Test score earns trip to Germany

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For once, a high school student was excited to take a test.

This winter, Penn Hills High School German teacher Bob Chaney told his students they could win a three- or four-week trip to Germany if they scored high enough on a national German exam.

Erica Stevens, a sophomore in Mr. Chaney's German III class at the time, thought, "I wanna go. I wanna win."

And she did.

About 26,000 students nationwide took the test, sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of German. Erica, 16, scored in the 95th percentile.

That score advanced her to the next two rounds, where she had to submit essays in German and English to the association's Western Pennsylvania chapter and conduct a phone interview with its representatives.

Erica prepared for the test by doing practice exams with Mr. Chaney. Her success surprised him. Mr. Chaney said he never doubted Erica's ability -- she's a strong student -- but the competition is fierce. He has been administering the exam for the past 15 years or so and has had one student go on the trip, about five years ago.

Erica, who left June 23 and will return July 17, said studying in Germany won't compare to her other trip outside the country -- to Canada.

"It'll be so much better."

Erica, like the 30 or 40 other students selected for the trip, is attending classes organized by the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst, or Pedagogical Exchange Service, in Bonn.

She will sightsee, but most of her time will be spent with a host family in Nuremberg who knows a little bit of English.

"I'm nervous because I don't know the language fluently," Erica said. "I know a person who was an exchange student [in the United States] and she said you always find a way to communicate -- use whatever words you know."

Mr. Chaney said that even though Erica's language skills will improve while she's in Germany, she may, if she's like his previous students, learn even more important, intangible lessons.

Students who study abroad will find that "their eyes are opened up to the fact that there's a lot more world out there," Mr. Chaney said.

"They'll find out that, in many ways, people are the same in other countries, but on the other hand, they'll find out that there are differences in the way people think and the way people act and what people expect."

Mr. Chaney said his travels to Germany have taught him that Germans, for example, have a different attitude toward privacy than Americans. They often have hedges and fences built around their houses, and they're likely to close the doors to their individual rooms within their houses, he said.

Erica's mother, Patty, said before her daughter's departure: "She seems to be going in with the right attitude of wanting to experience everything. And she's always been like that. She's tried out for every play. When we went to the high school open house, she put her name on eight or 10 clubs."

It was her older sister, Becca, 17, who convinced Erica to study German. "My sister took it first, and I just like to follow what she does," Erica said.

But she fell in love with the language on her own, shortly after she began taking it in middle school.

"Spanish is considered so easy, and French is just too nice. German's just different. It's got the guttural sound in the back of your throat and it sounds kind of harsh. It's hard."

Liz Navratil can be reached at lnavratil@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1911.


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