Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story. Ellinwood High School exchange students talked about the differences between high school in America and their home countries during an interview last week.
ELLINWOOD — Foreign exchange students have one thing in common, regardless of where they hail from. That is a curiosity about the world and different cultures. Each of the girls attending school at Ellinwood High School this year, Eline Hansen (senior from Norway), Kimberly Ruhbach (junior from Germany), and Karoline Madsen (sophomore from Denmark) was excited for the opportunity to come. The opportunity, offered through Education First, because of the maturity level required and, frankly, the expense, is not available to every student wishing to come, and this fact was not lost on the girls.
Eline, the senior in the group, came after hearing the experiences of some of her classmates who participated in an exchange last year. Karoline is a second generation foreign exchange student, with both her mother and her uncle having been exchange students when they were in high school. Kimberly said she has always wanted to come to America, but had assumed she would have to wait until after she graduated for her chance. She had intended to be an au pair for a year.
But after hearing from a friend her experience, she filled out an application with EF, and soon, her mother decided to help her move up her timeline.
They arrived in Ellinwood shortly before school began, and from the start, there were differences that took time to get used to. First, there was the course load, and then there was the different style of teaching. And there were the differences in the way students interact with one another.
But before all that, the girls had to be placed in a corresponding grade. Throughout the European Union, which includes Germany and Denmark, 10th grade is a milestone year. Also, credit earned here will not count towards the student’s European education, so both Karoline and Kimberly will have to make up the school year when they return.
With that in mind, Karoline is repeating her sophomore year. Kimberly, who started school at a younger age than Karoline but is only about a month older, is repeating her junior year. She had hoped to be placed in the senior class, but was not due to her birth date. In addition to her EHS classes, she is also taking some German classes online.
Eline is the oldest of the group, and completed her junior year last year also. She was placed in the senior class, and will graduate with the EHS Class of 2017. Her time here will transfer to her school in Norway, but in order to get her Norwegian diploma, she will need to attend another year. In Norway, students attend school for 13 years.
Getting into college
Each of the girls have dreams of one day attending university in their home countries. There, a college education is paid for by the government, but attendance is not guaranteed to anyone who wishes to go. Students must work hard and achieve high grades in order to be considered. And even then, only the top students among this group will be accepted. That is because in Europe, grades are determined on a bell curve.
In the EU, students take a national test created by the government at the end of their 10th year of school. Everyone receives a black envelope (itself an anti-cheating measure) in the mail that they cannot open until they arrive at their testing site, and they are monitored throughout the test. Everyone in the country takes their test on the same day. The results of those tests determine what the next steps in their education may be.
Depending on what the students want to pursue, they may go directly to work, or there may be an additional two years of secondary school to attend, or they can attend a vocational or technical school for the next two years. Those who opt to continue with secondary school must work hard for their good grades, because it is from that pool that university students are chosen.
According to Karoline, it’s harder to get an A in a class, because it is predetermined how many students will get one before the test even occurs. Something like the top 10 percent of students will be given an A, and to make sure, the grading gets more difficult if there are a lot of top scores. And if too many get an A, the test will be given again simply because it was too easy, Kimberly added.
“Here, people have the attitude that if you work hard, you will get an A,” Karoline said. “In Europe, hard work is needed just to get a C. Everything you do over that brings you to a B, and then to an A. Expectations to get an A are way higher, because they don’t expect everyone to get an A.”
In addition to having to buckle down and work hard to make good grades, students in Europe, according to the girls, have a more rigorous course load.
In Germany, Kim said, there is a higher expectation put on students to do the work.
“It’s like the hard working kids here would be the lazy kids in Germany,” she said. She recalls weeks when she was so overwhelmed, she just cried.
“I came home after taking eight classes. And they were all really hardworking classes where you had to pay 100 percent attention,” she said. In other words, no weight lifting, no study periods, nothing light. “You had to be diligent, reading through your notes while you write them, and then you come home and you’re exhausted and you didn’t even have time to eat. You had to sit down and work on projects and study for tests. Sometimes it’s really overwhelming. You just have to do it to keep up, and it’s way harder to get a good grade.”
Here, in comparison, she easily maintains an A in every class.
“In Germany, if I even dropped off for a day or two, my grades would dramatically drop. You have to work hard just to maintain a C average. So, I think that is what keeps people motivated. It’s like, “okay, I really don’t have any choice, I actually have to do it to not fail. People here, the attitude towards school — if they were in Germany they would fail like in two weeks.”
But Kimberly also senses the trade-off of these higher expectations.
“I feel like in Germany, I’m getting a better education, but I’m not sure the price I pay for it is worth it,” Kim said. “With all that stress, that really, really high work and stress level, I’m not really sure that’s worth it in the end.” But then again, college is free of charge in Germany. She’s not willing to pay the $30,000 a year tuition she would face here in America.
Each of the students could agree on that point.
“In Norway, students are very motivated to get a good education,” Eline said. “They want a good education so they can become engineers and doctors, and everyone is like that. You see how you can live, and that you are very much supported if you do that, and you make a lot of money because it is a very well paid job.”
Methods are different
Back home they face more rigorous course loads, lots of homework, a tougher grading structure, and higher expectations. But there’s more. Karoline especially notes the difference in the way classes are taught.
Karoline thinks that lesson plans here are more rushed. There is less time for discussion, and more emphasis is placed on written tests and work. This, she has noticed, makes it more difficult to retain the information. In Denmark, teachers move through the material more slowly, with more discussion time, but it sticks. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages, she said.
“I can learn something this way quickly, but six months later I won’t be able to use it the same as the day I learned it.”
Eline and Kimberly agree. They have a class together, and in that class, there are strict plans for what must be taught in each class “in order to keep up with what the law says they have to teach the kids,” Eline said. In Norway, there is more leeway.
Also, there are consequences for not doing homework. In Norway, if you don’t do your homework, you’re going to get detention.
“Here, it’s like, ‘Oh you don’t have your homework done? Well, you can deliver it tomorrow, it’s not a big deal,’” she said.
Leaving will be bittersweet
Eline feels her experience in Ellinwood has allowed her to evolve as a person, and she’s seen different points of view she wasn’t aware of before she came.
“Now, when I see news reports back in Norway about Donald Trump, I’ll know some of the good things he’s done and how his supporters feel about him,” she said. “I’ve learned how different people can be.”
Kimberly, too, feels her time here has been enlightening, thanks to the people and perspectives she’s been exposed to. She has a feeling when she gets home, it won’t feel the same as before.
“As soon as I’m back, I’m going to miss this school and all of the people I’ve met here, including my host family,” she said. “I’ve been here almost a whole year and I’ve gotten used to this new way of life. So I think the price is you’re never completely home again.
Karoline adds that they, too, will leave behind a part of themselves because they’ve invested so much of themselves.
“We’ve connected with people and put ourselves into so many things, so there are a lot of feelings and emotions. When we leave, we’ll still have all of this, but we did the same thing in Denmark. I feel I’ve changed a lot as a person.”