Pia Walther wasn't sure what to expect from Norman.
It's the high school junior's first time visiting America, much less Oklahoma. She spent months at home in Germany preparing for her three weeks abroad, learning language and culture.
The America she's found -- the classrooms, restaurants, cars and people -- was different from the America she'd seen in movies. The cars are bigger, the teachers less strict, the fast-food restaurants far more plentiful.
Walther has been in Norman for nearly two weeks, living with an American family and attending Norman North as part of the high school's German American Partnership Program.
The program has allowed Walther and 16 other German students, all from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Gymnasium in Filderstadt, Germany, to spend three weeks in America this fall, including one week in Chicago, then two in Norman. In June 2020, 16 Norman North students will travel to Germany for a similar experience.
The German and American students are partnered through the GAAP program this year, providing homes and automatic companions for one another in their respective countries. Aside from learning about their host families and school, the German students have been able to visit the Wichita Mountains, attend a Thunder game, explore Oklahoma City, see the University of Oklahoma's homecoming parade and tour the National Weather Center.
While many colleges offer study abroad options, high school students don't always get the opportunity to learn oveseas or be immersed in another culture so early. Walther said she realized she may not have the money to travel or study abroad in the future, and she wanted to take the opportunity now.
"When I'm out of school and then I'm starting to study, I won't have too much money to go to the U.S., so I don't know when I could go to America," Walther said. "So I just wanted to also grab the chance and to have this experience."
When Norman North and Dietrich Bonhoeffer first teamed up in 2017, several of the Norman North students had never been on a plane, much less traveled beyond the U.S., said Norman North German teacher Dana Rex.
Rex helped push for the program, and found a ready partner in Dietrich Bonhoeffer teacher Isabelle Hiller. The two teachers, accompanied by another teacher from each of their schools, now get to travel with students each year.
"The goals are to create cultural connections, obviously -- we want my students to learn better German, and learn to appreciate different cultures," Rex said. "One of my things that I'm passionate about is that I want my students to recognize that even though things are different, it doesn't mean it's wrong. I think in our culture and in our country and throughout the world, there's a lot of fear for different, and so they learn too that different is good, you can embrace that."
In their two weeks in Norman, German students have gotten to learn about American culture beyond stereotypes, attending new classes and observing American students' school and home dynamics.
The exchange students, who Rex said can become like celebrities to Norman students, also get to bring some clarity to German traditions and identities. Each German student spends time observing classes and doing their assignments, but also gives an educational presentation on some aspect of German culture.
"What's important for us is that they really get to know one German, one American family, [and] they have personal ties with several people -- at least one exchange partner," Hiller said, "so that when they go home, they do have cultural knowledge, they do have knowledge about society and everything and the school system...but they also really can say, 'I do not have to talk about American stereotypes anymore. I do know this one person, I have lived in a family.'"
After months of preparation for the exchange trip, students on both sides discover how to function in a new place for a few weeks, how to adapt to a home, a school and a language that's not originally their own. While the German students' English fluency differs by student (Walther is fairly fluent), the experience of complete immersion in a different language and culture for three weeks is both tiring and educational.
Sometimes, they just need a minute with one another.
"I feel like my students need a lot of time to talk to their friends, their German friends, because they experience so many things there," Hiller said. "It's like bombarding them with different influences and new knowledge and experiences and whatever, and there's so much they literally have to digest I think, and to let it set and comprehend. That takes time, and I think that can be tiring too -- you need time to understand what's going on."
The program also offers students personal and collective growth, even in its short time span. Hiller said she's watched her group of 17 German students, once split along grades and existing friendships, come together and find community in one another.
"Those people are your family -- when you come after the weekend to school again, you can talk [with] them about what you've experienced," said Walther, who said she's also grown closer to the German teachers on the trip. "You have comfort there if you think you have problems."
The students also find long-term friends in their exchange partners. Chloe Luczycki, a Norman North junior and first-year German language student, said she and her German partner have more in common than she expected. With the new friendships and need to entertain guests, there was some struggle with balancing school and relationships, she said.
"I've honestly grown attached to my partner and it's going to be hard seeing her leave," Luczycki said. "But there have been mornings where it's stressful and nights where it's stressful… sometimes you just have to say 'no, I'm sorry that I can't do this gathering with you. It's just like, I've got too much on my plate.'"
As the German students end their half of the adventure and head home Nov. 1, the American students still have months of preparation in front of them. Like the German students, they'll practice the opposite language and learn about the tradition and history of their destination, preparing to immerse themselves in German culture.
While the program takes a lot of preparation (teachers also have to help arrange visas and flights, and communicate with parents), the international experience is worthwhile, Rex and Hiller said. In the end, Rex said, the education and relationships the program provides bring global perspectives to students who might not otherwise see beyond Oklahoma.
"I think, as members of the U.S., especially here in Oklahoma, we tend to think that Oklahoma is our world and the U.S. is our world, and outside of that, there's really nothing there," Rex said. "And so it's wonderful to be able to teach these kids at a young age that there are people out there and they are good people, and they have great ideas and we can all work together to help our world. We have a global society and it's not right to just focus on our little Norman, Oklahoma, and the United States."