A highly practical partnership
The Parlamentarisches Patenschafts-Programm makes very special German-American exchanges possible.
Mount Prospect, Illinois: although Claudia Fest didn’t have particularly great expectations of this small town in the Midwest, the 23-year-old from Brandenburg ended up spending an exciting year there: she went to an American college, lived with a host family and did work experience at a US company, the Robert Bosch Tool Corporation. “It was an incredible and exciting time”, she says, “and I’m proud of myself for having coped so well with everything.”
Claudia has the Parlamentarisches Patenschafts-Programm (PPP) to thank for her experiences – it is the only official exchange programme between America and Germany that is open to young people who are not university graduates, such as tradespeople, technicians and industrial clerks. Every year, 75 Germans are given the chance to experience for themselves what everyday life is really like in the “land of boundless opportunity”. An equal number of young Americans also come to Germany with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX) – they spend a year living with host families, attending school and doing work experience placements in companies.
The exchange has already been running for 30 years, and has lost none of its appeal: there are roughly seven applications for each place, despite the fact that the exchange participants have to invest several thousand euros out of their own pockets. “The young people assure us that there is no substitute for the first-hand experience the exchange offers them”, says Ute Gabriel, project manager at the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) which organizes the programme in Germany; its American partner is the organization Cultural Vistas.
One of the first to take part in the PPP was Jürgen Fiedler, a qualified bank clerk who did a work experience placement at the Washington Mutual Savings Bank in Spokane (Washington) in 1987/88. His supervisors had considerable faith in his abilities – he was present at loan and insurance negotiations with farmers, and after just four weeks was allowed to do teller work unsupervised. “There are no limits, just doors that can be opened”: this is something he learned during his stay in the US, he explains. “This helped me in all my subsequent stays abroad, such as in Switzerland and India.” Today, Fiedler holds a top job – he’s the managing director of Deutsche Bank in New York.
For other people too, the exchange marked the beginning of an international career: Thomas Döring, a former mechanic who spent 1984/85 in Oregon, now works in the purchasing department of the global Procter & Gamble group, while foreign language correspondence clerk Katharina Michalczyk took up a position at Germany’s Federal Foreign Office after spending a PPP year in New Jersey in 2003/2004. Industrial clerk Claudia Fest also plans in future to seize every opportunity to work internationally.
While German applicants are expected to have completed an apprenticeship, the requirements for American applicants are less formal – after all, no dual education system exists in the USA. What counts is that they show an interest in Germany in general and can offer “relevant experience”, as for example Jesse Shiroma from Honolulu (Hawaii) was able to. A 23-year-old student and amateur accordion player, he had long dreamed of doing work experience at the Swabian musical instrument manufacturer Hohner. He then heard about the exchange programme – “and I knew that was my chance”. Things finally worked out in 2012: Jesse studied in Heidelberg for a semester, and then went to Trossingen to work for Hohner. “It was the best year of my life”, he enthuses.
Participants are almost always highly enthusiastic despite the fact that very few get to live in the city of their dreams – which for many Germans is New York or Los Angeles. Instead, they are sent to rural Oregon or to Alaska. But that has its good side too: “In a small town they are something special and not swallowed up so much as in a big city”, says Ute Gabriel. What is more, the costs of living and of attending college are comparatively low.
Some host families can prove somewhat unconventional, as Tino Lehmann, a 24-year-old mid-level bank clerk who ended up in an all-male household in Chicago complete with a cat and a dog, discovered. Some guests are expected to do volunteer work, because this is the done thing in the USA – Claudia Fest ended up looking after children at the local YMCA twice a week. And at college, one of the most important skills is essay-writing, because university applications in the USA are essay-based.
For many people, the highpoint is the work experience placement. Jesse Shiroma began his application mail to Hohner in his usual casual style by writing “Hi, I’m Jesse, I come from Hawaii”, which doubtless caused a few smiles in the human resources department of the mid-sized company. Nonetheless, he was given his work experience placement, was familiarized with the production and marketing departments, and finally was allowed – under supervision – to take apart and then put back together his own accordion. Ever since, Jesse, who is currently studying European history and German at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has a new career aspiration: he wants to train in Germany as an accordion maker. He’s not quite sure how he’ll finance this plan, but with typically American optimism he is certain that he will find a solution: “I’m keeping my fingers crossed for myself.”
As part of their efforts to promote international relations, both governments provide financial support to the exchange, politicians act as mentors and selected participants are given the chance to do placements for a number of weeks in the offices of MPs. “You almost automatically become an ambassador between the two worlds”, is Claudia Fest’s experience. Jesse Shiroma learnt for himself how prejudices evaporate: “I always thought Germans were so reserved and tight-lipped – and was completely overwhelmed by the hospitality and warmth I then encountered.” ▪