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CATA student returns home after year in Germany

Cameron Dion, 17, a senior at CATA was a foreign exchange student in Papenburg, Germany. She is pictured with other foreign exchange students from around the world, all studying a year in Germany. (Below) Cameron is very happy to be back at home after spending a year studying abroad in Germany. She is pictured with her mother, Kimberly Dion (seated). (Lower middle) Cameron enjoys an evening with her host sister, Jona, 8. (Bottom) Danilo Loor, Cameron's German teacher from CATA, offered insight into what Cameron could expect in Germany before she left for the year abroad.

Cameron Dion will begin her senior year at Central Academy of Technology and Arts with a new skill – speaking fluent German.

She spent the past year as a foreign-exchange student living with a host family in Papenburg, Germany. She returned home June 21. One of only 50 high school students in the Southeast and one of only 250 across the United States, Cameron was chosen through the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX.)

The yearlong experience was a suggestion from her mom, Kimberly Dion, a guidance counselor at Sun Valley Middle School.

“I had many sleepless nights, just struggling with the reality that she was going to be gone,” Kimberly said. “I thought I was going to be grief-stricken. I did miss her and had my moments where I did cry, but I had this peace about it. I knew it was the best thing for her.”

Cameron only had one semester of German prior to being chosen, but her German teacher at CATA, Danilo Loor, wasn’t concerned about her lack of fluency. “The fastest way to learn a foreign language is through immersion,” he said. “Being fluent in German is not a prerequisite to the program.”

Loor also had first-hand knowledge of this type of experience, as he also studied a year in Germany as a foreign exchange student while in college.

“For me, it was sort of like seeing myself all over again,” he said of Cameron’s experience. “I think I helped her because I was able to offer personal insight as to what it was going to be like. I made sure I talked to her about the things that were going to be difficult, like homesickness and culture shock. I made sure that she heard all sides and what to expect.”

Cameron arrived in Germany in mid September. “I thought, I didn’t need to study German. I know plenty, but when I got there, it was rough,” she said. “I was under the impression all Germans knew English. They didn’t.”

Her host mother, Petra Brand, was a speech therapist and a single mom, with an 8-year-old second grader, Jona. Petra spoke a little English, but Jona did not.

“In the beginning, it was really tough,” Cameron said. “ I didn't know the language and it was a lot harder to integrate into the culture and a new family than I thought. The first couple of months were terrible. My host sister didn’t speak any English, so I couldn’t communicate with her. In school, the kids in my class were scared to talk to me. They thought I would think I was better than everyone, because I was from America, so they were intimidated; and I was intimidated by them. It was really difficult the first three months.”

Cameron said she was also very homesick. “I couldn’t even think about my parents without tearing up, but then I had less and less time to think about it,” she said, adding that she would Skype her parents a couple of times a week in the beginning.

“I couldn’t have managed without Skype and WhatsApp Messenger," her mom, Kimberly said. "I could send voice messages, record video. If I hadn’t had that, if I only had snail-mail and long distance calls, I would have really suffered. We still missed her, but I could at least see her in person via Skype.”

Papenburg, Germany, is about the size of Waxhaw. Like most Germans, everywhere Cameron went, she had to ride her bicycle or take a city bus. There were no school buses.

Culturally, one of the first things Cameron noticed was at mealtime. “At home (in America), I just grab a banana and run out the door; but in Germany, we had to be downstairs at 7 a.m. sharp, and set the table. And then we had to eat together every day before we left for school.”

Food was the biggest difference between America and Germany. “They eat a lot of bread, and they eat a lot of carbs, potatoes and pasta. Breakfast was bread with cold cuts. Lunch was the warm meal of the day, more like our dinner. Dinner was light, more like our lunch.”

Cameron said she missed the atmosphere in America most of all. “Americans are so open, nice and friendly. In Germany, there are a lot of friendly people, but a lot don’t have time for you. They’re not very open. That was really difficult for me. I don’t know how to explain it; they're just not Americans.”

Eventually, Cameron began to see progress and realize how much she was learning. “I was feeling more confident by December. At first my American accent was really bad when I spoke German, and people would laugh at me. It made me a little self conscious, but you have to get past that and keep speaking,” she said.

“You’re not going to learn the language by sitting around and studying,” Cameron said. “You have to meet people and talk. The more I spoke, the more confidence I gained. By March, I was fluent.”

All high school students in Germany are expected to do a two-week internship during their education. Cameron did hers at her host sister’s elementary school.

“It was really fun,” Cameron said. “I was there for two weeks, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. It really helped with my German. They would ask me all kinds of questions, like, “Do people in American have noses? Do they drive cars? Are there lions in America?”

One day, Cameron prepared a special treat. “I baked American chocolate cake, with little American flags on the cake. I did a presentation about the differences between Germany and America."

As the months passed, Cameron grew not only her skills in German, but also her friendships with the students in her class and with other foreign exchange students.

“Over the past couple of months I got really close to a few people. I met my best German friend in March, Linda Pott. And I became close to a foreign exchange student from Italy, Martina Fortcesze.”

Cameron even video Skyped with Loor and his German classes on two occasions.

“They loved the opportunity to Skype with Cameron,” he said. “It’s one thing to learn about Germany from a textbook or from your teacher, but when their peer is experiencing all these things, it’s even more interesting. They liked seeing her personal view of the whole experience.”

With the arrival of June, so came an end to Cameron's time in Germany. "It was the weirdest feeling my last week," she said. "You’ve made a whole new life for yourself and you've been there for the past year, and all of a sudden you have to go home. I felt the excitement of getting back to America, but I did feel sadness for leaving my family in Germany."

Looking out the windows of the airplane as they crossed into the United States was an amazing experience. "I was super excited," she said. "I could see neighborhoods. I could look at all the American houses, the cul-de-sacs and baseball fields."

Now that she's home, Cameron said her experience in Germany has had a major impact on her.

“I feel like it’s completely changed me, my values and perspectives, how I act in general,” she said. “I was shy and wouldn’t speak my opinion. I also learned how to say 'no.' Americans have a hard time saying 'no.' They always have to have an excuse not to do something. But Germans just say, ‘no’ and leave it at that.”

Cameron has learned a lot about herself and has a new appreciation for her parents.

“My confidence has gone up. I feel stronger. I feel like I now know how to act in certain situations. I’m better at decision making and dealing with certain people.”

Her mom agrees. “She seems to be more self confident, more sure of herself,” Kimberly said. “She takes responsibility around the house and does what needs to be done without being asked.”

For more information about CBYX, visit their website at http://www.usagermanyscholarship.org/

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe - UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: Jun 30, 2015 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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