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Potsdam sophomore spending six months in Germany

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POTSDAM - When Emma J. Visser was in the fourth grade, her family spent a year in Germany.

Emma said she longed for the opportunity to return to Germany since that time.

That opportunity came this year, and Emma is spending six months of her sophomore year in high school with a family in Berlin.

“When I was in fourth grade, my whole family moved to Braunschweig, Germany for a one-year sabbatical (her dad, Ken Visser, is a professor at Clarkson), and I had a truly great experience. In fact, at the end of the year, my sister (Heidi) and I didn’t want to go back to the states,” she said in an email sent from Berlin. “Ever since then I have wanted to come back.”

Once the opportunity to study abroad came, Emma said it was something she could not pass up.

“The chance to study abroad doesn’t come along every day. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said. “This is also a great opportunity to learn about history and experience the political climate in an election year from a different cultural perspective.”

And even though this isn’t her first time in Germany, she said the experience now is a bit different than it was six years ago.

“Moving here with my family and my experiences as a 9 or 10-year-old are totally different than coming here as an exchange student and experiencing things as a 15 year old,” she said, adding the fact she’s from a small town and now living in Berlin is making her journey that much more rewarding.

Among the major differences is public transportation, “since we don’t have that in Potsdam,” and her school experience.

“German schools are set up almost entirely different,” she said. “At the end of ‘Grundschule’ (elementary school), the kids are separated into three different levels of schools: ‘gymnasium’ (college track school), ‘realschule’ (the equivalent of high school) and ‘hauptschule’ (training for the working world.)”

Emma explained she is attending a gymnasium, where the scheduling is also different than it is back home.

“My schedule is set on a five-day rotation, so every Monday I have the same classes, but every different day of the week has different classes,” she said. “Depending on what day it is, I start and end my school day at different times, much like a college schedule. The difference from my school day and a college school day is that I stay with the same class of 30 students for all my different courses.”

In addition to the differences in scheduling, Emma said the classes in Germany are much more difficult than in Potsdam.

“The homework load is a ton more than at my high school in Potsdam,” she said. “The subject matter is much more advanced and taught at a higher level.”

A typical day, she said, starts at around 8 a.m. and ends at roughly 2 p.m. Another major difference - there are no school lunches.

“Nobody eats lunch at school,” she said. “After school, everybody goes home for a hot meal midday and then instead of dinner being a hot main meal, it usually consists of bread, meat and cheese.”

Helping to make to make the transition easier has been her host family, including host mom Marianne Grenz, host dad Marc Priewe and their two boys, Robin, 4, and Simon, 7.

In fact, Emma noted her host family once spent a year in Canton, where her mom, Eileen Perkins Visser, became friends with Ms. Grenz.

“When they had to go back to Berlin, they told my mom if any of her kids (Emma also has a brother, Scott) ever wanted to do an exchange we were welcome,” she said.

When Emma took them up on the offer, she said one of her biggest hopes was that she would fit in with her new family in Germany, something that she said is happening.

“I am getting along really great with my new family,” she said. “One of my biggest hopes was to feel like a part of the family, and they have been so welcoming and friendly. My new dad even bought me a little tree for my room so it would feel homey and cozy.”

Her two little brothers have been just as welcoming.

“I have two little brothers here, and I just love them. They are so sweet and when Marianne asked them what would happen when I went back, they answered, ‘Sie Geht nicht zuruck!’ or ‘Uhh, Mom, she’s not going back.’ They are so swee,t and I am really loving my new family.”

Emma, who typically swims during the school year, said her school didn’t have a swim team and the only way she could have continued swimming would have been to join a gym, something that would have been really expensive. So instead of swimming, she’s playing an instrument in the school orchestra.

“I am missing my competitive swimming, the team satisfaction and personal satisfaction of it all,” she said, but other than missing a year of swimming, she said she’s not missing out on too much back home.

“One of the reasons I can’t stay an entire year, which I would absolutely love to do, is because of the tests I have to take at the end of the year in Potsdam,” she said. “This year is the only one that really fits into my schedule as long as I want to keep up with SATs, Regents and college searching.”

When asked if she had any expectations before she left, Emma said she tried to go into the experience with an open mind.

“I purposely tried not to come with too many expectations. Of course everybody pictures things in a certain way, but I tried to stay as open minded as possible,” she said. “I have only been here a little over a month so far, but this place has become my home for now and that was not something I expected to happen so fast. My host mother and I really have a good connection, and it makes the world of difference.”

While she may have tempered her expectations, she did come to Germany with a goal in mind.

“Even though I knew a fair amount of German when I came, one of my goals was to work on my language fluency and heighten my grammar,” she said.

And although she is busy with school during the week, Emma said her weekends are filled with activities and adventures.

“Nearly every weekend we go somewhere or visit something, so I don’t find myself ever being bored,” she said. “I am privileged enough to live somewhere halfway around the world. I love Germany’s atmosphere, the cobblestone streets with parked cars lining the streets, the little shops and stands set up every where and the flea markets. I love going into town and being able to stand in a place where so much history took place. It is simply amazing.”

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