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Thoughts From a Former Exchange Student on The Occasion of a 20th High School Reunion

Image: ‘Day 20

As I write this, my high school class is gathering at Abby’s Legendary Pizza for the first of a series of reunion events. It seems fitting that my 20th reunion is smack in the middle of two significant July events in my life: the day I left for my exchange year in Germany and the day I returned home.

In the weeks leading up to my departure I was repeatedly asked why in the world I’d spend my senior year in Germany and miss all of those important senior year events. I had no good answer because I didn’t understand why this was even an issue.

For me, the opportunity to live in another country and learn a second language didn’t even compare to powder puff, homecoming, AP classes, prom, graduation — as much as I’d been looking forward to these events while growing up.

There was never any weighing pros and cons about going to Germany. I’d ALWAYS wanted to live abroad. Had exchange programs been available in first grade, I would have been the first to sign up.

And, to be honest, I didn’t much like high school, so the fact that I could basically graduate a year early was extremely attractive to my 16-year-old self. šŸ˜‰

I don’t remember receiving a lot of praise for my decision to be an exchange student. There wasn’t anyone I could turn to for support because I didn’t know anyone who had spent their final year of high school in another country. In fact, I only knew a handful of people who’d left the US.

Yet there were a few people who were very supportive: my grandmother, my school guidance counselor, my English teacher who had spent two years abroad in the Peace Corps, and my German and French teachers. (Thanks, by the way!)

That’s not to say that my friends, my parents, and others weren’t supportive.

I just think that my grandmother, guidance counselor, and teachers “got it” and knew I needed to have that experience more than I needed a traditional senior year.

Even though I never wavered in my decision to go abroad, that doesn’t mean the year was all unicorns and rainbows. It was a hard year. I became homesick the moment I boarded my flight at the Eugene airport. I get teary whenever I think about saying my final good-byes to my parents, my brother, and my best friend that morning. Leaving them behind and boarding the plane alone was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I sobbed during the entire first flight. (It’s not as bad as you think. It was only a 30-minute commuter flight.) I was suddenly on my own after 16 years of rarely doing anything without a friend, sibling or parent.

I checked my host family’s mailbox every day for letters from home (this was 1990-91…so no internet). I liked keeping up with high school gossip, seeing photos of powder puff, hearing about relationship drama, finding out who was going to prom with whom. It made me feel connected, and most of the time I didn’t really care that I wasn’t experiencing these things first hand. It was enough to have the vicarious experience through my friends.

As the months went on and I got over homesickness, was able to speak German, and realized the delicious independence I had living half a world away from my parents, I thought less and less about what was going on at my high school. Likewise, my friends at home got used to not having me around.

I remember chatting with my parents just before they went to my graduation (I think I asked them to attend so they could tell me about it). I had not a twinge of sadness or regret that I was missing this major life milestone. The fact that I’d just spent the previous 11 months living with a German family, was pretty much fluent in German, and had become incredibly independent were much more important milestones to me.

Fast forward to a couple months ago.

A Facebook group for our 20th reunion was created. Classmates started posting old photos and videos. It was an odd experience looking at them because instead of finding myself in the photos, I found myself thinking oh, yeah, I remember Jenny writing me a letter about this or Jenny sent me photos of that. I felt strangely connected to those senior year events and experiences that I hadn’t directly experienced, albeit in a disconnected sort of way.

To my surprise, for the first time ever I was a bit sad that I wasn’t in the class photo, couldn’t talk about whether I still had my powder puff uniform, had no photos of prom. The only thing I have is a yearbook, a graduation announcement, and a snapshot of me in my parent’s backyard wearing my best friend’s cap and gown.

Huh. Not sure what this means, if anything. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. Maybe it’s another reminder that re-entry is an on-going process…even 20 years later. Whatever it is, I sure didn’t expect it.

Anyway. I hope everyone has a blast at the NEHS Class of ’91 reunion. I can’t freaking believe it’s been 20 freaking years. Given that I experienced my US senior year vicariously through my friends, it seems only fitting that I’m experiencing our reunion the same way (I live on the opposite coast from where I grew up). I look forward to seeing all of the reunion photos on Facebook!