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  Study Abroad  Student Writing Contest  2011 Contest Finalist

Student Writing Contest Finalist

Studying and Interning in Bavaria, Germany

The Keys to a Successful Experience Abroad

Neuberg on the Danube in Bavaria, Germany.
Neuberg on the Danube in Bavaria.

Select Your Internship Location

Ever since I took a short vacation to Germany at the age of thirteen, I knew I wanted to return as a young adult to study. I ended up at Kalamazoo College, which has one of the best study abroad programs in the country, and where about 85% of the student body studies abroad.

Germany was my choice because I had been studying German for several years and wanted to improve my vocabulary and speaking skills. However, I also wanted to take advantage of Germany’s position as a leader in environmental conservation, and I spent two months doing so via an internship with my host city’s environmental office. Finally, the country appealed to me because of its history, public transportation, and culture. I lived and studied in Erlangen, a relatively small city of 100,000 people outside the metropolitan center of Nuremberg in Bavaria.

Let your goals and experiences determine your path when choosing a foreign location. If you are a college student, your institution may offer programs in collaboration with foreign universities. For many students enrolling in academic programs in a foreign institution, their primary and professional goals may play a huge role in determining which country they are best suited to succeed.

Unfortunately, money is significant for most people traveling and living abroad, but do not let it be your primary factor. If money is an issue, then spend some time investigating the many forms of loans, grants, stipends, or scholarships for which you may be eligible to help cover costs.

If English is not the native language in your destination country, take the time to learn some basic phrases if that has not been part of your previous studies. Assume you have studied the language and will be required to take courses using it in class for readings. In that case, brushing up on your vocabulary and understanding by reading books and articles or watching movies is a good idea — language immersion can take many forms. Furthermore, do a fair amount of research about your host country in the months leading up to your departure. Try to educate yourself about current events and politics.

Nuremberg Castle in Bavaria.
The Nuremberg Castle in Bavaria.

Before You Leave

Give yourself a significant amount of time to prepare for your departure. If you are participating in a study abroad program through a higher education institution, you may receive guidelines to assist you in your preparation. On the other hand, if you are traveling to a foreign country as an individual without the assistance of a program, it will be your responsibility to investigate what you need to do before traveling to your specific destination.

Some of the most important things to think about are:

  • Money
  • Vaccinations/immunizations
  • Visas.

Important things to consider include:

  • How will you bring money from the United States to your host country?
  • Are there partnerships between your bank at home and a bank in your host country?
  • Approximately how much spending money will you need for the duration of your stay?

Generally, all of your essential vaccinations must be up-to-date, no matter where you go. Your medical requirements may differ from others, even if you go to another city in the same country. The university I attended in Germany required documentation of testing for some sexually transmitted diseases, for example. If traveling to a developing country, be aware that your vaccinations must begin several months before your departure and continue even after re-entry into the United States. Visas vary from country to country, so understand the requirements several months before departure.

The one thing that required a fair amount of preparation for me was gathering all of the paperwork that I needed. Pack as lightly as possible, knowing you will return home with more than you brought!

Enjoying Your New Life Abroad!

Studying/working abroad is also a psychological exercise. It starts with your acclimation and integration into the society of your host culture. When you first arrive, everything likely will be great as you take in your new surroundings. After this initial phase, you may start to have more challenging days as you experience misunderstandings with locals and other foreigners and must deal with cultural and ideological differences. Some of the most challenging and frustrating experiences occurred in public places where I could not understand many spoken words. The last phase will be acceptance of your foreign culture, where you will learn to adjust to and appreciate all of the things that were once alien to you.

During your time abroad, conversations, people, and experiences will shape you in ways you could have never expected. You will grow as a person and gain new perspectives about everything from diet and transportation to education and politics. Perhaps most importantly, you will begin to see yourself as a world citizen and the roles that your host country and home country play in an increasingly globalized world.

Be respectful, professional, and cautious when interacting with people from your host and other cultures. Avoid beginning conversations with presumptuous remarks about a person’s country or culture, and do not discuss politically charged or controversial topics until you have become fairly close. Do not be surprised if you have to deal with stereotypes about Americans or life in the United States. In an era of increasing globalization, many people have formed opinions about the United States (as well as other countries) based on the amount of information they have read or seen in the media. Try to address these remarks with your experiences, but be courteous in dispelling or correcting their statements. I had the excellent opportunity to take an “Intercultural Communication” class, which explored everything from stereotypes to bridging differences across cultures. What I learned from the class helped me to understand the need for respectfulness and humility.

Take safety and security issues in your host country seriously. Be aware of attitudes toward and expectations of women and men. Minorities (racial, LBGTQ+, religious) should be mindful of how such people are viewed and treated. For example, neo-Nazism has long been a rising and growing movement in Germany. During my time in Bavaria, I did meet individuals who were victims of neo-Nazi violence but did not have any such experiences.

I recommend exploring more than just your host city if you have the money and the time. I was lucky because I was able to take several weekend trips with my program. I traveled to the Alps, the Rhein River, and several smaller villages. But my favorite trip was the one I took to Berlin.

View of the Bavarian alps with green hills and mountains around a lake.
Bavarian alps.

The grandiose Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Take advantage of all the opportunities available: attend cultural events, travel with friends, and dare to take social risks! If you are naturally shy, this is the time to step outside of your comfort zone and assert yourself! Living with a host family may be advantageous in this respect. Having a host family can offer you more insight into your host culture and the way people in that society live. Although I had no choice and had to live alone in a dorm room, given the culture and prevalence of native English speakers in Germany, I would have preferred to live with a family.

Re-Entry: Integration of Your Host Culture into Your Home Culture

The first few months after the conclusion of your stay abroad should be a time for conscious reflection upon your experiences, the personal growth you have achieved, and how you will integrate your experiences abroad into your life at home.

After your return, one of the most problematic expectations is that everything will be great. You will experience a period of disillusionment just as you did when adjusting to your foreign culture. One of the most significant challenges was summing up my 6-month experience when people asked the dreaded question, “How was studying abroad”?

It was also hard for me to deal with friends and family because they often seemed disinterested in my experiences and could not recognize how much I had changed. I learned that you must also be a listener and demonstrate that you are interested in what your friends and family have done while you were away.

Do some journaling to deal with your transition to the United States. You may even surprise yourself as you realize how your perspective on personal values and your approach to relationships has changed.

I just recently returned home, but I already understand the importance of integrating my experiences from Germany into my life in the United States. I will use some of the knowledge I learned from my “Intercultural Communication” class in my personal and academic life. I hope to use Erlangen’s recycling system, which I studied as an intern at the environmental office, as a blueprint for improving recycling on my college campus. I will continue learning German for at least the next couple of years and keep in touch with the friends I made in Erlangen.

Alison LaRose studied, interned at the city of Erlangen’s Environmental Office for Energy Questions and Environmental Protection, and  traveled within Germany. She attends Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Related Topics
Student to Student
Living in Germany: Articles and Resources

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