West Hartford Students Learning Abroad Through AFS Program

Helena Shenk (left) and Estelle Cohen are studying abroad through AFS. Courtesy photo

Two high school students from West Hartford are spending this school year studying abroad the the AFS program.

By Angela Shenk, AFS Volunteer (and mom to Helena Shenk, study abroad participant)

Meet two West Hartford high school students, Estelle Cohen and Helena Shenk, who are living and learning abroad as exchange students this school year.

As a participant in the AFS Intercultural Programs, Estelle, a Conard junior, lives with her host family in Belgium.

Helena, a Hall senior, won one of 50 scholarships sponsored by AFS-CBYX exchange program. She lives with her German host family.

Before they left at the end of August, they took some time to talk about their plans to live abroad for 10 months. The following are their responses.

  1. Where are you going?

Estelle: a small village near Mons, Belgium!

Helena: Langgöns, Germany.

  1. What is AFS? What is AFS-CBYX?

Estelle: AFS is an international exchange program sending and hosting kids to promote peace and understanding worldwide.

Helena: AFS stands for the American Field Service, which started out as an ambulance service and evolved into a cultural exchange program. AFS-CBYX is specifically the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program that facilitates exchange between the United States and Germany.

  1. How did you hear about this program?

Estelle:  My mother went on exchange when she was in high school (to Japan) and we’ve hosted AFS exchange students for four years!

Helena: My dad mentioned something offhandedly about an exchange program while we were decorating the house for Christmas, and I inquired further.

  1. Why did you decide to apply?

Estelle: Exchange has always been a dream of mine, and I want to become more fluent in French and experience something new.

Helena:  I had been wanting to travel to Germany for some time, and my dad mentioned that one of his students did a year exchange in Germany and found it to be a rewarding experience. I had also heard good things about STEM in Germany, and I am interested in a STEM career, so I thought spending some time overseas would be beneficial. Finally, I have always been interested in building bridges between different countries and cultures, and this represented a great opportunity to do so.

Helena with her host family. Courtesy photo

  1. What do you look forward to the most about this experience?

Estelle: I look forward to making friends in Belgium and becoming fluent in a new language.

Helena: I’m excited to meet my host family in person and integrate myself into the community. I’ve never been very “tourist-y,” since I’m more of a person who likes to blend in whenever I visit somewhere outside of home, and the fact that I’ll have almost a year to connect with my German peers is exciting.

  1. What do you think your challenges will be?

Estelle:  Language will definitely be a challenge, as will school in a new environment and doing a full year – for credit – in French.

Helena: Many Germans already speak decent English, so I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to practice my German. It’s also a smaller town than I’m used to, so it may take some time to adjust.

  1. How did you prepare for living abroad for 10 months? What did you pack?

Estelle: To prepare, I’ve been watching Netflix shows in French and making packing lists.

Helena: I’ve packed an obscene amount of sweaters, but I’m standing by my judgment since Germany can get pretty cold. I am practicing my German on DuoLingo and taking my exchange workshops and seminars.

Estelle with her host family. Courtesy photo

  1. What classes are you taking?

Estelle: It’s important to understand that I’m getting credit for my year in Belgium, even though I’m taking all my classes in French. I’m taking the classes required of a fifth year Belgian student (equivalent of junior year here): math, literature, history, science, geography, and gym. And Spanish, which will be really challenging because I’ll learn Spanish but in French. And my host mom helped me sign up for an improv acting class with a local theatre company.

Helena: I don’t have information on the classes I’m taking yet, but I will be attending a multilingual school nearby. My host mother actually teaches Spanish and math there.

  1. Helena, you are a senior this year. How is going abroad going to affect applying to college?

Helena:  I will have to spend some time applying while I’m overseas, so contacting people for help might take a bit due to the time difference. Applying to college isn’t really a thing in Germany, so it’s something I’ll have to explain to my peers. I’m planning on finishing as much as I can before my departure.

  1. Estelle, you are a junior this year. How is going abroad going to affect your college research and preparation?

Estelle: I hope for this experience to give me lots of material for college applications and essays, as well as make me a standout applicant. It also may change what I want to study and how I view the world! 

  1. How did you decide to study abroad for 10 months during a pandemic?

Estelle: I actually was supposed to study abroad during the 2020-2021 year, but it was canceled because of COVID. I decided to continue it this year because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study abroad in high school!

Helena: To be honest, I’d had a bit of cabin fever by the time I decided to apply in December. I did, however, apply with the knowledge that if the German or American governments deemed it unsafe to travel, the program would be modified accordingly; for instance, the program could be shortened to 6 months or even made virtual if it was necessary. I’ve also talked to my host family about safety measures, and they’ve reassured me that the schools in Germany are focused on keeping students safe with vaccinations and testing several times per week, and that they have plenty of N95 masks at home.

  1. What is the first thing you think you will do when you get back to the U.S. next summer?

Estelle: When I get back to the States, the first thing I’ll do is see my friends. Then visit colleges.

Helena: Honestly, I’m not quite sure. I will probably be packing for college the first few days of my return, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

  1. Do you have a “follow my adventure” social media account you would like to share?

Estelle: Not yet, will send when created 🙂

Helena: @helena._.abroad on Instagram.

AFS Study Abroad applications are open now. Get more information at: https://afs.org/study-abroad/

CBYX Applications are open now. Start your application at https://usagermanyscholarship.org/apply/

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