A Senior Year Abroad

NASH senior Thea Cross is currently in Germany as an exchange student experiencing culture, travel, and a whole new way of life.

Kate Gilliland, Opinion's Editor

The American high school experience is like no other: football games under the Friday night lights, Homecoming, Prom, and so much more, drawing thousands of exchange students from all over the world each year.

Thea Cross, however, wanted the opposite experience.

Cross attended North Allegheny from Kindergarten to eleventh grade, but last year, she decided to put her American education on pause and become an exchange student in Hamburg, Germany for the 2022-2023 school year. Although she is missing out on senior year activities, Cross said she would not change her decision.

“I decided to apply in October of 2021 and actually decided to go when I got a scholarship in May,” she said.

Leaving behind everything she knows, including friends, school, activities and family, was hard but not a hindrance to Cross.

“My parents were supportive because my dad had grown up traveling and went to high school at a boarding school,” Cross said. “It was hard for them to really let me go, but they were not at all trying to stop me.”

Needless to say, German life is very different from the American way of life, particularly in the schooling system.

“The biggest difference is how much freedom you have in German schools,” Cross said. “We have a thirty-minute ‘pause,’ where you can walk outside and go to the store and get food. The weirdest part is going to school with fifth graders.”

German students first attend Kindergarten and Grundschule, which is similar to American elementary school. By the time students reach the equivalent of fourth grade, parents must decide which of the four higher education schools their children will attend: Hauptschule, Realschule, Gesamtschule, or Gymnasium.

“You have to decide what you are going to do very early and you are separated very young, which is very difficult,” said Cross, who is attending Gymnasium, the highest level of secondary education offered in the country.

courtesy of Cross family

The German way of life promotes independence with walkable cities and safe public transportation. In America, owning a car is largely necessary, but Germany allows for citizens to get by without needing a car.

“I have also grown to love walking. I walk everywhere every day now. Life here is so much more active, and I love it,” Cross said.

The culture around friendship in Germany is extremely different as well.

“The biggest difference I’ve seen here is that everyone is extremely close with their friends,” Cross said. “It’s more of a bond or true friendship and there are not many just acquaintances. It’s either you are best friends or you don’t really know each other, so there is less drama because of that.”

Prior to moving to Germany, Cross had never taken a German language class. Therefore, living in a town surrounded by a new language was quite a challenge.

“You know how babies cry a lot? I now know why — because they do not understand what everyone around them is saying,” Cross joked. “The first few months here were very frustrating because I could not express in detail how I felt about everything. But now I am able to speak more fluently, and I do not have to translate words into English any longer.”

Being an American in a foreign country has its setbacks. The different cultural aspects can be learned, but one part of living in a foreign country that has been difficult for Thea Cross has been American stereotypes.

“It happens all the time. In the beginning, people would ask me questions that were so stereotypical. They also thought I was dumb because I couldn’t speak the language, and they think Americans don’t understand geography,” Cross said. “It’s unfortunate because these stereotypes are bad. In Germany, people are very closed off and being smiley and outgoing is very American, so I have stopped doing that.”

When Cross returns to America, she will not graduate with the Class of 2023.

“I am going to have to do another half year of high school when I go back, and I am going to try to dual-enroll in a university while doing that to get some credits,” said Cross, “Then I am going to take a gap semester and work and make some money.”

But despite the challenges, the year abroad has been worth it to Cross.

“I would recommend doing an exchange year to anyone who is thinking about it,” Cross added. “There are lots of really hard days, and sometimes you will feel stuck and alone, but there is a sense of pride in what you are doing and have done.”