Fewer school subjects and the strangeness of school uniforms are just a couple of life variations Rotary exchange student Marie Witzel is adjusting to.
The 15-year-old from Graz in Austria arrived in New Zealand in late July through the Rotary Youth Exchange programme. Set to stay in Cambridge for a year, she is keen to meet people, make cultural connections and grow her adventure portfolio, one that is already seen her compete with a national dance group in Spain and Portugal, and holiday in Morocco twice.
Happy to have New Zealand as her ‘home away from home’ for now, her initial thoughts had been to do an exchange to Canada, but after talking to her stepmother, who had lived in New Zealand for 12 years, she switched when an opening for a Kiwi exchange arose.
Now living with her first host family and settling into Year 11 at Cambridge High School, she has come to grips with the concept of a school uniform and is enjoying a significantly lighter workload.
“It is more relaxed here … there is not a lot of pressure,” she said, explaining how Austrian high school students tend to study all in one big class once they have selected their preferences linked to the sciences or the arts. Marie covers 13 subjects in Austria – here she is doing six.
She also thinks New Zealand students have a more leisurely start to their day. Her Austrian school day runs from 7.20am to 1.25pm when teaching stops and students head off for lunch.
“Lunch is the main meal of our day – we usually eat something very light in the evening,” she said. “I am slowly getting used to eating lunch at school here and having a main meal later.”
Austrian afternoons are filled with homework or whatever sport or activity students are doing. In Marie’s case, it is dancing that takes up a lot of time, particularly hip-hop; her group has enjoyed championship-level success in Austria, Spain and Portugal.
Marie’s main reason for wanting to do the exchange – aside from her love of travel – is to push herself beyond her comfort zone. “I want to get more confident and secure with myself. I think I am already getting better.”
Cambridge Rotary has long been involved with the international Rotary Youth Exchange Programme (RYE), established decades ago to give teens from ages 15 to 18 an opportunity to live and study abroad for a year. Cambridge falls under Rotary District 9930, and there are six exchange students in our district now, all from Europe.
Cambridge Rotary’s Dennis Finn said the long-standing programme offers young people a global view of how other cultures live and work and has “stood the test of time”.
Marie’s first host-mum, Rotarian Shona Devoy, is enjoying having another teenager about the place. “There were two already at home, one more isn’t really a problem and Marie is very easy to have around.”
While here, Rotarian Lesley-Ann Thomas will act as Marie’s counsellor for the year, her ‘go-to’ person for anything she needs.