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Nicolet High School students greet students from Gymnasium Leopoldinum in Passau, Bavaria, as they arrive at Nicolet on Sept. 2. The students became friends during their experience with the German American Partnership Program. Submitted

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Glendale - After two weeks of living the life of an American high school student, the 24 German exchange students had to say goodbye to their friends at Nicolet and head back to their hometown of Passau, Bavaria, on Thursday, Sept. 15.

Nicolet has had a partnership with the German high school, Gymnasium Leopoldinum, for nearly 50 years through the German American Partnership Program. The students, most of whom had never been to America, will return home with a uniquely Milwaukee interpretation of America.

They sailed Lake Michigan, and hit most of the Milwaukee landmarks, including the Mitchell Park Domes, Harley-Davidson Museum, Old World Third Street and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Germans stayed with Nicolet host families, so of course they all had the chance to eat at Kopps, where they thought the food was too fatty and the custard was too sweet. They also visited Madison, Chicago and the Amish country in Shipshewana, Indiana.

One of their favorite highlights was the after-school sporting events. Germans do not have school sports, so they were excited to cheer on the Nicolet football team under the Friday night lights.

"It was just like in the movies, with the cheerleaders and the football players" German student Judit Ivor said.

The Nicolet and Bavarian students shared great memories during the last two weeks, building upon the bond they first formed when Nicolet students visited Germany in June. During their time in Germany, they made it on the Jumbotron during a Euro Cup game, climbed a small Alpine mountain and luged down a hillside.

Nicolet student Emily Janicek said she was worried that she would stand out as an American in Germany, but that concern mostly turned out to be unfounded.

"By my appearance, people could not tell I was an American in Germany, but when I would speak they could tell by my accent and switch over to English before I had a chance to speak German," she said.

The close friendships that Nicolet students formed with German students allowed them to compare the similarities and differences of their cultures. The Nicolet kids, for example, learned that Germans can start drinking at the age of 16 and that their college tuition is free. The Germans, on the other hand, were surprised by the amount of technology in Nicolet classrooms, the kindness of Wisconsinites and that some Americans hang their country's flag outside of their house. Germany, given its history, is more sensitive with how it displays its patriotism, German students explained.

Probably the biggest intercultural learning and bonding experience occurred when Nicolet students visited a theater in Berlin. During a performance of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," there was a scene in which white actors with black paint on their faces were chained together. The scene prompted white and black students from Nicolet to walk out of the play, while the rest of the German audience remained in their seats.

The Nicolet students held a conversation in the lobby and eventually decided to leave. They ended up talking about race and their own personal experiences with race for the rest of the night. They wrote a letter to the theater director to criticize his choice to use blackface.

"I've been doing this for 25 years and I've never seen kids share and be as open with each other as on this group," said Nicolet's German teacher Mark Wagner, who took the students to Germany with fellow teacher Kasey Ehrke.

The experience was one of several that caused Nicolet students to reflect on how America and Germany have come to terms with their troubled racial history, and how those histories affect each country differently. When they saw "stumbling stones" in front of houses inhabited by Jews in the Holocaust, Nicolet students wondered what type of recognition has been paid to former slaves in America.

Nicolet student Superior Murphy said her experience in Germany was not negative, but it was a learning experience.

"What I found to be true is that race is and always will be a factor in almost every aspect of my life. It did become a interesting part of the trip to say the least," said Murphy, who is African-American.

Murphy, an athlete and student council president, was partnered with Felix Mueller, a boy with a colored ponytail who doesn't like soccer. At first it seemed like the match was bound to fail, but they eventually became good friends.

"Me and my partner have mostly nothing in common, but we are very close friends now," Mueller said. "We talk about political and societal differences, and we have a great relationship."

 

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