'I would rather be speaking German'
Brooke Donohoe graduated from Somerset High School via Skype. She watched the ceremony through a live stream and when it was her turn to graduate, the principal explained where she was and everyone turned and looked at the camera.
Donohoe, 18, was in Germany, finishing up a nearly yearlong exchange program that she said has changed her outlook on life.
Donohoe said her journey to Germany started when her grandmother began teaching her German.
"I just started falling in love with the language," Donohoe said. Her grandmother's parents had immigrated to the United States from Germany and spoke only German. She said she loved learning German from her grandmother.
Somerset High School does not offer German as a course, so Donohoe took a yearlong online course in German before applying for a scholarship through Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. The program gives out 250 scholarships to students in the United States to go to Germany and 250 German students to go to the United States, for one year.
Donohoe flew to Germany in July of 2011 and returned on June 26, 2012.
"Everything was kind of new again," Donohoe said. "I went into Wal-Mart and I was like 'Oh my gosh, everything is so giant!'"
Donohoe said the entire experience has changed the way she views the world.
"Since everything is different, you get a whole different perspective on life," Donohoe said.
Donohoe said spending a year in a culture where so many things were different from her own culture changed her perspective, because she felt so different. However, Donohoe said she also felt very connected to Germany.
"You always feel American," Donohoe said. "I still felt like I have to learn more things, but I just felt so comfortable there, I felt like I kind of belonged there."
At the beginning of her year in Germany, Donohoe said when she walked into stores and began speaking German, workers would answer her in English, because they could tell she wasn't German. But at the end of her trip, Donohoe said she sat next to a woman on the train on the way to the airport who did not realize she was American until she pointed it out.
The woman was also going to the airport and when Donohoe told the woman she was going to America, the woman did not realize Donohoe was returning home.
"She's like 'Are you going on vacation?'" Donohoe said. "She didn't know that I was from America."
Donohoe said she was surprised the woman didn't realize she was American, because she still feels she speaks with a bit of an American accent. She said Germans that are familiar with the American accent recognized hers immediately. She said improving her accent is something she'd like to continue to work on, just as she'd like to continue to speak German as much as possible.
"When I'm speaking German, I actually feel more confident," Donohoe said. She had started thinking in German during her Germany stay and said she was sad when she returned to the United States and began thinking in English again.
"I just love the language so much that I would rather be speaking German than English sometimes."
Another mind-expanding experience Donohoe said she had was her visit to Dachau concentration camp. Donohoe said visiting Dachau was difficult but she felt the experience as important.
"It's really hard to go in there. The feeling that you get as you step in, it's overwhelming," she said.
Dachau was the first concentration camp, built in 1933 just as Hitler rose to power. It was not technically a death camp, but did have a gas chamber. Donohoe said the gas chamber is intact and visitors can walk through the entire thing.
"I had a really hard time there," Donohoe said. "Just because I knew that nothing had really been changed and so I was standing on the same floor that so many people died on."
Although Donohoe passed the concentration camp on her way to school every day, she said she never took a second visit, although she had intended to.
"The thing is," Donohoe said, "it's really not a place you want to spend a lot of time."
Donohoe, 18, plans to major in German in college and said she hopes to be able to study abroad during college.
Meanwhile, Donohoe plans to return to Germany with her family for a vacation.
"I want to show my parents and my sister everything," Donohoe said.
Donohoe said she would recommend a foreign exchange program to anyone who is really interested.
"It's definitely worth it," Donohoe said. "Every challenge that you face is definitely rewarded by something better--by more knowledge gained, by an experience that strengthens you as a person."