By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When 20 students from Freiherr-vom-Stein high school in Hamm, Germany arrived in Niskayuna on September 19, they were exhausted from excitement and traveling.
It was an unfamiliar setting, but most of them felt right at home. All but a few had already formed close friendships with their hosts in the spring, when roles were reversed. In the spring, the same students welcomed Americans from Niskayuna High School.
“We spent a week with our host families,” said Niskayuna German club member Madison Shmitt, who visited Germany before summer vacation.
She remembered what it felt like to be out of her comfort zone while traveling.
“It was awkward, of course, at first,” Shmitt said. But that didn’t last.
“When you got there and realized it was just another group of teens like yourself, the whole language barrier kind of melted away,” she said.
Though they’d been apart for months, the affection the students had for each other was immediately evident at a reception at the Niskayuna High School Library on September 23. German teacher Joe Carosella, known to his students as Herr Carosella, commended the group on being courageous enough to travel to new places and engage in thoughtful cultural exchange. The program, he told the students, “makes the world a warmer and nicer place.”
Visitors and hosts alike waited graciously for teachers and administrators to give their welcome speeches, and the Niskayuna German Club passed out fall-themed gifts they had packed by hand. But once the formalities had ended, it was obvious all they really wanted to do was eat and talk.
Since 1998, students at Niskayuna High and Freiherr-vom-Stein have taken turns welcoming one another into their homes. Each group of students gets an unforgettable travel experience that includes new friends, cultural education and a tour of landmarks in their host countries.
To make the most of their time away from home, the teachers at each school arrange for visitors to give presentations in their host schools. At Niskayuna, German students were prepared to present on topics ranging from history in their hometown to language and the breaking down of stereotypes.
The tour groups try to absorb as much local culture as possible. In addition to the high school homecoming football game and dance, the Germans will tour Albany and Schenectady and stop by Williams College, Union College and Hancock Shaker Village. They’ve already been to Dippikill in the Adirondacks. And before they catch their plane home, they’ll say goodbye to their hosts and make stops in New York City and Washington, D.C.
German teacher Tracy Prebish has been involved with the exchange program since its second year, when she joined the Niskayuna school district in 1999. She helps plan trips for their German guests.
“At the very opening stages we have to think about, what is most representative of our culture?” she said. “Then we think OK, where do we take them? It ends up being a mountain of details you could never predict.”
But without fail, what the travelers remember most are the people they met along the way.
“It really does surprise me how quickly they develop most friendships,” Prebish said.
She surmised the intense experience of exploring a new place helped fuse new acquaintances into long-term pals.
Niskayuna student Alta Fox stayed with Sophie Schmidt in Germany, and now she’s returning the favor.
“We became very close,” she said. “We had a sleepover one of the nights and we just talked until 2 in the morning.”
Schmidt, who had spent three nights with Fox’s family by the time they attended the reception, said her experience as a visitor had already been wonderful.
“Her family is very open-hearted,” Schmidt said. “In the evening, we sit together talking for hours.”
The students aren’t alone in benefiting from the exchange. Gerhard Soma, an instructor from Freiherr-vom-Stein, has been involved with the exchange since its inception. Since the first year, he and Carosella have hosted one another.
“You see the kids grow up and really become part of the others’ family,” Soma said.
He also loves watching the students’ friendships form and their cultural understanding of American life grow.
“Any tourist can go to Washington or New York,” Soma said. “When you ask them what was the best part, they always say Niskayuna.”