Getting Started with Studying Abroad

Dear readers,

I would like to discuss “studying abroad” for American college students.

Studying abroad is a rich experience to undergo during your college years. The first time abroad is life- changing. You see yourself and your native culture with different eyes. You get to experience everyday life of those who live thousands of miles away from your native country and listen to new languages. You also get to see, firsthand, the wonders of the world–whether it be something historical in a city or a gorgeous landscape.

But studying abroad isn’t cheap. It also isn’t easy. It requires thought, decision-making, and planning. Your approach and attitude truly change how you perceive your time abroad. You should pick the right country for the right reasons. Everyone is different, so you have to decide what the “right reasons” for you are.

Your internal reasons for studying in that place should outweigh the external reasons.

What do I mean exactly? Your reasons for traveling to Germany are: because you have a German girlfriend/boyfriend, you like the German language and you want to ski in the Alps. International relationships can be very interesting and fulfilling, but if that’s your only reason for traveling abroad, your time there may be very challenging and frustrating since you do not have a personal connection with the country itself.

But when you are also interested in the country because of its language & culture and you have travel goals, the trip will feel much closer to your heart. How much you enjoy it will depend on your attitude (and maybe the weather and people around you) but you’ll feel more of connection with the place when there’s something inside of you that brings you there.

 

However, I must admit: sometimes you just have to start somewhere. Everyone must be bad at something before they can be good at it. A new experience may give you the motivation to start an entirely new chapter in your life… And I want to share my story with you.

The first time I traveled to Germany seems like so long ago. And I’ve changed in so many ways since then. Although every day wasn’t perfect… I wasn’t so outgoing and definitely didn’t have an idea what learning and speaking a second language meant, I experienced being abroad for the first time and had some encouraging, fun experiences.

The first program I did was not connected to my university in any way and it was open for all people—not just college students. I pretty much found it by chance. It’s an easy story to tell so I will start from the beginning:

I knew that I wanted to learn how to speak German so I decided to start courses at Goethe Institute Atlanta. While browsing their website, I also read that they offered classes in many German cities for international learners of German language. I can’t remember exactly what was on my mind then but I decided that I wanted to take a course in Germany to speed up my German learning and see the country for the first time. I did have some unrealistic expectations though.. thinking that four weeks would be enough to have me speaking the language. There were certain days where I held some conversations but I still spoke a lot of English. I also didn’t study intensively or use everyday interactions to practice the language.

What I gained from that experience was that I left my native country for the first time. I had my first experiences navigating to new places, using public transportation, and buying food from different places. I also met many international people. I changed time zones. I didn’t have any air conditioning. I used a new currency. That was June- July 2015.

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There are a few other things I want to share about that time that maybe be insightful for you: First will be about the language school I attended. Second will be a specific experience I wrote about during the time. And before sharing my second time abroad, I will include a few more things that stand out to me about my first time in Germany.

The Language School

 

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The reasons I chose the location I did were as following: I wanted to be in a city near the place my grandmother was from. I wanted an apartment with WiFi. I wanted the apartment location to be close to the school so that I could go by foot. And this school even had a cafeteria, where I had breakfast and lunch. Apart from that, the prices were good. The city seemed cozy and inviting. And although it was small, it seemed like there would be enough activities to stay busy and have fun.

I remember everything seeming like it was going really fast—at the airport and at the train station. And I thought Germany was absolutely beautiful. I loved looking at the countryside while riding on the train. I didn’t feel far away from home but I definitely felt American. Europe had a different flair than USA. It felt more serious, more competitive, and more elegant. It wasn’t the first time I had feelings of being critical about my native country and native culture, but it became much more obvious for me. It seemed most Europeans were cosmopolitan and multilingual. Nobody made me feel bad for being American. In fact, even though I was shy, I had an open heart and was curious, so many people reached out to me and I had a great time.

I shared a bedroom so it would be cheaper. We had a private shower and toilet. In the basement of our place was a shared kitchen for the building. My roommate ended up being another American girl who had some experience traveling in Germany already and was going to stay in Austria for a year. We weren’t the best of friends but we got along well enough. She showed me where the supermarket and other things in town were. And she was part of a bigger group with whom I spent a lot of time.

