For six Litchfield High School students, the summer of 2018 will remain one of the most memorable highlights of their lives.

Tori Grates, Alyssa Ross, Evan Hart, Jack Osterberg, Ashley Miller and Jocie Larson returned July 1 from a three-week voyage to Europe where they enjoyed site-seeing and culture immersion in Karlsruhe, Germany and Reykjavík, Iceland.

Through the German American Partnership Program (GAPP), which has been available since 1972, the Litchfield students stayed with host families and attended school to get the full experience of what being a German student was like.

Venturing with them was chaperone Carrie Larson, who has been running the program since 2008.

Following a similar trip last fall, when 20 German students stayed in Litchfield for three weeks, the American students were offered the same experience but on the other side of the pond.

For Hart, Ross and Grates, it was their first time participating in the GAPP experience. The students spent weeks fundraising through pizza sales, raising enough money to go on a trip with memories that will last a lifetime.

Hart and Grates, who will be seniors this fall, and Ross, who will be a junior, said the only requirement necessary to go overseas was that they had to formerly host a German student. Beyond that, language barriers were not a factor in whether or not students could go. And once they got to Germany, it was smooth sailing ... for the most part.

“I lost my luggage,” Ross said, explaining that she didn’t get it back until about 24 hours after arriving in Karlsruhe. Besides that mishap, there were no hiccups in the trip.

THE VALUE OF AN EDUCATION

Things are done differently at Otto Hahn Gymnasium — the school the students attended in Karlsruhe.

Hart, Ross and Grates explained that the classrooms are not personalized like American classrooms are. In America, where students are the ones to move to different classrooms, it’s the exact opposite in Germany. Teachers are the ones to move to different classrooms, leaving a very neutral space behind them. Furthermore, teachers and students in Germany have a professional relationship, whereas, as Grates explained, she has personal relationships with her teachers.

For Grates, that difference was slightly unnerving.

“I thought it was weird,” she said with a laugh. “It’s just kind of boring.”

But the difference in classroom style was not the only significant change in atmosphere. Compared to the one-level high school they normally attend, the Litchfield students made their way around a four-level German high school, which had no air conditioning.

However hot the building might have felt, it didn’t deter the GAPP participants from making lots of new friends.

“It was really easy to make friends,” Hart said. “Everyone was really friendly and tried to speak English with us.”

“It was a really great experience,” Ross said.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

The trip to Germany wouldn’t have been complete without a few adventures elsewhere along the way.

Free weekends allowed students to spend quality time with their host families — who were each unanimously described as very hospitable.

“It was nice to be welcomed like family and treated like family,” Hart said. “And I don’t know if it’s an American thing, but I was constantly being asked if I was hungry.”

Nodding in agreement, Ross said she experienced the same concern that she wasn’t eating enough. Grates also agreed that snacks were in abundance at her host family’s home.

A CHANCE TO GO AGAIN

It’s no question that the American students want to go back to Germany.

“Three weeks is way too short,” Ross said. “I would love to go back.”

For Grates and Hart, they are regularly in touch with their host siblings and there are already talks of reuniting again. Grates said she and her host sister, Nele Schwarzer, are already trying to plan reunions at each other’s graduation parties. Hart said his host brother, Patrick Seiber, hopes to come back to Minnesota for more Midwestern experiences.

But the experiences the six Americans lived through wouldn’t have been made possible without GAPP itself, and for that, they are grateful.

“I just want to say thank you to Mrs. Larson,” Hart said. “If she didn’t go through all of the hard work, we wouldn’t have had any of the experiences we did. We had the best time. And it’s cool to know that we have friends thousands of miles away,” Hart said.

“It’s a really great program,” Grates said. “It builds friendships that will last forever. Most students or everyone should get involved or have the opportunity to go.”

“I wouldn’t have traded it for anything,” Ross said, adding that she believes they successfully helped bridge the gap between America and Germany.

Molly O'Connor is a reporter who earned her B.A. from Winona State University.

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