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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  K-12 education

University High School’s Neff navigates foreign country while working toward higher education

Switching schools halfway through high school isn’t easy, much less moving to a country that speaks a different language. Add in a distance so great that Google Maps can’t even compute the precise mileage between schools, plus a pandemic, and you’ve got a recipe for a challenge. Sprinkle in some support, add a dash of “Dungeons and Dragons,” and there it is, one tough cookie named Emily Neff.

William Neff, a retired Air Force master sergeant, thinks his daughter did well in the transition. “All she’s ever known is Germany,” he said. “She may be German, but because of her upbringing she’s fluent in English.”

Although the 17-year-old left the U.S. at age 1 one and didn’t return until two years ago, she started learning English around third grade. Her father is from Arizona while her mother is a German native, and home was the rural German countryside in Biesdorf, a village in Rheinland-Pfalz.

The private Catholic school of Sankt Josef-Gymnasium Biesdorf, Neff’s former high school, is attended by just over 500 “Schülerinnen” and doesn’t offer many extracurricular opportunities beyond athletics, so the 1,800-student body at University High School was a major change.

“It did definitely feel more like I was one person in this big crowd,” said Neff, a self-described shy student. “But I didn’t feel all alone or anything. It’s been a nice thing being with so many students here, I found a group of people to hang out with pretty quickly.”

That group has been the gaming club at U-High which plays “Dungeons and Dragons.” But she doesn’t just play the popular fantasy role-playing game as a mage, she regularly leads multimonth campaigns as dungeon master.

“COVID really put a damper on the social stuff, but the gaming club is her niche,” William Neff said. “She’s very passionate, so not only does she play (D&D), she’s taken on the role of dungeon master to take over the campaigns.”

Neff is an introvert by nature but expressed gratitude to be received by a broader school community that was engaging and supportive. “It made school so much more enjoyable for me,” said Neff, who explained that teachers and counselors in the American education system take a more holistic approach to connect with students.

Though Neff may be socially shy, she certainly is not shy academically. Neff has taken rigorous courses such as physics and even acing finals in AP calculus.

“She’s honest with what she knows and doesn’t know, she doesn’t try to hide,” Neff’s AP calculus teacher Scott Cooley said, noting her inquisitiveness makes her stand out. “She’s pretty bright student to begin with; but then to have that honesty with what you know and don’t know, and to ask the questions, is unique.”

Neff will attend Spokane Falls Community College in the fall but is undecided on a future field of study.

Not having a solid path forward in higher education is not indicative of motivation, rather, she spent the past two years indulging in an academic smorgasbord to experiment with interests that weren’t available in Biesdorf, such as architecture and graphic arts. The true north of Neff’s internal compass has been using her work ethic to experiment in different academic areas, and she’s closer to arriving at a career by eliminating options along the way.

“It’s nice to have a whole variety of courses,” Neff said. “It helped me find interests I didn’t know I had. I took a graphic arts course here, and I never would have gotten into it probably, if I hadn’t had the chance to do so here, and now I’m even considering it as a career possibility. I love that so much.”

Neff has plenty of time to decide what her future holds, but if she can navigate through this foreign country, she can navigate to success.

Libby Kamrowski can be reached at (509) 459-5523 or

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