Last fall, a group of 22 high school students and teachers from Germany stepped off a plane at Pittsburgh International Airport and onto a yellow school bus that transported them to Mt. Lebanon High School, where they were met by a group of host families.
Thus began the American leg of an exchange student program between our high school and the Stiftisches Gymnasium in Düren, Germany, that has lasted for 40 years. Over that time the program has brought approximately 700 German students to Mt. Lebanon for two weeks and sent about 500 of our students there. Formally known as the German American Partnership Program (GAPP), it was started in 1983 by Lebo German teacher Sheldon Campbell when a Connecticut school had to cancel a scheduled exchange program with Düren.
“One of the people in the sponsoring organization had lived in Mt. Lebanon,” remembered Campbell’s widow, Roberta, “and suggested that our school would be a good substitute. So she called Sheldon and within a day or so, he had 20 host families. And that was the beginning.”
“One of the things that makes this program so special is that we’ve been partnered with the same school for 40 years,” said Mt. Lebanon German teacher Peg Meyers. “It’s a head-to-head exchange.”
That means that the American students travel to Düren in the summer and stay with local students for two weeks. Then those same German students visit Mt. Lebanon and stay with their former guests here in the fall. The total of four weeks together cements friendships and allows the students to practice their language skills in a safe environment.
Along with room and board, the students from Germany get a chance to attend classes with their American hosts. Teachers also plan social events, including a welcome party, to allow the group to get to know one another and the Pittsburgh area. These include visits to the top of the PPG Building, Washington & Jefferson College, a football game, Carrie Furnaces, and Acrisure Stadium.
Asked about the differences between Germany and the U.S., the Düren students had a variety of reactions. Nele Kuepper cited the school spirit here. Jonas Nievelstein named football games as his favorite thing about America. Lukas Ufer said he had revised some of his misconceptions about American food, which he had expected to be unhealthy.
Teachers from both Düren and Mt. Lebanon agree, however, that the benefits of the ongoing program go way beyond travel and fun.
“They gain in maturity, cultural awareness, language ability, and self-confidence,” reported Lebo German teacher Bridget Jones. “That’s the really positive experience with the exchanges and why it makes sense to have students travel when they’re younger.”
Luise Traxel, a teacher who accompanied the students from Germany this year, agreed. “It improves self-confidence mostly, broadens their horizons, and makes them feel more prone to study abroad some day. They also make international friendships that are valuable.”
The exchange also has a strong effect on students’ language skills. Düren student Johanna Wergen felt she had sharpened her English vocabulary significantly on her visit.
Senior Liam Campbell, Woodhaven Drive, also reported that he came back speaking much better German after his trip to Düren. “Because you’re enveloped in it,” he said.
“The families over there really try to help the students learn and grow. The kids always say after two weeks that their German grew by leaps and bounds,” said Meyers.
Jones added, “One of our kids said to me, ‘Now I know why I’m learning German.’ Because he finally saw a real-life reason. For him it made the language learning authentic.”
There are plenty of reports of lifelong friendships that have been formed over the 40 years of the exchange. Roberta Campbell, who keeps in touch with a number of the Düren teachers, said, “For many of the kids that I know, this has meant life-long relationships with their German friends. I can just name so many families where the program was lifechanging. I hear that all the time.”
A.J. Obuchowski traveled to Germany this summer, and he and his parents, Darlene and Jeffrey, Atlanta Drive, hosted Chris Kanwischer in turn this fall. It was their second year of hosting.
The family spoke enthusiastically about having Chris with them for two weeks. “These kids are so friendly, they’re so excited to be here,” said Jeffrey. “While they’re here, watching them react to the things you get to show them is so rewarding.”
AJ concurred. “Everything that we see as normal, they’re like, ‘Look at this cool thing, that looks like fun!’ So it’s interesting.”
Stephanie Schulte-Albert, Pinoak Road, hosted student Benedikt Hofer last year. “Our daughter Eleanor, who’s in 10th grade now, came to us and said Frau Meyers really needs hosts for German exchange students. It’s a little out of our comfort zone, but we said, ‘why not?’ And it has been just the most wonderful, easy, comfortable thing.”
The family was surprised at how well their guests fit into their household.
“We had no communications problems. I would encourage anybody to try this. It is seriously a wonderful program,” said Schulte-Albert. “Two weeks is not overwhelming. The time and effort that our high school teachers and the German teachers take to create this opportunity for kids is a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
Joel and Georgeanne Cluskey, Fruithurst Drive, enjoyed hosting so much when their son Daniel was in high school in 2010 that they have continued. “We figured, well, if they ever need somebody to host the chaperones, we would like to do that,” said Georgeanne.
“We’ve hosted numerous teachers over the years. We’ve had one teacher, he’s come over four times, he’s our adopted son,” said Georgeanne. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
“We try to show them what it’s like to live in a suburban American neighborhood, but also Pittsburgh,” Joel said. “And we also like to engage with them. Dinnertime is always a fun time.”
Since the program has lasted 40 years, there are now participants whose parents were in it.
“I’ve had parents say, ‘I want my kids to take German, because I was in the exchange and I want them to be a part of it,” said Meyers.
Liam Campbell, grandson of founder Sheldon Campbell, traveled and hosted this year. Liam can name many benefits of the program, but the foremost one is the bond formed between hosts and guests. “You form this very personal relationship, and you learn things that people don’t usually share with each other.”
Georgeanne Cluskey looked back at her 12 years of hosting students and teachers from Duren and felt the benefits were even larger. “You learn about how you grow up in different places with different experiences. In some ways we are different, but in most ways we’re very much the same. I think that’s really a wonderful thing for people to learn.”
Peg Meyers and Bridget Jones reflected on the joys of the German exchange program.
“You go to some of the same sites year after year but it never gets boring,” said Meyers. “You see the students’ perspective and enthusiasm, so that even places I’ve seen before are new and fresh and exciting.”
Jones agreed and added, “One of the reasons I like being a teacher is that ‘aha!’ moment when a kid gets it. ‘Oh, so THAT’S why you were making us do that!’ That pride and discovery is really exciting.
How to Host a German Student or Teacher
Host families are needed each year, and even students not taking German are eligible to apply. Liz Simoneau and Brendon Roemele, Jonquil Place, parents of Keesler, ninth grade, and Jonathan, sixth grade, had misgivings about hosting: the size of their house, the language barrier, the disruption of their family life. What changed their minds? Talking with Meyers and getting more information. “She changed my perspective about what the experience was going to be like,” said Simoneau. “She said the students don’t expect extravagant outings, they’re just going to be living their daily life with you. It turned out to be such a joy and just an invaluable experience for my family.”
All adults in the household must have volunteer clearances required by the school district. Two clearances can be completed online; the third is fingerprinting. If you’ve been a Pennsylvania resident for 10 years, you can forego the fingerprinting by signing an affidavit in the presence of the high school secretary. For more information or to apply, contact high school German teacher Peg Meyers, firstname.lastname@example.org.