The SteelDrivers in Music City, chicken pot pie, Pigeon Forge’s Dollywood and Taco Bell — all things a group of German students staying in Blount County counted as new adventures.

The 21 high schoolers from Birkenwerder, a town near Berlin, spent two weeks with host families at Alcoa High School. German teacher Kenneth Brown worked with two teachers in Germany — Jeannine Schumann and Katharina Strobel. The program that made this visit possible was through the Goethe Institut, a nonprofit German cultural association.

Max Brauchler is a student from Germany who came to Alcoa two years ago as an exchange student. When he went back home, the high schooler asked his teacher if his school could partner with AHS on an exchange program that would include more students.

Strobel, Brauchler’s teacher, agreed to try. She said Brown and a few others from Alcoa came to Germany in May 2018 to get the plan off the ground. This recent two-week visit by these German students is the first phase. Next year, in May 2020, the Alcoa students will make their way to Germany to stay with the new friends they hosted in mid-September.

It seems Brauchler brought his idea to the perfect person. Strobel was herself an exchange student to the U.S. years ago. She was in San Antonio. Likewise, Schumann got to come to this country on an exchange program, visiting Oregon.

Schumann said the name of this project is “Stories of Migration.” These two teachers wanted their students to share Germany’s story and to hear some from these American students. A panel discussion was held at AHS for some to tell their personal accounts. Both American and German students also participated in a debate on the issue.

Firsthand knowledge is best

“Everybody in Germany wants to come to America,” Strobel said. “They think it is a lot like Germany. But most never get the chance to come because it is so far away. We wanted these students to have this chance. They learn about America in the eighth grade but we wanted them to discover the national character.”

Students were asked to blog both before and after the trip to compare expectations and realities.

Zain Al-Katib, 15, was one of the German students who stayed with AHS student Cade Winchester and his family. He had been to New York previously. While here, the German teen got to attend soccer games in Atlanta and meet Alcoa teens who he now considers friends.

“I heard people from America are nice and that they are very open,” Al-Katib said. “It was completely right. Everyone I met was so friendly.”

He and the others got to attend the Grand Ole Opry to see the SteelDrivers, Charlie Daniels Band and others. “We don’t normally get to hear country music in Germany,” he said. “It was nice.”

Winchester’s family introduced Al-Katib to chicken pot pie. It’s like goulash in a pie, he told one of his German classmates. Taco Bell was the best, he added.

College is free in Berlin and Al-Katib plans to take advantage of that. He wants to become a heart surgeon.

Brauchler was the one who could tell the German students what to expect since he was here two years ago. He has one more year of high school in Germany and said he is also going to attend college. His interest is computers. He said it was very exciting to get to come back to see his American friends.

“This program wouldn’t have gotten to this point without (Brown) and my teachers,” Brauchler said. “I kind of got the snowball rolling down hill.”

Nele Wilhlem is glad he did. She got the opportunity to go to Dollywood and taste Chick-fil-A for the first time. She ate her first macaroni and cheese. She said there were lots of new experiences.

“My English also improved while I was here,” Wilhelm said. “I have new friends. This is an experience I will always remember.”

AHS student Hailey Strickland and her family served as hosts. She will be headed to Germany next year to sample its culture.

Getting to ride a jet ski for the first time is a fun memory for Hellen Homburg, who was hosted by Caroline Bach. Hastings is a member of the AHS Marching Band so Homburg was introduced to that group. The German student explained schools in Germany don’t have football teams or marching bands.

In addition, Homburg attended church for the very first time and said it was a great experience. She is a sophomore who said she is still figuring our her career path.

These 21 German students are now back at home after the two-week trip. Hastings said she is grateful for the interaction and learned a lot. She is already preparing for the May 2020 trip to Germany. Homburg gave her a little advice

in advance.

“She told me I am not good at speaking German,” Hastings said, laughing. “Hopefully my German will be better by the time we go over there.”

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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