Keith Jeffcoat, a North County High School sophomore, is just the kind of American student the folks who build Mercedes-Benz automobiles were looking for last year when they organized an essay contest.

He knows very little about Germany, the country where the cars are made, but he wrote an essay that contest judges liked. So he -- with 49 other contest winners from the United States and Canada -- will have a free, three-week tour of the land of Wagner, Beethoven, Goethe, and bratwurst and beer this summer.


Daimler-Benz, the automotive and aerospace giant in Stuttgart, which will pay the students' expenses, sponsored the contest in hopes of improving Germany's image.

Americans "know practically nothing about Germany before they go and often they have very negative sentiments toward it because it is known for the Nazis, the war and the Holocaust," said Michael Nentwich, a docent at Goethe House in New York, which conducted the contest for Daimler-Benz in North America.


Keith, 16, said he became interested in Germany and its people, particularly the young ones, while studying contemporary European history at school.

In his essay, he wondered if young Germans are like American youths. He asked what classes they take, how they relieve tension from school, what careers they hope to pursue and what their traditions and values are.

He said he has heard that people in Germany "party and drink beer all day," but he doesn't believe it. Such remarks come from people who are "using their ignorance because they don't know what's going on," he said.

Keith, who hopes to become an architect, said he is particularly interested in "the architecture and the old buildings" In Germany.

The students, 45 from the United States and five from Canada, are to begin their trip June 18 in Washington, where they will meet with their hometown congressman and talk about the political history of Germany.

They will visit a castle in Heidelberg, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and Daimler-Benz Group's automotive and aerospace facilities in Stuttgart. They also will go to the seaports of Hamburg and Bremen and the Bavarian city of Munich.

For most of the trip, the students will stay in hotels, but each will also spend a week with a host family from Daimler-Benz.

The contest organizers chose schools for the contest at random from about 2,000, including 35 in Maryland, that applied. North County was the only Maryland high school selected.


The schools chose their winners based on answers to five essay questions about why the student wanted to go to Germany.

Maureen Helinski, a German teacher at North County who helped select Keith, said she was impressed with his answers.

His mother, Linda, 44, said that the farthest her son has been from home is Florida and that she is "just very proud of him, as any parent would be."

Keith said he plans to share his experiences and pictures with classmates and neighbors.

"I'll probably take, like, 20 rolls of film with me," he said. "I'm taking pictures of everything I see."