Jennifer Retz, from Germany, was a high school exchange student with CHI during the 2008-09 school year. She lived with a host family and attended high school in Federal Way, Washington, a town just outside Tacoma.
When she returned home she started her own non-profit organization in Germany called Studentin Initivativ fur Kinder. Her organization matches university students with underprivileged children to provide free tutoring. With more than 100 volunteers in seven schools and one refugee camp, her business is doing well, and making a real difference.
Jennifer took the time to share her journey from an international high school exchange student to a successful business owner in her home country. Participating in an exchange program gave her the skills, knowledge and direction she needed to kick start her future.
Please enjoy Jennifer’s story:
“I spent my year abroad in the school year of 2008/2009 and it was one of the greatest experiences I have ever made, if not maybe the greatest. I learned so much about myself, other cultures and other people during that year. Pretty quickly I realized that volunteering is a big thing in America as we started volunteering in a Roland McDonald House for children in Seattle’s hospital. I then decided that I wanted to volunteer more often, also after school. I went to an elementary school close to my house and read stories to the kids and basically paid attention to them and helped them.
When I came back to Germany I wanted to continue volunteering. I have always wanted to be a teacher and when I started going to university and did my first work experiences in schools, I realized how many kids in Germany are falling behind, meaning that they need more attention and help in order to succeed. I stayed after school a little longer to help them but I realized that I couldn’t do this alone, because there were just too many children that needed extra help. Then I also asked a couple of my friends if they could also come and help, and they started to bring friends and that’s how it all started.
With one friend, we decided that our idea was worth being turned in into an organization, because on the one hand kids received free tutoring and on the other hand university students who want to become teachers get great work experience, because they get involved in schools earlier than unusual and get practice in what it is really like to work with students, that come from poorer families or families where education doesn’t play a big role.
Our project grew pretty fast, we had to deal with a lot of bureaucracy (welcome to Germany:)) but everyone seemed to like our idea. We had to find structures that worked, we started to employ people on a small scale, started raising money to be able to go on trips with the kids and buy them school supplies.
Then summer last year we started to include refugees in our work. Germany opened up to about 2 million refugees in about half year of even less. Everyone was talking about it, but talking about how to do it was never our thing. We just did it. So we started to set up German classes for refugee kids, organized volunteer groups who went into refugee camps, and started to help them in school. Helping with their studies was okay but not enough. We showed them places they can go for help and recreation and helped them to make friends and feel part of the community.
Today we work with about 150 students each week ages 3-20. I am working full time as a teacher so we hired a couple of people as coordinators, a secretary and now we want someone to work full time for us as a project manager.
It takes a lot of your free time but it gives so much. Only seeing how much this organization has grown and how professional this has been getting and also how much I have grown since founding it and all the great people I have met, has been totally worth it. I have met great kids, totally changed my perspective about certain things and cultures.
My year abroad has totally lead this way. Not only showing me the benefits of volunteering but also what it means to be away from home. It is a different situation but I teach many refugees who come without parents and don’t have anyone yet. In my first host family I felt lonely sometimes and if it wasn’t for another exchange student who stayed in the same family, it would have been really tough. I know how much comfort a person can be, that simply listens to you and says that you are not alone. And a person who explains things in a new country that may seem strange to you. I try to be that person for many of my students.
Also in my year abroad I have learned things about education. Even though I was a student, I knew I wanted to be a teacher and therefore observed the different ways of teaching. The relationship in the US that teachers had to their students was different, closer. Kids were proud of their school and school was more than just learning subjects. In Germany teachers are more respected and better paid than in the US but still I think that learning how to be good people and seeing the broad picture would be great for more German schools to offer their students.”