When Martin Onken first touched down in Las Vegas, the brown landscape and dry air took him by surprise.
Most newcomers probably share that first impression, but Onken isn't like the majority of first-time Las Vegas residents.
The 16-year-old from the little town of Jena, Germany, had always dreamed about coming to the United States. Thanks to the Council on International Educational Exchange, a nonprofit international exchange organization, that dream came true.
"I wanted to come to America to improve my English and learn more about what the culture is like," Onken says.
After signing numerous documents and taking an English proficiency test, Onken was set to go to the United States. His first stop was New York City, where he went on sightseeing tours with foreign exchange students involved in the same program. Then, Onken was off to Las Vegas.
"New York was a lot of fun. It was huge and there was a lot to see. It's very different from Jena, which is a lot smaller," Onken says. "I liked how the weather changed every day. It was sunny one day and rainy the next.
"Before I came to Nevada, I imagined Las Vegas to be a lot like New York. The Strip made me think of Las Vegas as like a party city. I still kind of think it is. What surprised me was the weather and landscape. I was so used to seeing green scenery all my life, so it felt strange when I arrived in a desert."
Onken attends Coronado High School in Henderson, where he is one of 10 foreign exchange students. He lives with his host family, Michelle, Christopher and Erik Hirtreiter.
"We've been empty-nesters since our 20-year-old moved out, so we thought it would be fun to host another exchange student. We've done this before. Last time, it was with a Thai girl," says Michelle Hirtreiter, Onken's host-mother. "I'm so glad he's with us. My son Erik loves it, too, since he has a new buddy to play video games with."
Onken's first day at an American high school was a nerve-racking experience.
"It felt like I was in one of those teen movies where I played a new student who just transferred to a new school. I was really worried about whether or not I'll make any friends," he says. "I was really missing my friends and my family back home."
He had little trouble thanks to fellow classmate and neighbor James Villareal, who introduced him to other students at Coronado.
"He showed me around, gave me rides to school, and he helped me make friends. He was the most helpful person since I've been here," he says.
Villareal also introduced a taste of American culture.
"It was fun to teach him some American slang. He says 'sick' often now. He's a pretty cool guy," Villareal says.
Onken had to adjust to being in a foreign country with different people, language and culture. He was surprised at how diverse the people are and the size of the United States.
"I think my favorite part of the culture is the food. In Germany, the food is a lot healthier," he says. "But in America, the food is a lot tastier. And there are a lot of foods from other countries, too. My favorite is the burrito."
Onken also had to adjust to a different school system. A German school is more difficult and there are fewer marks per semester whereas an American school seems to be easier, but there is much more homework and marks, he says.
Though Onken has stepped into a new country, he is still able to live a typical teenage life. His favorite subject at school is art, because he likes to draw. He loves to play tennis, go to the gym and he also hopes to make the Coronado baseball team. But his most favorite thing to do is to meet new people.
"At first, I was nervous about what people would think, considering Germany's history, but everybody has been so kind and welcoming and open-minded since I got here," Onken says. "A lot of people think I'm really cool for being a foreign exchange student and I love it. I think I've made a lot of connections here. It's been great so far. If I ever get a chance to come back to America again, I definitely will."