Foreign exchange student stories start slow and grind through phrases like "challenge to the world's young people" and "foster peace and understanding" and "different perspectives on the world." This story is not one of them.
This story is about a girl named Dorothea von Gablenz who spent a year in Arlington living with a local family and attending Washington-Lee High School.
Dorothea is the middle daughter of a family in Oldenburg, which lies in the far northwest corner of the Federal Republic of Germany, 40 miles from the Dutch border and a like distance from the North Sea. Her father is a lawyer-businessman and her mother is an audiologist. The three daughters are aged 18, 16 and14.
"Host parents" for the year are John and Blanca Hotaling of Arlington. They have sons now grown and gone, but no daughter. Dorothea became their daughter. Sheepishly, she said, "It has been wonderful to be an 'only child.'" With no other teen in the house, opportunities for travel across the United States and into Canada occurred regularly.
One highlight was skiing. Dorothea grew from complete novice to competent skier on good-sized mountains, "Something exciting that I will never forget," she said.
PAX — Program of Academic Exchange — makes clear that visiting students are to be integrated into the family, and not treated as guests. When asked, Dorothea says her homestay duties include "taking out the trash, doing laundry and keeping my room orderly." Not a duty, but a pleasure, she even cooked a special German dinner for the family. Blanca Hotaling declared it to be "excellent." Dorothea also is a pianist and thinks "my host parents seem to enjoy it when I play."
In the absence of a "host brother or sister," Dorothea said friends at Washington-Lee became especially important. They gave support as she confronted differences between high schools in Germany and in the United States.
German schools have no organized sports. "It was exciting to join a team for track and cross county, and then become a member of crew rowing on the Potomac River," Dorothea said. Extra-curricular activities in Germany usually are limited to orchestra and choir. She also notes a difference in the way teachers approach their roles. "In this country, teachers are more open and friendly; whenever you need help, they will give you all the help you need. In my country, teachers are more formal."
Host mom Blanca Hotaling said, "I would accept another exchange student. However, with Dorothea we have been blessed. We enjoyed her a great deal. It would be nearly impossible for another student to replace her."
With the school year closing this month, Dorothea is planning ahead for the return home. Family will come first. Soon, however, she will visit school and classmates not seen since last summer. Perhaps alone, Dorothea will visit a favorite place in Oldenburg: Schlossgarten, the palace gardens and park in the city center. Come fall, she will attend 11th grade and the year will be busy because she must "make up" several courses mandated for graduation.
Dorothea's future plans include attending university, perhaps to study law. In this context she reveals the basic reason for this year in Arlington. "No matter what you study in school or what job you have or where you live in Europe, being competent in English is an absolute requirement," she said. "I am better in English. But it turns out that I also am taking home many more things than I expected."