In the United States of America, homecoming is an annual tradition and one of the highlights of the year on many college and high school campuses across the nation. Each fall semester, hundreds of alumni return to the place they once called home to connect with long-lost friends and mentors, show off their school pride, and attend the annual Homecoming football game at their alma mater.
This summer, I had my own small homecoming experience when I was invited to do a guest presentation about my life abroad in Mrs. Blenk’s English class -- the 9c -- at the Emil-von-Behring Gymnasium in Grosshansdorf. I graduated from the EvB in 2008 with a class of 38 students, some of whom I am still close friends with. How has the school changed since I graduated over ten years ago? Would my teachers still teach there? And would they even remember me? Those were only some of the questions that lingered in the back of my mind when I left my childhood home to head to the EvB that early June morning.
As I pulled into the parking lot behind the school gym, I was surprised to see how familiar everything looked despite not having been there for more than ten years. I made my way past the cafeteria (which was not around during my time at the EvB) to the renovated teacher’s lounge to meet Mrs. Blenk. I am glad the two of us stayed in touch after graduation. She was my English teacher when I decided to study abroad in New Zealand when I was 16, and she was also the person who most strongly pushed me to go on my first overseas adventure. I was hesitant and anxious to study abroad for a semester back then, but looking back now it was the best decision of my life. Studying abroad and attending a high school in Dunedin, New Zealand, was definitely among the most defining moments of my life so far.
Some of the students in the 9c now considered studying abroad, so Mrs. Blenk invited me to class to talk about my high school abroad experience and my journey since graduation. It was great being back in the classroom and meeting the EvB students who were now sitting in the same seats I had sat in so many years ago!
So where has life taken me since graduation? After getting a bachelor’s degree in media and communication management in Germany, I moved to Bowling Green, a small town in the U.S. state of Ohio, in 2012 to get my master’s degree in popular culture studies at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Upon graduating with my master’s, I stayed in Bowling Green for another four years to get a Ph.D. in media and communication studies with a focus on sports communication and social justice. With a Ph.D. in hand and a job secured, I spent the past year in Indianapolis, Indiana, working in the Office of Inclusion at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), one of the biggest sports organizations in the United States. I had used my time at BGSU to create We Are One Team (WA1T), a first-of-its-kind initiative to promote diversity and inclusion through sport that won the prestigious NCAA Award for Diversity and Inclusion in 2017 -- so the one-year position with the NCAA was a perfect fit for both my qualifications and my career aspirations. This fall, I will move to the East Coast to start a position as professor of sports communication and media with a focus on diversity and inclusion in athletics at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.
After my presentation, we opened it up to the class for questions. “Was it hard to find friends abroad?”, one student asked, and I said: “Not really. As long as you are open-minded and making the effort to meet people, you won’t have trouble making friends.” Another student followed up: “What is the biggest difference between Germany and in the United States?” I responded: “I love how open-minded and welcoming most Americans are. When I moved there, random people would just invite me over for dinner to meet their friends and family. That made me feel at home right away!” The students of the 9c asked great questions, and time flew by. The last question is the one I get asked the most since moving abroad: “Do you think you will ever come back to Germany or would you like to stay in the U.S.?” I grin and decide to answer vaguely: “Who knows what the future holds. But for now, I can’t imagine living anywhere else!”
Even after seven years abroad, these questions still provide me with a great opportunity to reflect on how far I have come since I was that hesitant 16-year-old debating whether or not to study abroad. While my life is set in the United States now, I will always enjoy coming back to Hamburg to visit friends and family -- and to experience my own little homecoming every year.