if you want to, but it’s not important to some people. In Germany, one of the best icebreakers is to talk about politics.”
Elsen did not know the German language before participating in the CBYX program. “It took a long time for me to learn German because I have a learning disability, but within months I learned it. I could understand everything and could speak so everyone could understand me even though it wasn’t perfect,” said Elsen. She found watching German movies with English subtitles, and asking fellow students to speak to her only in German as most helpful in improving her language skills.
Elsen grew from this unforgettable experience. “I became a lot more self-confident because I was able to do something significant on my own, and it proved to me that I’m able to do just about anything if I put my mind to it,” she said. “It gave me courage. I was getting scared turning eighteen, and then all of sudden I got to go on this program and it helped me to grow up so much more. I realized there is more to this world than just the United States.”
Michele Scheib is the Project Specialist of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange.
The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) Program is a reciprocal exchange program between the United States and Germany that provides scholarships for students and young professionals to study and work in the host country.