Foreign exchange student Toni Friedrich finds enjoyment in all that Michigan offers


Four months ago, sophomore Toni Friedrich found herself in an entirely new place with new experiences at every corner; the only available comfort was the little piece of Germany that she brought with her in her heart.

After applying for a foreign exchange student scholarship a year and a half ago, Toni was more than surprised that she was accepted and would soon go to wherever her future host family was located. This is how Toni found herself in Michigan at FHC.

Although one might think that America and Germany would be very different, Toni says she had some preconceived notions that proved to be true that aided her in her transition.

“The high school is just how I would imagine it,” Toni said. “It’s similar to the movies. I mean movies are overproduced, but it’s kind of like [them]. The neighborhoods are just how you would imagine them. The [biggest difference is] the food. It’s just unhealthy, but I like it. But you can’t describe [America]. It’s just small differences and stuff that make it completely different.”

While the food may not be Toni’s favorite thing about Michigan or America in general, the school system is something she enjoys for its flexibility. Whether it’s because she enjoys American high school more because of its malleable schedules or because she relates it to high school movies is left up for discussion.

However, though American schools are “just like the movies,” the same cannot be said for German schools in Toni’s opinion. She says she finds FHC more enjoyable because of all the opportunities there are, such as Homecoming and Prom, and because of the closeness of classes the school provides.

“I think I’ll miss the school spirit [most] because that’s the thing we don’t have in Germany, and it’s a lot of fun,” Toni said. “I really love it and the people. Our school system is really different. We have 15 different subjects, and we have to take all those subjects. If we’re in 10th grade, we can’t choose if we want to do biology or chemistry; we just have to take the whole package.”

This is why one of the things Toni enjoys most about FHC is that she can decide which classes she wants to take. By changing her schedule to accommodate her interests, like politics and economics, she is able to ensure that she is only taking classes that she considers necessary for her future career.

“I think [politics are] interesting, and I would just like to change some things, some things that I don’t see [the same] way,” Toni said.

In order to change the world, she must first conquer the smaller, new world she currently faces at a new school. Her world views quickly broadened with the sudden move from Munich, Germany. Surprisingly, the movie was easiest at the beginning. But the longer she stayed, the FaceTime calls back home proved to be not enough contact with her family.

“In the beginning,” Toni said, “it’s not that hard because if everything is new, you don’t really have time to think about how you’re away from your family for like ten months. When you settle in and you have a rhythm, it gets harder because you realize how long it’s going to be [until you go home].”

Despite this, Toni says that she’s very content with all that Michigan and FHC have to offer, finding particular enjoyment in the things that Michigan has over Germany such as the Great Lakes and the closeness to Chicago.

Even with all the added benefits of Michigan, coming to an entirely new country without knowing anyone is still one of the most potentially frightening things a person can experience. But Toni looks at it as an opportunity to grow and make new friends. Toni knows that the best way to accomplish this is to get involved, so that’s exactly what she did.

Toni quickly joined the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony as one way to make new friends and join in an activity that she has enjoyed since she was young. While she was able to strike up several conversations and make new friends while playing the violin, she decided to fully engulf herself in the FHC environment by joining cross country.

“I decided to do cross country because a lot of people said that cross country runners are really nice people,” Toni said. “I think the easiest way to find [your] way into the community here is to participate in things. I wanted to do a sport, and I figured cross country is a perfect opportunity because you don’t have to try out, and there are no cuts or anything.”

This was Toni’s first time joining a running team in her life. Joining without any prior experience was a thrill and terror in one. She knew it would provide new opportunities, but also knew how much of a challenge it would be because of the lack of her prior experience.

“At the beginning, I never thought I’d be able to run three miles every day,” Toni said. “In [Germany], I barely run– like maybe four times a year– so it was a lot to run six days a week, and I wasn’t used to it. But then at the end of the season, when the coach said we’re only running three miles, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s [a relief].’ ”

Through the challenging experiences of cross country, she was able to stretch herself in ways she previously thought impossible. Toni learned that she is stronger than she might think, and when she puts her mind to something, she can accomplish whatever she desires.

“It taught me that you can find your way into things and get used to it,” Toni said. “[Cross country] helped me a lot through my first month here because, in the beginning, I kind of struggled with finding friends because it’s a big school, but it showed me that I can do [anything] I want to.”

The original fears of her arrival have all since been relieved. Toni now has friends not only from the cross country team and Youth Symphony but also the ski team she plans on joining this upcoming winter.

While Toni only has one school year to improve her English as much as she can and figure out football, (both things she desires to accomplish by the time she leaves), she has made the absolute most of it. Toni has taken all of the opportunities and experiences she’s been exposed to and hopes to go back to Germany not only as a more educated person about America and the world but also as a better person.

“I think [I just want] to be the best version of myself and try to stay happy even if it’s hard right now,” Toni said. “I hope I’ve learned a lot. Not only English but [about] me and my personality and my character, and that I develop new skills and just make awesome [memories].”