Exchange Program Offers an American Cultural and Educational Experience

Charlotte Koderhold outside of the U.S. Capitol building on May 30. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Koderhold.

by Charlotte Koderhold ‘23

Through a high school exchange program, I am spending the second semester of the school year at Sherwood after coming to Maryland from my native country of Austria, where I live in the capital city of Vienna. The unforgettable experiences have allowed me to make my very own American high school movie and they have provided me with a better understanding of the broad term culture, what it means in daily life and what it means to me, personally, as a teenager building a new life so far away from home.

The exchange organization that makes these experiences abroad possible is the American Field Service (AFS), which was founded after World War I. AFS is a non-profit organization with a volunteer network in more than 40 countries. Its goal is to develop global citizenship in its participants and foster dialogue between different countries and cultures. Every year, AFS-USA sends about 1,000 students to foreign countries while hosting four times as many with families that come in all shapes and sizes.

One of the first moments when I realized where I had landed was when I managed to board the wrong school bus on my first day of school as a foreign exchange student at Sherwood. “What do you mean, I cannot get off at the next stop and take another one?” I asked the bus driver. While I still find the lack of public transportation bothersome, I have come to enjoy living in small-town Olney while still going to Washington D.C. every weekend, blending in with the crowds on the metro and exploring the opportunities in the nation’s exciting capital.

Back in Austria, my home country, I used to be a very ambitious student who would rarely get a B if you had to find an equivalent to the Austrian school system. And don’t get me wrong, I still care about my education even though my grades here do not count in Austria. Frankly, I have never thought more about my future and my true interests than during my time in the United States, and I believe that this is because my exchange program allowed me to breathe. I was able to soak up life while here on exchange and learn lessons that can only be conveyed outside of classrooms. It also showed me that for the most part of life, you are on your own; you do not always have a support system around you, especially if you dare to step out of your comfort zone.

One of the best parts of my exchange is without a doubt my host family that has truly become my second family. I know that not every exchange student is as lucky as I am and that not every placement is a perfect match as students do not get to choose their families but the families pick a student by accessing their agency profiles. My host family is a little unconventional as my host mother is from Italy and my host father is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, but this allowed me to gain a 360-degree insight and come to the conclusion that everyone can find their place and their community in this country regardless of their cultural background.

A significant difference between America and Austria is the school system, which provided a lot of cultural shocks for me personally. During my first month at Sherwood I was completely overwhelmed by the size of American schools as, by contrast, my school has 800 students. In Austria, middle school and high school are located in one building and students stay with their class, which usually consists of about 25 students for eight years within one classroom. That is eight years of seeing the same people in every subject, every day, and building close friendships with these people. What this however also means is hardly any interaction with people outside of this very familiar circle.

Surprisingly after some time had passed being at Sherwood, I came to notice that more people does not mean less unity, quite the contrary actually. In Austria, students take no pride in the school they go to; if anything, they are proud of their own academic achievements. School is strictly about academics and students address teachers with “professor.” At the very beginning, I had to fight the impulse of standing up when the bell rings, which in my country is obligatory when the teacher enters the classroom. I will miss my teachers at Sherwood who are so much more than educators but also mentors and sometimes even the reason why students show up to class every day. I will miss their classrooms that do not merely have beige desks but also colorful posters and quotes that add a personal touch to an institution that can sometimes feel so impersonal.

As a student who is used to an alternating schedule with different classes every day, I will not lie when I say that some days truly felt like I was the main character Phil in the movie Groundhog Day (going on exchange can really give you these main character vibes). At some point when I bumped into the same people in hallways at the exact same time every single day, it seemed like groundhog day but this is also another part of cultural exchange that very few people will tell you about, especially on social media. There will be dull moments, life will feel boring at times when the rollercoaster of emotions has passed and you are just living another life in another country. However, this is exactly what shows you that you have adapted to the new culture of your host country, that you have become part of it rather than being an observer all along.

Lastly, I can say that studying abroad is hard work but at the end of the day, I cannot name a more rewarding experience in my life. When I think about all the things that would have made me wince half a year ago, like talking to complete strangers, I am truly proud to say that I am not the same person anymore as the one who boarded that flight on January 20.