Getting to Germany was a big step. But the language school was helpful with getting us students there and situated. There was a bus waiting for us at the train station to drop us off at the school. Once at the school, we received information about our accommodations and were able to drop our bags off. We also did an interview as part of the placement test. Since it was already late, the actual written test was the on the next day. So I ended up showing up to my class once it had already started. No big deal except no English was allowed!! That was understandable since we were a classroom full of international students learning German.

The reading and writing weren’t the hardest part of the course for me. Listening was pretty hard. So was speaking. Especially the pronunciation. I remember asking my Turkish friends from the school like “what should I do.. my head doesn’t want to understand German?” They said that I just need to learn more. I didn’t realize then how important it was to train listening and practice speaking– preparing for situations and correcting mistakes. We often had writing assignments for homework. In class, we did presentations of what we wrote. We still trained basic grammar. We played games. And we had a workbook that guided our learning. We did many types of activities to get us interacting with the language and to start talking about everyday stuff. I didn’t love going to class but it was okay overall. I also didn’t do much revising in my free time.

 

My First Experience at a Train Station in Europe

Here is a short account I wrote during that summer: So what does it feel like to be outside your home country for the first time? ~July 2015~
When my plane first landed on July 6th, I exited the Frankfurt airports only to come back into the airport to go upstairs to find the underground train station. At first, using the train ticket machine seemed impossible because it did not connect to Stuttgart Bahnhof. An Italian man named Luigi saw that I was having trouble and at first asked me if I was Italian. He suggested that I take the train to Frankfurt Main and so I took the train there with him. When I exited the train station, I walked up and down the same street until a guy working at a hotel saw that I needed help—he took me to Frankfurt Main train station. He spoke with someone who worked at the train station to get me to the right platform, but unfortunately it was not the right one for the ticket I bought. I didn’t know to print off the info either because the ticket doesn’t automatically have the platform number on it. I tried to ask a lady for help and look for the right platform, but I ended up missing the train and had to wait for a few hours until the next train came*. During that time span, I ordered a small strawberry milkshake and a mineral water and I paid a Euro to use the bathroom. There, I changed my top since I was feeling a little gross after being in the same outfit. Then I sat around some more before my train arrived. I was on the train (I reserved my seat) and the lady came by to check my ticket. It was a pretty nice ride to Stuttgart Bahnhof and I was exhausted so I may have drifted off during some of the train ride. At Stuttgart Bahnhof, I was having a difficult time finding Schwaebisch Hall-Hessental in the search results, but I finally found it. When I was waiting for the train, some people saying the train wasn’t coming today, so we were redirected to another train.

*By the way, there is always a large billboard with the train times and each station displays the trains too. But for some reason, I simply couldn’t find the platform that matched my train ticket. :/

 

Great Memories from My First Summer Abroad

You probably could tell that I wasn’t used to navigating in Germany or using trains, but the story goes on so let’s continue! Another good thing about this location was that the city was pretty easy to navigate and there was a pretty awesome program planned for that month by the language school. Each week there was a Stammtisch at a different restaurant. That was a good way to practice German, meet the other international students and enjoy an evening out. The school also had its own little bar that was open on Friday nights. Drinks were cheap and there was good music. Of course there was dancing too! The school really offered such a diverse and fun-filled summer program. There were dance classes. You could go out and draw the city. You also had the chance to participate in a local summer fest and bring food from your country. In addition, we toured a local brewery. They served us free beer and dinner. Well, I think the tour cost 3 Euros. We also took a bus to Neuschwanstein castle. We had the whole day there and also got to visit the town nearby. My summer there was more than just planned events though. I had a blast eating ice cream with my friends, watching movies at home, going to the movie theater, and many other little experiences.

