Jennifer Schmid

Sophomore Pia Vollmann (center) is an exchange student from Germany determined to live her best American life along with her host sisters, Aya (left) and Rowan Hassan (right).

Malavika Kannan and Serra Sowers

Starting at Seminole High School can be an experience full of firsts for everyone, from the first class to first pep rally to first dance. But for sophomore Pia Vollmann, an exchange student from Germany, her bucket list included her first Universal visit, first time surfing, first Black Friday shopping trip — and her first lunch.

“We don’t have lunch in Germany. We just don’t,” Vollmann explained to us with a laugh. “On my first day of school I went [to lunch] and didn’t know anybody. I was expecting all of the cliches, like there’s the cool table with all the cheerleaders and the football players. But it wasn’t like that at all. I sat down with people, and it was really nice.”

Vollmann is a student in the PAX Program of Academic Exchange. During the rigorous application process, Vollmann’s English skills were tested to make sure she could “survive” in America. Although Vollmann calls Hamburg home, she chose America as her study destination in order to experience the classic American life first-hand.

“Everyone has their [prejudices] of America. Like everyone has a gun, and things like that,” said Vollmann. “I wanted to see if that was true.”

The exact location of her new school was kept a secret from Vollmann until shortly before the trip. She was excited to learn that she’d be staying in Orlando, the land of amusement parks and warm climates. Although she says that the academics here were much more serious than she had expected, she still believes that Orlando is undoubtedly a fun place. She arrived in Florida on Aug. 5 and is staying with her host family, sophomore Aya Hassan and senior Rowan Hassan. Because the Hassans are Muslim-American, Vollmann is fascinated by the diverse cultural viewpoints they share with her.

“My family is American, but they’re also Muslim, so it’s very different,” explained Vollmann. “I really like it because I get to see a different view of what’s going on. [My host family] doesn’t usually celebrate Christmas. But because I came, they were like, ‘Let’s celebrate Christmas at least once in our lifetime!’ So we are going to have a German Christmas.”

Rowan Hassan, her host sister, said that hosting Pia has been a rewarding experience. She is thrilled to have gotten the chance to befriend someone from across the world.

“It’s great living with Pia! Including her, my house now has eight people, so it adds that little bit of extra chaos that we like so much,” said Hassan. “She’s really cool, and truly a part of our family.”

Part of Vollmann’s motivation to study abroad comes from her fascination with languages. Although she says that most of her peers in Germany speak three or four languages, Vollmann speaks six: English, French, German, Spanish, Korean, and Chinese. She’s currently enrolled in Dr. Carolyn Taylor’s French 3 class at Seminole, and says that it’s the highlight of her day.

“Pia has a natural ability for languages and has been a fantastic addition to our French III class this year,” said Dr. Taylor. “It’s always interesting to get her perspective on language study in Germany, since Europeans often study multiple languages beginning at an early age and continue studying those languages throughout secondary school.”

Coming to America has not been without its challenges, however. Vollmann noted that she was becoming more homesick as the holidays drew nearer. Although she frequently texts her family in Germany, she tries to keep phone calls to a minimum to prevent homesickness. While students at SHS have been incredibly welcoming to Vollmann, some people treated her rather strangely.

“Sometimes I get weird questions like, ‘Does the sun shine in Germany?’ or ‘Do you have cars?’” said Vollmann. “Others ask if we still have Hitler, or if we eat pizza. But sometimes I get really nice questions from [people] who are interested.”

Now that she’s here, Vollmann is determined to immerse herself in the American high school experience. She’s joined a number of extracurriculars, from Asian Student Association to the Pet Rescue club to lacrosse. She says that the school spirit and extracurriculars at SHS are complete opposites from her school in Germany.

“Everything is very different,” she said. “Our schools in Germany are from 5th grade to 12th grade and there are only 1000 students. Here there are only four grades but 3000 students. It’s just so big! There are so many possibilities with clubs and choosing your classes. There’s more motivation to go to class since you’re there because you want to be there.”

Another significant difference she’s noticed is that the pressure is on for American students. She notes that college is much more affordable and accessible in Germany, so she tends to be less stressed about higher education than her American peers.

“I feel like a lot of the students are stressed here,” observed Vollmann. “It’s all about getting good grades and going to college, especially because college is so expensive. I feel like everyone here does so much just to get scholarships. On the other hand, the students here are also happier and more open minded.”

Still, Vollmann feels as though the American attitude and spirit is unlike anything she’s ever experienced before. From students showing up in pajamas to joking around with teachers, she said she was both shocked and delighted by Americans’ friendly, carefree attitude.

“People talk to me more often. A random stranger would walk up to me and be like, ‘Hey, your outfit is cute!’” said Vollmann. “If you did that in Germany it would be awkward. So that’s one of the things I really love about America, that everybody is just giving compliments.”

Ultimately, living in America has been an unforgettable experience for Vollmann and her family. Despite the challenges she continues to face, she says that the new opportunities and adventures she gets to participate in make it worth it every day.

“Now I have been here for three months, I miss my family but I also love my host family,” said Vollmann. “I feel like I have two homes now. I feel like if I leave America, I will be leaving one family and going back to another. My heart is separated in two between my homes.”