When Montana Showalter, a high school student, left the USA for Germany as part of an exchange program, she started a YouTube channel to document her experiences in Germany. At that time she had around six subscribers—a few of her friends and her parents. What Montana didn’t know was that her channel was soon going to blow up. At the time of writing this, the number of subscribers on her channel is approaching 40,000.
“I wasn’t doing it to try to get famous or to gain such a large following,” she explains in our podcast interview. “I was just doing it because I knew that in the future I’d love to look back on the videos that I’m making”. But then one day, she woke up to see that one of her videos had reached 1,000 views. That was just the start. “All of a sudden I saw more and more people watching my videos,” she says.
Reasons for her YouTube success
But what is the reason behind her channel’s sudden success? Montana believes it is that she appeals to a niche – teenagers living in Germany who are not German. There are many YouTube channels about being foreigners in Germany, but most of those are run by people who have moved to Germany for relationships or careers. There was no voice describing what it is like to be a foreign teenager in Germany…until Montana.
That’s the reason she attributes to her channel’s unintended success. But there might be another reason: her realness. When I came across her videos for the first time, I was struck by how honest she is, and how little pretense there is in her vlogs. In one video, she even admits that she’ll be looking off-camera from time-to-time because that’s where her notes are. And it’s this authenticity and honesty that has endeared her to her subscribers.
The subject matter—Germany— is also part of it. Montana documented her culture shock, her observations on learning German, and what the differences between being a teenager in the USA versus Germany are. She was giving an up-to-the-minute account of how she was experiencing Germany, and her subscribers felt like they were along for the ride.
Who am I?
And all the time, Germany was changing her. Montana discovered a newfound sense of freedom in Germany. It’s something she talked about in a video called ‘“Who am I?” – A Personal Essay From My Exchange Year’, where she says that before she came to Germany, she was the “girl with the grades”. I asked her about that girl.
“I was definitely motivated by school and by grades,” she explains. “I think that the way our system of university is set up in the US, a lot of students are like that, because you’re constantly trying to have extracurriculars and activities that look good in order to get into college. And so that was really what was on my mind. I was stressed out a lot and didn’t do activities that I wanted to do.”
In Germany, it was different. “I really got to try new things that I wanted to do. And I wasn’t doing them for an application. I was doing them out of enjoyment and meeting friends, and it was really amazing. It was so fun just to go out and go for a run instead of having to focus on studying for the SATs.”
Interrupted by the coronavirus
But, as well as everything was going with her exchange year, it was about to be abruptly cut short by the appearance of the coronavirus. When things really started to escalate, Montana received a letter saying that she was going to have to leave within 24 hours. She was heartbroken, which was clear in a video she posted about it. I asked her what was so upsetting about having her stay interrupted.
“I think it was I was just reaching that peak of where I had such good friends,” she says. “My birthday was in two weeks and my host sister and I had already started planning a party. And I was getting invested in my cheerleading. I was doing swimming too. So I was just building my life. It seemed like my life was so set and solid there; it felt like Germany was my home. And to get to that point, and then find out that I have to leave, feeling like I was throwing it all away, was heartbreaking.”
A new start in the USA
Speaking to her now after her re-entry into the USA, I wanted to know if she was still the new Montana she discovered in Germany, or if she slipped back into the old Montana, the “girl with the grades”.
Her answer: “I think living in Germany just opened my eyes to what you can do with yourself and how you can change yourself, because I figured it was a new start. I was on a different continent, and no one knew who I was. So it was a time to really reshape who I wanted to be. And to start doing things…just because I wanted to. And so I think I figured out who I was not just in regards to school, but in regards to what I want to do in life and what I can find passion in. And so no matter what, whether I’m in Germany or not, I still have that mindset.”
I also asked her what advice she has for other young people planning to do what she did.
“Do what you can to make the most out of your exchange year,” she suggests. “So whether that is traveling..I know not everyone has the financial means of traveling so much during their exchange here, but you can meet as many new people as possible. Talk to everyone. Try to share your perspective with people because you’ll find a lot of people who are willing to listen. You just have to be the person to step out and say hello and introduce yourself. So trying to be open and doing everything you can is really the best piece of advice that someone could have given me.”
Subscribe to Montana’s YouTube channel to see her latest videos about her reverse culture shock in the USA, and about her time living in Germany. And subscribe to The Germany Experience podcast for more stories about life in Germany.