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There was one disco in Schwäbisch-Hall that we went to several times. I had such a blast dancing and meeting people from all around the world. One time I even went to a bigger disco outside of the city and I really loved the atmosphere of German discos. I always went with friends so I felt safe and comfortable. Because it was summer, it was such a great time to have a beer in a Biergarten. It was my first time to have a legal drink! (since I was only 18) And it was such an exciting experience to order a beer and get a Pfand back when I returned the glass. There was also a fair and I had a great time seeing the beautifully decorated rides and having a feeling of being back in USA.

Two good things that I did back then were: 1) I enjoyed myself. Just by participating in activities, meeting new people and being immersed in German language, I learned a lot without stressing myself about learning. That is something I learned the hard way this go around during my exchange year here. Studying is a good thing. And if it is something you enjoy, there is no harm in it, but real life interactions and experiences are much more memorable than just taking notes. 2) I lived in the moment. I wasn’t trying to see all the major cities of Germany in one month. I didn’t have to record every moment on my phone. I took it day by day and focused on what was in front of me.

Once I returned to USA, I did experience some reverse culture shock. My friends were there to pick me up from the airport. And everyone was excited that I was back. Somehow I felt sad and even missed Germany. The stress about finding the right gate at the airport was over. I could easily use my mother tongue. But I missed Germany’s beauty, I viewed USA differently and I felt a bit bored being American in America. Alright. I will conclude this part by sharing what I remember about how I felt before I left: I honestly wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I didn’t have any big worries. It felt like a big experience, but overall, I was relatively relaxed and neutral about it. Following are a few photos of the trip. =)

 

Second Summer Abroad

I’m not going to include as many details about my second summer abroad (the following year). My intentions are to compare the types of programs, how I handled things, and complete my college story in relation to traveling and studying languages. In May 2016, I spent another month in Germany. With the same type of language school but in a different city. This time I was in Mannheim. And I had a goal to really learn German. I was still nervous about exploring the city of Mannheim on my own, but I meet a handful of good friends and we had some good times in the city. This time I also had friends from my German class and we spoke only German together. I got to visit Heidelberg and Darmstadt with a group from the language school. I also made it all the way to Aachen to visit a new friend I had made. And at the end of my trip, I spent about five days in Stuttgart, where I visited my great uncle and also did some sightseeing. Here is a little text I wrote in Mannheim about arriving to Germany for the second time:

Mein Flug nach Stuttgart war gut. Ich habe einen alten Mann kennengelernt. Er ist Amerikaner und liebt seine Familie sehr. Ich konnte nur ein bisschen schlafen. An der Passkontrolle habe ich Deutsch gesprochen. Heute Morgen bin ich zuerst zum Stuttgart Bahnhof gefahren. Dann bin ich mit dem Zug nach Mannheim gefahren. Ich musste mit der Strassen- Bahn zur Sprachschule (Goethe-Institut) fahren. Im Flughafen habe ich nach dem Weg gefragt. Es war einfach Goethe-Institut zu finden. Ich hatte ein kurzes Interview, aber ich hatte den Test schon online gemacht. Ich beginne in einem B2.1 Kurs. Ich werde versuchen, nur Deutsch zu sprechen. Mit anderen Studenten habe ich nur Deutsch gesprochen—auch mit den Angestellten Goethe-Instituts. Hoffentlich habe ich einen schönen Besuch hier und lerne viel Deutsch.

(My flight to Stuttgart was good. I met an older gentleman. He is American and really loves his family. I was only able to sleep a little bit. At the passport control, I spoke German. This morning I first travelled to Stuttgart train station. Then I travelled to Mannheim by train. I had to ride the trolley to the language school. It was easy to find the school. I had a short interview, but I had already done the test online. I will start in a B2.1 course. I am going to try to only speak German. With the other students, I have only spoken German–also with the employees of the language school. Hopefully, I will have a nice visit here and will learn a lot of German.)

 

Leaving Germany for Russia

So now it’s time to finish up this entry by including some information about my Russian trip and explaining a bit more how study abroad works at my home university in USA. Before we apply to any programs or scholarships at my university, we have to visit an informational session at the study abroad office. There you learn about the types of programs offered, scholarships, how to raise money and you have the chance to ask questions. Our study abroad office has a website and also an online platform you use to apply for the programs and also any scholarships from the study abroad office.

