O'Fallon Progress

O’Fallon teen studies in Germany in yearlong exchange program

O’Fallon Township High School sophomore Mark Thomas-Patterson is studying abroad in Germany after earning the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship program along with nine other teens from Illinois.
O’Fallon Township High School sophomore Mark Thomas-Patterson is studying abroad in Germany after earning the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship program along with nine other teens from Illinois. mhouston@bnd.com

While 16-year-old Mark Thomas-Patterson is oceans apart from family and friends, he said he’s thriving in his new environment in Germany as apart of his year-long study abroad scholarship program, and is only seconds away from home via phone, Skype or the Internet and social media.

O’Fallon’s Thomas-Patterson, 10th grade, at O’Fallon Township High School, is one of 21 teens from Illinois who’ve been named as 2016 recipients of Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship program.

This program, administered by Youth For Understanding USA, allows nine selected students to travel to Germany for a yearlong experience of full academic, cultural, social and political immersion living with a host family. There were four other categories for the other 12 Illinois students all centered around a summer exchange program to Japan.

Thomas-Patterson said he loves history, and he said his OTHS teachers truly pushed him to explore things by learning the language to help bring his cultural understanding of the world full circle.

“A lot of people were surprised I wanted to do this, but they were very supportive and my parents have been great and so understanding toward my life goals. It wasn’t easy for my mom to see me go to another country for a whole year, but she knows it’s worth it and means a lot to me,” Thomas-Patterson said in an interview via Skype.

A lot of people were surprised I wanted to do this, but they were very supportive and my parents have been great and so understanding toward my life goals. It wasn’t easy for my mom to see me go to another country for a whole year, but she knows it’s worth it and means a lot to me.

Thomas-Patterson said in an interview via Skype

“Studying abroad really opens your eyes to understand how another culture thinks and operates, also learning another language helps with the process of understanding more about the world,” Thomas-Patterson said.

Spending an hour or more a day reading German that is unrelated to his classes is one thing he said he does every day without fail.

“If I don’t I’ll fall behind and that only hurts me. Writing in German is very hard. I’ve tried translating, which is helpful. Right now I’m reading the graphic novel of the classic David Copperfield, but it’s in German. If I come to words I’m unfamiliar with, the pictures aid me in understanding what’s going on,” Thomas-Patterson said.

Thomas-Patterson said listening and observing other students and adults alike has been a tremendous help in filling in the gaps of misunderstanding.

“I can speak some German, but I’m still learning every day and getting a little better with time. What’s interesting is I’m learning the Spanish language right now, too, so seeing how the three languages (English, Spanish and German) interact is fascinating and very helpful,” he said.

In the 10th grade, Thomas-Patterson said he will have to write a 12-page dissertation on a topic of his choice before returning to the states.

“I like history, so I wrote my essay for entering in the scholarship program about Austro-Hungarian government discussing relationships between the Soviet Union and USA post World War II. I find the topic to be very interesting,” he said.

School days

Thomas-Patterson said he has Math, Spanish and German courses twice weekly, but the others once weekly, and the teachers don’t assign much homework but the reading outside of class.

Enrolled in 11 classes like Physics, Biology, Math, History, Chemistry, Economics Law and Politics, Religion, Ethics, German and Spanish language and also a grammar course, Thomas-Patterson said he has his plate full when it comes to hitting the books, but he also enjoys reading the Belleville News-Democrat and River Front Times online in his free time.

According to Thomas-Patterson, another difference between American and German high school life is he sticks with one group of about 28 students for the entire day, including his designated yearlong, 10th-grade cohort and helper who is fluent in English and German who sits with him during classes and accompanies him around campus.

I try to also read the local German newspaper here, too, which exposes me more to other types of language and facets of the society here.

Mark Thomas-Patterson

“We aren’t supposed to have phones in class but the teachers are really helpful and allow me to use my phone applications to help me understand,” Thomas-Patterson said. “Also, the classes let out earlier in the day than back home.”

Also, he describes the different types of high schools for kids in Germany. Technically there are five different levels of secondary schools, but Thomas-Patterson said he’s been exposed to the two most common, which are based on the student’s ultimate future life plan: Gymnasium if planning on going to college or Realschule if planning on completing an apprenticeship and then entering into the workforce.

Realschule is for grades five through 10 in most states of the country, and leads to part-time vocational schools and higher vocational schools with a broader range of focus for intermediate students, and finishes with a final examination called Mittlere Reife, just after grade 10. It is now possible for students with high academic achievement at the Realschule to switch to Gymnasium at graduation, however. Gymnasium can be for students as young as 10-14, but most often garner students at the latter age. It is designed to prepare students for higher education, and finishes with a final examination Abitur after grade 12, but Thomas-Patterson said it’s usually after year 13.

Gymnasium is the most fitting for his goals, Thomas-Patterson said.

“Gymnasium is the much harder track and is for kids who are college bound. It preps us for university study or for a both academic and vocational credit,” he said.

Despite the extra class load, reading and language barrier Thomas-Patterson said he very much likes the way Germans structure education.

“It’s not easy, it’s hard, but I love it and it’s worth the challenge,” he said.

German life

The teen turns his focus to more than just the world of academia, as he is involved some clubs, too. He is in band as a member of the wind symphony with his host father, Volker Kreft, who is a lawyer by profession. He is also involved in Boy Scouts with his host brothers, which is Protestant Christian Church affiliated.

His host brothers are Frederick, 14, who participates in tennis and ballroom dancing clubs, and Max, 10, who is a table tennis and football guru. His host sister is Eva, 16, but she is currently studying abroad in Texas with another exchange program. Anya Kreft, his host mother, is a bank clerk.

“Even ballet is a common activity here among the kids, too,” he said with a smile.

Living in the suburb of Buehlau, which is in the east part of the German State of Saxon near the capital of Dresden, Thomas-Patterson said he gets to ride the tram sometimes and travel around in neighboring areas. Some of the neighboring countries are Poland and the Czech Republic.

“It’s really a big and interesting experience to be here. I love to travel with the other students and my host family alike to see the (expansive) landscape and scenery of rivers, foothills and mountains. It’s very different from home in the metro-east,” Thomas-Patterson said.

It’s really a big and interesting experience to be here. I love to travel with the other students and my host family alike to see the (expansive) landscape and scenery of rivers, foothills and mountains. It’s very different from home in the metro-east.

Mark Thomas-Patterson

In his first three weeks there after arriving Aug. 12, Thomas-Patterson said he got around a lot, with his favorite spots being the Elbe River and Dresden. The Elbe is one of the major rivers of Central Europe beginning in the Czech Republic’s Krkonose Mountains, and travels into and through Germany for several hundred miles.

“It’s so scenic here. There were grape vineyards that overlooked the river, and when we went into the big city of Dresden we visited a famous church, which translated is called ‘Our Lady Church.’ It was destroyed in World War II, but in the early 2000s was rebuilt,” he said.

Much like here in America, many Germans who Thomas-Patterson meets ask him questions regarding the U.S. presidential election, Thomas-Patterson said.

“There’s no voting for chancellor or head of state here, but the citizens do choose the members of Parliament, and then the parties chose, so it’s different in some ways, but also slightly similar,” he said.

Robyn L. Kirsch: 618-239-2690, @BND_RobynKirsch

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