A Vicarious Globetrotter interview with Toni Seyfarth
By Sarah Widder
When talking to Toni Seyfarth, one might be surprised to learn that she did not grow up in America, let alone on the same continent, given her natural ease with English. “I never learned English as a foreign language,” she tells me with a smile.
The seeming effortlessness of Toni’s English-speaking abilities comes from many years of education primarily conducted in English, from an English kindergarten to two different international schools in Berlin, where most all classes were taught in English. Her parents also promoted English in the home, using the language conversationally and in reading English books with her.
Attending an international school formed an important part of Toni’s growth and development. Unlike most schools in the States, the two schools that Toni attended included students from kindergarten through high school. As such, Toni attended the same school from fifth grade to twelfth grade, which has had mixed effects. “On one hand, I was always with the same people,” Toni tells me. “But because it’s an international school, people move a lot … You always meet new people.” The diversity of the student body and the come-and-go feel of the school reflected the demand for flexibility, especially for those whose parents travel for their work. This has made Toni’s close group of friends a diverse bunch, who use their shared knowledge of English as a way to communicate.
Familiarity with English was one of several reasons why Toni looked more to pursue schools in the U.K. or the U.S. than in Germany. Years of studying in the English language made her hesitant to begin serious study in German, and she wanted to keep up her English skills. “It’s good to know a language well,” she tells me wisely. Many vacations in the U.S., her father’s work in a U.S. law firm, and the American college culture made coming to school in the U.S. most appealing. “You don’t have to have everything figured out,” Toni says of the American system with appreciation. In Europe, however, students choose a course of study early and then must stick to it, with relatively few exceptions. Since Toni is unsure herself of what she wants to pursue, this flexibility is very attractive, as is the experience of living on campus with all of the other students, something that European students often do not do.
For Toni, moving to the U.S. was not as daunting as one might think. For instance, Toni had already spent time living in a foreign country with a roommate after attending a summer study abroad program in France. Although the distance and culture shock was more extreme for the American students in the program, Toni saw the experience as a good test-run prior to attending college in the U.S. Having a roommate, being away from her family, and being immersed in a group of primarily American students served as meaningful forerunners of what it would be like for Toni to go off to college a year later. Having so many international friends, many of whom were American, Toni didn’t have too much trouble meshing with the culture of her American classmates in France, but even still, she found the program more immersive than she what she experienced at her international school. The month in France went great: “It kind of showed me, ‘OK, I can do this, I want to apply to the U.S.’”
Coming to the U.S. and Yale turned out to be an overall smooth and fun experience. Toni arrived on campus early to meet other members of the Organization of International Students (OIS) and had a lot of fun getting to know other students who shared the common experience of coming to school so far from home. “We were all new, so it was good to get to know them and to have a familiar face when you see them around.” While there aren’t any international students in Toni’s suite, the girls of C21 are close and have made Toni feel right at home. “I’ve [found] a lot of common ground with my suitemates,” she says with a smile.
Although American culture is very pervasive in Europe and is thus quite familiar to Toni, she admits that “there are certainly differences that I see now that I’m here.” The odd vibe of casual conversations, in particular, is often the subject of laughs among international students. In Germany, when buying something at a shop, for example, “you’re polite, you say thank you, but you don’t ask them how they are, because you don’t know them and you don’t care,” Toni explains. This is certainly different from the U.S., where people tend to ask you how you are, but they don’t really care about your answer. It was a bit weird at the beginning, but Toni had heard of this peculiar American habit before so didn’t have too much trouble adjusting. A few other phrases and terms, such as “crunchy” for a very nature-oriented person, threw her off at first, but she’s picked up the new terms without too much trouble.
Toni immediately grimaces when I bring up politics. “Oh God,” she says. “Obviously it’s really interesting to be here in the year of the presidential elections, but it’s also kind of an uncertain year to be moving to a new country, because the future of the country is worryingly uncertain.” The effect of the presidential elections on daily life have been interesting to see, especially watching the presidential debates with her FroCo group. The climate of the election and the refugee crisis in Europe, especially Germany, has sparked conversations between Toni and others around her. While Toni is pleased that Germany accepted needy refugees into the country, their presence has unfortunately led to political instability, stirring Islamophobic rhetoric. Germany’s political future is uncertain, but it has catalyzed discussions with her friends and her suitemates, not just about the migrant crisis, but also about German culture in general. “So much has been happening that’s affecting the whole world,” she says. “It’s cool to talk to people with different perspectives.”
The refugee crisis and Toni’s experiences with volunteering have made community service and human rights an important part of her life. In addition to enjoying Directed Studies and French this semester, Toni has also gotten involved with service on campus through New Haven Reads. She is also looking into a possible internship at Human Rights Watch (HRW) for next summer. She may end up majoring in something international, such as global affairs, or even political science, to get involved in these kinds of issues around the world. But, nothing is set in stone yet: “Hopefully, all of this will become clear in the course of my college education. Fingers crossed!
Homesickness seems to have not been an issue for Toni due to the pace of life at Yale. “There’s always something to do, there’s always a new activity. You’re never bored. You never have time to think about what you’re missing at home.” A distressing experience with a cockroach in the first few days was perhaps the only negative thing about living here so far. “That was a scarring moment!” She says emphatically. “But now I love L-Dub so much.” She enjoys spending time in the tight, but cozy common room, working side by side with her suitemates, or taking study breaks. “The fact that it’s hard to think of a worst part of being here shows that it’s not that bad!” She says cheerfully. With her positivity, passion, and openness to new opportunities, I’m sure that Toni will do great things in her time at Yale and beyond.
Sarah Widder (’20) is a prospective cognitive science major in Berkeley College.