Sixteen-year-old Vivien Kirsch of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, remembers the exact moment she decided to pursue a student-exchange trip to the United States.
“I was in sixth grade, looking at a map of countries with friends and I just kept looking. I knew I wanted to be an exchange student, and I went home and told my parents,” Kirsch said. “My parents and aunt had all traveled and they supported me. My dad wanted me to go to Australia, but I always wanted to go to America. That was my dream from the beginning.”
Later, Kirsch honed her dream and focused on a more specific plan: “I wanted to live in Washington. I knew it was very beautiful, but I couldn’t choose the state.”
When her foreign exchange coordinator called Kirsch in mid-June with the good news – she was going to live in Washington State for 10 months as a foreign exchange student – the German teen was ecstatic.
“It was so amazing,” Kirsch said. “Washington was where I wanted to be.”
Kirsch is now a senior at Prairie High School with the Aspect Foundation’s foreign exchange program. She is fluent in German and English and currently learning Spanish, Norwegian, Russian and American Sign Language and she’s thrilled to be discovering the Pacific Northwest and living like a regular American teenager.
“I’m getting used to it pretty fast,” Kirsch says. “I thought it would be more exciting, but it’s a good thing that it’s not.”
This observation elicits laughter from Kirsch’s host mother and host sister, Leah and Megan Zika.
“It’s not exciting?” host mom, Leah teases Kirsch.
“But that’s a good thing,” said Kirsch, laughing along with her American host family.
As it turns out, laughter is a big part of Kirsch’s life with her new Battle Ground host family.
“We’re always laughing,” said Megan, 17, also a senior at Prairie High School. “I have an older brother, but having Vivien here is like having a sister … someone you can be with. It’s a lot of fun.”
The teens bonded quickly, Leah said, becoming close friends within just a couple weeks of meeting each other.
“We had talked about hosting a student, but it wasn’t something we planned,” Leah explained.
When Leah, an English teacher at Prairie High School discovered that Kirsch hadn’t yet found a permanent host family for the school year, she and her husband, Dan Zika, volunteered to bring Kirsch into their family’s Battle Ground home.
“It worked out well,” Leah said. “The girls are the same age, so they can connect, and we had the extra room.”
The Zikas’ son, Ryan Zika, 24, is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and currently living with his wife at the Fort Riley U.S. Army base in Kansas.
Being the youngest sibling and only girl is something Kirsch and her host sister, Megan, have in common. In Germany, Kirsch lives with her parents, Nicola and Oliver, and has two older brothers, Yannic, 21, and Leon, 19.
Life in America is flowing pretty smoothly for Kirsch. She is a teacher’s assistant in an intermediate German class at Prairie, a member of the yearbook staff and is enrolled in her high school’s dance class.
“I like being able to take a dance class at school,” Kirsch says. “We don’t have as many electives in Germany.”
At home, Kirsch and Megan have been catching each other up on their pop culture interests and are currently trying to convince Leah and Dan to adopt a puppy.
“It’s not going to happen,” Leah said, as both girls give her sad, puppy-eyed faces.
“We’ve also been bonding over TV shows,” Megan says. “And we have to give her the 80s movie experience. You know, like Pretty in Pink and Dirty Dancing.”
Host mom Leah adds that Kirsch has had an effect on the Zika family’s viewing habits, too. “She even got me to watch Dr. Who.”
In her spare time, Kirsch likes to travel and see other parts of the country. She spent three days in New York City upon her arrival to the U.S. in August and recently went to the northern Oregon Coast with her foreign exchange coordinator. The Zikas are planning a trip to Las Vegas over spring break, and Kirsch hopes to travel with her host sister, Megan, to Montana via train after graduation.
“I’d also like to visit Seattle and, basically, just experience the American way of life,” Kirsch said. “So far, a lot of the things are as I expected. But the people are more open and smile more than I expected. It’s been very good so far.”