Acceptance, Halfway Around the World: a Year of Sisterhood

Sixteen-year-old Pauline Wehlmann sat in her family’s garden in the tiny village of Oberuff, Germany, anxiously awaiting a letter from Youth for Understanding (YFU), a student exchange program. Pauline had recently been accepted to spend a year in America, but hadn’t found a host family. This letter changed everything for her — it included news of a family in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that wanted to host her.

YFU told her that the family was ‘different,’ a fact that confused her at first but was one that she later brushed off upon finding that the only thing different was that she would be staying in a household with two moms. It made no difference for her, and she was utterly thrilled that she would soon be living in America.

Within a couple days, Pauline was given information from the family, including a letter written from her soon-to-be host moms. The first time she ever read that letter was the first time she ever read my name.

I was in seventh grade at the time. Before Pauline, my family had hosted two other year-long exchange students — two teenage boys in two years. Aside from that, I had lived my entire life with a younger brother. Pauline was this extraordinary opportunity for me to have a sister, and I was ecstatic to find out that she would be living with us.

I was something of that sort for Pauline as well. She had three brothers at home in Germany, and despite loving them deeply, she longed to experience sisterhood.

Finding a family for Pauline had taken longer than expected, so she only had a couple weeks to get ready to leave Germany. Her stepfather and brothers all had obligations the day of her departure, so only her mom, Anke, was able to take her to the Frankfurt airport.

She sat next to an Italian girl on the flight, and was therefore forced to speak in English with the girl. They were both nervous, so they talked to each other for a while. They landed in Chicago, and during the layover before her flight to Detroit, she slept on a table.

After her flight landed, she found my mom, Diana, waiting for her. She was shaking like a leaf. In that moment, after recognizing my mom’s face from pictures, she found a little security in the foreign country. Pauline was grateful for my mom’s kindness and tranquility.

My brother and I woke her up on her first morning in Ann Arbor. My first distinct memory of her is from later that day, when my mom and I took her and our new dog on a walk along the Huron River. We talked about Germany, Ann Arbor, school, friends, boys, and families, and I knew in that moment that finally, finally, I had a sister.

I loved Pauline. I loved her hugs and her laughs and I loved how many pairs of hand-knitted socks she owned. I loved her accent and I loved that she didn’t treat me like a little kid. I looked up to her more than I’ve ever looked up to anyone — I still do, three years later.

Because the American school year had started before Pauline arrived, she went to school right away. Diana took her to Skyline High School, the public high school for our neighborhood. She had never seen a school that large, making her immediately feel out of place.

It was not long before she started to adapt to the environment. She met other German exchange students in some of her classes and was comforted by the ability to speak German with them. As she assimilated, though, they stopped speaking German with each other and started talking in English.

At the beginning of the year, speaking English was exhausting for her, but slowly, without even recognizing it, she became fluent. She could only tell that she was thinking in English when she Skyped with her mom back in Germany and spoke to her in English accidentally. The first time she ever had a dream in English, she was incredibly proud of how much she’d improved in the short time she’d been in Ann Arbor.

Pauline joined the Skyline cross country team and there she met her best friend: Kate, an exchange student from Prague. Kate didn’t get along with her host family, so over the course of the year she slept at our house at least once a week.

My whole family went to her first cross country meet. She told me that it made her feel so accepted and included. She was proud to have a family that loved her and grateful to be in a family that supported her.

The first time my mom ever told Pauline that she loved her was something that Pauline would remember forever. She felt like she was truly a member of the family, and she was overjoyed to be accepted and safe with us.

At the beginning of the year, we had planned on just being a welcome family — we would host Pauline for her first couple months here and then she would move out of our house and move into her permanent home. This disappointed Pauline and made her feel insecure that we might not like her, and even though she wanted to stay with us for the year, it was technically up to us.

I wanted Pauline to stay, and so did the rest of my family. My mom told us that we could ask Pauline to stay, but if she wanted to leave we had to let her. I had grown accustomed to having her in my life, and was terrified that she wouldn’t want to stay. When we asked her to stay, she agreed immediately.

When I asked Pauline if there were any big differences between my family and her family back in Germany, she had trouble thinking of any. She never felt shocked by our family, and she always felt at home.

Pauline was never homesick with us. Her time in Ann Arbor went by incredibly quickly and she always felt at home. It was suddenly spring, and she found herself not looking forward to going back to Germany.

When the time came for her to leave, she fully realized that she was about to be torn away from the life she had built with my family in America. Her mother came to America in the last couple weeks of her exchange year and the two traveled together. Though she was glad that her mom got to meet us and they got to spend time together, she wished she had spent those last two weeks with us.

I dreaded Pauline leaving. She had become an incredibly influential person in my life. I had only known her for nine months, and I wasn’t prepared to live without her.

I slept on Pauline’s shoulder on the way to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. My family, including Pauline, sat together until the last minute possible before she had to go through security. We cried in each other’s arms. I didn’t know when I would see her again.

Pauline and I still Facetime pretty regularly. Now 19 years old, she’s finishing high school and plans on traveling around Oceania and Asia in the following year. I miss her every day and I still think of her as my sister and one of my best friends.

She reflects on the year she spent with us as a truly incredible year for herself. She grew up immediately in America. She was a changed person — she learned to accept herself here and stopped trying to conform to society’s standards.

I asked Pauline why she thought it was important for kids to do exchange years, and she told me that without a doubt that you become more tolerant. She firmly believes that learning a different language and living in a different culture opens minds and hearts. The world transforms and you see it through different eyes.

I am incredibly grateful for Pauline and the year we spent together. I know she is as well. I am thankful for her guidance, her love, her acceptance, and most importantly, our sisterhood. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.