During the informational session I learned about AIFS (American Institute for Foreign Study.) With AIFS, I either wanted to visit a Spanish-speaking country or Russia. In Germany (2015),  I met some Russians which got me interested in Russian culture. I thought summer of 2016 was a good time to start learning Russian. Before I left, I skyped with a teacher for a few months and could read the alphabet and knew some basic words. But communication was very hard. Looking back, I don’t regret going when I did. However, I could have studied the language, culture and history more intensively before I left. I was still learning German and studying at university and in May of that year I was in Germany for a month so I probably wouldn’t have had enough time to do any more than what I did. And maybe, two trips abroad in one summer was too much. I had already been away from home for a long time and I didn’t have enough time to invest in preparing for the Russian program since I was in Germany. But anyway, let’s continue.

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My program to Russia was with AIFS, which is an external program from my university. I had to do additional paperwork to get my courses transferred and to receive my summer scholarship for the coursework I did. One form was called “intent to study off-campus” which was for the financial aid office. The other form was about the course work and I had to have each course personally signed off by a professor. For example, an art professor signed off for the Russian art course. A politics professor for the politics course and so on. Then I had to have my advisor do a final signature before I turned it in to the study abroad office. That is a different process than study abroad programs that are from my university–organized by professors. For such study abroad courses, you sign up the same way you do for normal classes and fill out your information on the online study abroad platform. And for the year exchange I am doing now, you register study abroad place credit holders and when you bring your transcript back after the exchange, then you can get the credits added.

And here is a quick snapshot of the Russian study abroad program:

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Even though I made it to several museums and different places in addition to what was included in our program, there was still so much I wanted to see and do! The program was awesome. The city was awesome. Five weeks just wasn’t enough. I would recommend a semester there to make full use of all the options and see more of the city and do nearby excursions.

Another suggestion I have if you do a similar program where a large group of students are all together is to make friends with two smaller groups. People with similar interests tend to group up fast so be very outgoing in the beginning! Don’t be afraid to do things alone either, but I truly suggest trying to have two different groups of people that you connect with and can do things with.

It would take several blog posts to cover a full-reflection (as well as a report) of what I did during my time in Russia. But I’m sure you are a bit curious how it was to be in mysterious, dangerous Russia, so I want to share my perception of Saint Petersburg and how it changed over the five weeks I spent there. My first impression was like wow, it is so beautiful. And I noticed immediately that the atmosphere (how the people behaved and the appearance of the country itself) seemed a lot more distant, serious and melancholic than Germany. For at the least the first two weeks, I was so impressed by the many things to see and felt like it was amazing to see the city both as a tourist and exchange student. Later on, I ended up feeling sad, too. Even doing everyday tasks required a lot of effort and I felt very un-Russian. I felt a bit alone and far away from home. And by my last week there, Saint Petersburg ended up warming up to me. I met new people casually in public. I ended up hanging with a friend who had broken away and done their own thing the previous weeks. My coursework was coming to an end and slowly I was making use of the Russian language.

When I returned back home to USA, I made the decision to apply for a year-long exchange in Germany. I ended up not getting accepted into the program, but I had already made the decision to spend a year in Germany. So when applications for the Erlangen exchange from my university rolled around the following spring, I had to apply! I have been living in Germany for 7 months already. And I am not ready for my time here to end.

That was my introduction to studying abroad for American students. Each day I experienced something special. I also encountered new things that helped me grow as a person. My first two summers abroad were just the beginning! I plan to share several posts about my current study abroad here in Erlangen, Germany.

 

Enjoy the spring,

Stephanie F.

Author: Stephanie F.

My name is Stephanie Ford and I am a big fan of language and culture. This blog started as a project for my online coursework while I was studying abroad as a German language major in Erlangen, Germany. It has grown into something much bigger. I have articles on German culture, sightseeing in Germany, learning foreign languages, travelling Europe, tips for studying abroad in Germany as well as several articles about self-development and my personal journey.

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