Marli Watson has shared her family with foreign-exchange students for most of her life — but in her most recent experience, it was her turn to serve as the exchange student.
Watson has returned home to Winter Garden following a 10-month stay in Germany through the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. She said the experience made her realize her own capabilities and left her with a desire to learn more about international relations.
“I have become so much more confident since I left,” Watson said. “I went to a country without speaking the language and turned it into a life-changing experience. I pushed through all the difficulties you experience when you don’t know the language. … It makes you more sympathetic to foreign-exchange students.”
The homeschooled high-school senior began her 10 months abroad with a language camp held in a German castle. There, they took a series of German classes with native speakers.
“(In) the language camp, we did a lot of cultural activities, like workshops,” she said. “We were taught about culture shock and things we might encounter during the year — how to deal with host families … even what to do with our trash and how to recycle.”
Watson had two host families during her stay, and both lived in northern Germany near Hamburg and right outside Bremen.
She said she formed a close relationship with her first host mother, Inga Leymann, and her daughter. In December, Watson moved in with another host family — Tanja and Jens Wigger — in the same neighborhood but continued to have lunch weekly at Inga’s house.
With the Wigger family, Watson had her share of chores, including washing her clothes and hanging them in the living room to dry and walking Diego, the family dog.
Family activities were part of the routine, too, she said. They attended a small-town festival, regularly ate dinner together and shared their favorite movies.
Her school was one train station stop away in the city of Verden.
“Everything was in German, and that was difficult for me,” she said. “I couldn’t participate very much because of that … I had to concentrate on learning as much as I could. If I couldn’t learn the lessons with everyone, I concentrated on learning the words I didn’t know.”
Foreign-exchange programs are popular in Germany, and her school had numerous students from other countries. She said she formed a close friendship with them because they all had cultural differences in common.
SO MANY EXPERIENCES
She spent a great deal of time reading, too, and one of her favorite books is “Outlander,” which took place in Scotland. She took a four-day trip to the Highlands, Inverness and Edinburgh, visiting the book’s battlefields and other sites.
Another excursion took her to The Netherlands.
While in Dusseldorf, Watson was able to meet up with an exchange student who lived with her family about a decade ago. The girl, from Bangladesh, now lives in Germany, and the two toured the city and reminisced about their year under the same roof in the United States.
“That’s one of the greatest things about foreign-exchange students — you make friends all over the world and it’s fun to reconnect,” she said.
She participated in a Fridays for Future protest, an ongoing weekly student strike against climate change.
Watson is one of 250 students from the United States selected for the U.S. State Department scholarship through the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. At the Bundestag (federal parliament), she met politicians and had the chance to thank them for funding the program and sat in on a voting session while political decisions were being made.
“We got to ask these members of the political parties in German about the Fridays for Future protests,” she said. “It made me more aware of impact and I can make my voice be heard. … It makes you think, ‘How do you really feel about your opinions?’ … It was very eye opening. I think it made me more patriotic. You don’t think about what you appreciate about your culture until you’re away from it.”
Now that she’s back home, Watson plans to work so she can pay for college classes.
“My main goal is to be able to incorporate travel into my life, not just in terms of vacationing but in terms of living there and learning the culture and maybe doing volunteer work abroad,” Watson said. “I want to create a job that will allow me to do that, (maybe) an audiobook narrator.
“I sort of figured out my love of languages,” she said. “Learning a language in a year is like having a superpower.”
Watson said the CBYX program is amazing, “and everyone who can apply for it should.” For information on becoming a foreign exchange student in Germany, visit Usagermanyscholarship.org. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.