First Person: Change of scene can change a life
by Soeren Lauinge/For the Tracy Press
Apr 26, 2013 | 1854 views | 0 0 comments | 137 137 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The other day, I watched the British movie “Billy Elliot” with my 11-, 9- and 4-year-old kids. I told them that like the ballet talent Billy who was depicted in the movie, I also once opened a letter that changed my life, when I was 16 years old.

It was sent by a nonprofit student-exchange organization, Youth for Understanding. I didn’t know if the letter would be an approval or a negative reply after the challenging application and assessment process weeks before.

It turned out to be an approval. I was allowed to live one year of my young life in the U.S. On Aug. 9, 1988, I said farewell to my family in southern Germany.

About 24 hours later, I felt as though I was being dropped out of an airplane with a parachute to land in a totally new life — in a town called Tracy.

I was willing to learn, absorb and digest all-new impressions. During the first few days, it felt like waking up in a Hollywood movie.

Today, I am totally convinced that the year abroad in Tracy was one of the wisest decisions of my life. At the age of 16 or 17, you are old enough to cope with challenges that naturally arise during the 12 months away, and young enough to be open and absorb a new way of life — the American way of life.

The year in Tracy, of course, strengthened my original belief in the U.S. By chance, I also got to know a very good German friend, Henrik Schroeder from Munich, who I met for the first time at the Frankfurt Airport when he mentioned that he, too, was heading to Tracy for a year.

One important experience I remembered for my entire life was to listen to your gut feeling. Why? During my stay in the U.S., my host parents prepared for divorce. I guess it is self-explanatory that the time was not the easiest.

After nine months, the barrel was about to overflow, and I changed my host family — Henry and Linda Dasse offered me the opportunity to get out of a suboptimal situation. In retrospect, I should have listened to my gut feeling and made this move much sooner — a lesson for life.

Years later, in college, I studied international marketing. It was a kind of repeat of the U.S. experience on a smaller scale, as I was a trainee in Madrid, Spain, for three months. In college, I met a half-Italian, half-French young woman, Franca, who became my wife.

I visited Tracy with my wife in 2000. As the town had grown so tremendously, I even found it difficult to find my former home with the Dasse family.

Back in 1988-89, I was giving German lessons to Sam Matthews, co-publisher of the Tracy Press, and his charming wife, Joan.

I remember how I always looked forward to Monday night. I enjoyed the conversation in German with both, but equally I enjoyed the great dinner at the house of the Matthews family. Sam supported my somehow hidden passion about journalism during my time in Tracy.

I can only encourage any young student to leave their comfort zone, consisting of high school pals, family, language and so on.

Just go out and find out about the fact that there is a very interesting world beyond the borders in our own minds. And speaking as a marketing professional, you are gaining a unique selling proposition for your entire life by self-exploring the world.

That is what my kids hear from me every other month. Hopefully, they listen and gain their own motivation to explore the world as exchange students, once the time has come.

Then they might also be able to open a letter like Billy, the ballet talent in the movie, who was accepted to the Royal Ballet Academy in London.

For readers who might be interested in going for a year abroad, go to

• Soeren Lauinger, a native of a German town on the edge of the Black Forest, now lives in Tuttlingen, Germany, which is a world center for the manufacture of surgical instruments. First Person is an occasional column in Our Town written by people with close ties to the Tracy and Mountain House communities. To comment, visit, call 835-3030 or send email to
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