Ethan Baker reflects on his exchange trip to Germany

Looking back at leaving his family and enduring a new environment, Baker expressed his thoughts on the experience.


Submitted Photo

Ethan Baker (left) and Chloe Syzc (right), the North Penn exchange student in Salzgitter, Germany (2018-19) at the Harz Mountains.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert. 

Every person feels a special connection to the place they call home – so much so that he or she might feel distress when traveling to far destinations, especially for a long amount of time. Millions of high school students across the United States are presented with the opportunity to study abroad, but only a select few pursue it. The idea of going to school in a far off country seems daunting to many, as it can bring prolonged adaptation to another culture and language with barriers that can make social life much more difficult. Home is a safe space; it is what we are used to. Being away from it for so long only grows our eagerness to return. 

So why would one North Penn student in particular, an academic juggernaut and potential valedictorian, set aside his career at North Penn High School to embark on an experience to study in Europe? 

That is what North Penn senior Ethan Baker set out to do when he applied to be an exchange student for the high school’s International Friendship Club as a sophomore. His trip brought him to Aalen, Germany, a city in the eastern part of the state of Baden-Württemberg with a population of about 66,000. 

“It seemed like a great experience that I couldn’t pass up,” Baker said.

Submitted Photo
Baker (center left) skiing with his host family.

Even though it seemed like a no-brainer for him, he faced some criticism from his fellow peers. 

“Some people thought it wasn’t a good decision, because I would give up my [junior year] grades, which is the chance to show yourself to colleges… I thought that it would be better to give that up than to give up this opportunity,” Baker explained. 

The criticism of other classmates can discourage any student from following through with their plans. The amount of stress in just the consideration of leaving family is already immeasurable. Luckily for Baker, his family was truly accepting of the proposal.

“Very supportive, I’d say. I know a lot of parents are strongly telling their kids ‘no, you can’t do this at all,’ but I didn’t have that experience,” Baker said. 

That support only confirmed his curiosity. It still didn’t protect him from the second thoughts he would have on his way to the Eastern Hemisphere. 

“The real moment when I had the most second thoughts was on the plane going there. I’m on the plane going over the Atlantic Ocean [thinking], ‘What did I do?’” recounted Baker. 

He was all alone in a new country, a new culture, and a new opportunity awaiting. The feeling of separation had a natural effect for him, as it would be for anyone.

“I was definitely isolated at first, because I couldn’t speak German and people weren’t willing to speak English with me. They would to some extent, but not really… it took me a while to make friends and get comfortable with the language and everything. [Although], people were very welcoming to me. They did try to make me feel included even though it was hard to communicate,” Baker explained. 

When asked about having a translator, Ethan Baker reminisced about a certain person who helped guide him through the language barriers that made academic life difficult in Germany. 

“I had a buddy, Sarah. She had lived in the UK for a while, so she was fluent in English. It’s her first language. She helped me throughout the first part of the year and would just tell me something if I had no idea what was going on, which happened a lot. She was probably my best friend there. We became really close,” remembered Baker. 

He also had to adapt to a new and usual school system: a system that is incomparable to ours. With thirteen classes, that is. 

“There were a lot more classes. I had Chemistry, Physics, Bio… this other class that was a combination of water and forensics, which was really strange. [There was also] Math, English, German, Latin, Politics, History, Art, Music, and Gym… you don’t have every class every day,” Baker said. 

Though Baker expressed his satisfaction with the International Friendship Club, he was asked what they could improve on in the years to come. 

“If they can give more people the opportunity to go, I think that would be great. They do give everyone a full scholarship to there [and] give us $100 in spending money every month,” explained Baker. 

According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, there were 341,751 Americans in higher education who studied abroad during the 2017-2018 academic year, a 2.7 percent jump from the previous year. 

“This represents about 1.7 percent of all U.S. students enrolled at institutions of higher education in the United States and about 10 percent of U.S. graduates,” according to NAFSA.

It can only mean that this number would be far lower for American high school students studying abroad due to college preparation, among other factors, making Ethan Baker’s experience a unique and commendable one, to say the least. 

“It’s definitely not for everyone, but anyone who is considering it, I think, should pursue it more. Talk to past exchange students or to the exchange students who are here now and just try to get an idea of what it’s about,” encouraged Baker.