Joel on America

When I first came to Hawken, I knew no one and expected that no one would know me. To my surprise, rumors spread that the new German exchange student played soccer for the German National Team and that – of course – my general dress code would consist of a pair of “Lederhosen” (my wrestling coach, Guy, later explained that this is a pair of sunglasses worn at night and a tight tank top). While at first I was surprised that I had to clarify all these false assumptions, I was eager to begin my American experience.

Months before I boarded the plane to Cleveland, my mind was a complete disaster. From day to day my thoughts changed from pleasant anticipations to natural assumptions and fears. It was unnecessary self-doubt. The apprehension of missing out on something in Germany or the inability of coping with situations in this new environment was always in the back of my mind. Experienced exchange students from Germany warned me to expect a bombardment of ignorant questions and for a while, I doubted that applying to ASSIST was the correct decision. On the plane, these concerns were eradicated. Certainly, I was slightly wound with tension, but nonetheless, the first day was the perfect proof for how big of an enrichment this year would be.

joel brensheidt

Photo from Hawknet

Once I got out of the plane, I met my wonderful first host family, the Schulz’s. My stay started off strong. It was almost as if they wanted to demonstrate to me how proud they were of their American community. They took me to Cedar Point and a few other places. Many places seemed to me to represent a biased American view of how things should be. It was all about greater, bigger, and better. After my first roller coaster ride, it became evident that this is not a place I want to leave.

Obviously, it was not always a cakewalk in the beginning. I did not only apply to ASSIST for the social and cultural aspect, but also for the chance to experience a high quality education at Hawken, a school that truly outshines the school I attend in Germany. The sports facilities, access to technical equipment, qualified teachers and a student body full of impressive kids simply amazed me. Coming from a school that shares one gym with two other schools and uses – hard to believe – paper to write on, made me feel as if I indeed entered a new world.  Although I have to admit that the first week at Hawken was definitely one of the most challenging and debilitating times in my life, things couldn’t have turned out any better for me. The flood of questions turned out to be the best welcome present one could wish for, even if my interactions with students have not always consisted of constructive dialogue and elaborate questions. The feared culture shock failed to present itself and my mobile German-English dictionary – which I still look at with a chuckle – was my knight in shining armor when it came to language barrier problems. In actuality, I was very surprised to see that my German accent earned me so many comments and compliments – until I joined the wrestling team.

Of course I say that with a wink and smile. Nothing influenced my stay here more than the participation in athletic teams. I started off with the soccer team. The combination of a sport that I had already mastered fairly well and a team full of people that I now consider to be some of my best friends was a perfect beginning. In the winter season after hard efforts at persuasion from some team members, I decided to join the wrestling team. Admittedly, it is a sport that does not have the greatest appreciation at Hawken. Nevertheless, this decision heavily influenced my stay. Again, it took its time for adjustment. I left the wrestling room highly confused after the first practice. People told me frightening stories about jumping ropes in plastic bags in the shower and excessive running into walls. None of that happened. In time, I developed a truly remarkable relationship with the team. I will never forget the moment where I shouted out a primal scream in a harsh German accent after my first pin at the HIT tournament. My social life began to wrap around this sport, and the time and dedication was absolutely worth it. I had a crazy bunch of wonderful friends that revolutionized my thinking. I had the honor to hold the “Hawks call,” in German, and with their broad treasury of words such as “KRANKENWAGEN” they proved that the German language can only communicate in an aggressive manner.

During my stay, I have felt welcomed by everyone and have had the honor to enjoy the open-minded, welcoming, and sometimes maybe a little superficial attitude of the Americans. I just felt that it is so much easier to talk and be comfortable with somebody in English, even if it is just a little “hello” in the hallway. That would never happen back in Germany. I can think back to 2012, where an exchange student was at my school for a year. Sophie had a much harder time. It was really not a lack of interest by the students at my school, but rather the contentment with their present social environment. Having experienced these six months have made me realize how much we all missed out. The students are not just enriching the life of the exchange student, but it is also the other way round. Further, it is actually easier to make a small compliment in English than it is in German. It took me a while to get used to that, so excuse me for all the ambiguous or mistakable statements I might have made.

At last, I want to thank all the teachers, coaches, friends, my family and my two wonderful host families, the Schulz’s and the Hill’s, for making this year such an unforgettable experience for me. There was not a moment where I felt any kind of lethargy or lack of appreciation. I have never met such a caring community and I feel honored to be a part of it. This stay will definitely be a life changer and – with “only” three and half more months to come, I already look forward to come and visit Hawken in this year’s fall. Thank you so much!