Growing up overseas: A DODEA student story

Growing up overseas: A DODEA student story

by Lauren Bernasconi
Stripes Europe

My story doesn’t begin at college day one, mother saying goodbye in the dorm, classes in two days. Instead it starts earlier than that, in 7th grade drama class at my DODEA high school in Heidelberg, Germany. Our assignment was to get into groups and silently act out roles written on slips of papers, picked out of a hat. Looking at that slip, I read “a cashier at Dairy Queen.” I immediately looked to my acting partner and asked, “What’s a Dairy Queen?” I was confused. The cashier portion indicated some type of store or restaurant, and dairy seemed pretty obvious that whatever it was had to do with dairy products. Everybody in the room stopped and stared at me for a moment. “You’ve never been to a Dairy Queen?” my partner asked. I shrugged back a nope. It was some type of store in the States; it couldn’t be that important. 

Growing up as a military civilian kid to two DODEA teachers, my exposure to the United States was slim. In fact, my entire upbringing was unique compared to most other military kids. I was born in Panama and moved to Germany when I was three. I lived in the same house my whole life until I graduated from Heidelberg High School. Every other summer, my whole family would fly out stateside to visit extended family for two months. To me, the States was a magical place, different from any country I’d traveled to in Europe and Disneyland-like in its exciting, fast-paced environment. Things were newer, brighter, louder and overall different. But that’s all it was, a trip every other year to a country I formally called home yet never lived in, a place where I literally felt culture shock. Once my parents heard about my Dairy Queen story at school, they made it a point to stop by one the next trip we took. More often, though, I never heard of or experienced many of the things that people who have lived stateside took for granted. This all changed when I graduated from high school and was accepted to a university in Florida. For once, I was going to live in the States full-time, and I was going by myself. 

Four years later, I can still remember my mom leaving my dorm room for the last time. She was rushing to the airport in order to make her flight back to Germany. I felt the things that many college students feel when left on their own for the first time: sad to see my family go, nervous about classes coming up and living on my own, excited to finally be free without any nagging. In a word, I was terrified. Just doing normal chores like shopping presented me with way more choice than I was used to (the hardest was grocery shopping: no commissary and the prices are this high?!). Driving in the States was crazy, and I’d just found out what a drugstore was a couple weeks before. Luckily, I had a hero in the form of my randomly assigned roommate, Katie, though I did not realize it until a couple weeks had passed. 

My roommate’s upbringing was not like mine. Born in New York, she moved to Florida when she was very young and lived in the same town until she graduated from high school. Other than that, we were complete opposites, the military civilian kid and the Floridian. We didn’t say much to each other over the first few weeks outside of normal roommate conversations. A lot of her friends from high school also went to the same university, and she understood just how things worked, even in a new city. Meanwhile, I was too nervous to ask for help and afraid that my lack of knowledge would make me look comical. Instead, we tolerated each other as people who had to share a single room for a year, and as long as we didn’t make problems for each other, everything would be fine. 

One evening, we caught ourselves doing the same thing: surfing funny YouTube videos as a way to pass time. Soon we were swapping videos, watching some together and laughing like two normal teenagers on a Tuesday night. It was then that we realized that while we’d grown up in different places, in different cultures, we were both freshmen in college trying to get our lives started on our own. From that day forward, we became best friends, looking out for each other and teaching each other new things. I learned that before, she had been a bit intimidated; I was a kid who’d traveled all over Europe and was too worldly for northern Florida. I told her I had thought that she was too settled to want a random new friend who didn’t know her way out of a paper bag in this country. 

Katie became my rock in this crazy wilderness of trying to get used to college and living in the States at the same time. She explained things to me without patronizing me, shared her nervousness about being in a new place, and helped me get out and experience things in the area. 

While it may seem like I was just lucky and someone happened to be there for me when I needed it, the longer I was at school, the more I realized that there wasn’t just one way to acclimate. We joined clubs around the school, volunteering and getting to know people. Other friends played intermural sports, games that stay constant across all cultures. Many people joined academic institutions according to their majors, while others bonded together over similar hobbies like video games or art. To be honest, living in the States really wasn’t as different as I anticipated, and people still did similar things. I could connect with someone over silly YouTube videos and watch old movies with my friends in the archaeology club. 

As big a step as it seems, moving from overseas to the States for college is just the same as moving a state, a town, a street down for the same thing. We were all going through the nervousness and excitement of starting college. We were all finding our own ways to cope with it. Looking back to my mortified 7th grade self, I realized that college has taught me at least one thing: while I may not have known what a Dairy Queen was, even across cultures and countries I knew what an ice cream store was, and there really isn’t that big of a difference. 

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