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Studying and Interning in Bavaria

The Keys to a Successful Experience Abroad

Houses on the River in Bamberg, Germany
Houses on the River in Bamberg, Germany.

Select Your Location

Ever since I took a short vacation to Germany at the age of thirteen, I knew that 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. But 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, its public transportation, and its culture. I lived and studied in Erlangen, a rather small city of 100,000 people outside the metropolitan center of Nuremberg in Bavaria.

In choosing a foreign location, let your goals and experiences determine your path. 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 major and/or professional goals may play a huge role in determining which country for which they are best suited.

Unfortunately, money is a major factor 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. If you have studied the language and will be required to take courses in it, it is a good idea to brush up on your vocabulary and understanding by reading books and articles, or even by watching movies—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.

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?

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

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 that you will return home with more than you brought with you!

Enjoying Your New Life!

Study/work abroad is a psychological exercise. It starts with your acclimation and integration into your host culture’s society. 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 some more challenging days as you experience misunderstandings with natives, and other foreigners and are forced to deal with cultural and ideological differences. For me, some of the most difficult and frustrating experiences occurred in public places when I just could not understand what was being said to me. 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 there will be conversations, people, and experiences that will shape you in ways you could have never expected. You will grow as a person, 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, as well as 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 are confronted 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 what your experiences have been, but be courteous in dispelling or correcting their statements. I had the wonderful opportunity to take a class called “Intercultural Communication,” which explored everything from stereotypes to bridging differences across cultures. This 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, LBGT, religious) should be aware of how such people are viewed and treated. For example, neo-Nazism is a rising and growing movement in Germany. During my time there I met individuals who were victims of neo-Nazi violence.

I highly recommend that you explore 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 on my own to Berlin.

Take advantage of all of the opportunities available to you: attend cultural events, travel with friends, and dare to take social risks! If you are a naturally shy person, this is the time to step outside of your comfort zone and assert yourself! Living with a host family may be very 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 did not have a 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.

Coming Back: Reintegration 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 of your experiences, the personal growth you have achieved, and how you will integrate the experiences you have had abroad into your life at home.

One of the worst expectations after your return is that everything will be great. You will experience a period of disillusionment just as you did in your adjustment to your foreign culture. One of the hardest things for me was how to sum up my 6-month experience when people asked the dreaded question, “How was study abroad”?

It was also hard for me to deal with friends and family, because it often seemed that they were disinterested in my experiences and/or could not recognize how much I had changed. What I learned is 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.

I recommend doing 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, for example, have 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 know that I will use some of the information 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 how we can improve recycling on my college campus. I will continue studying German for at least the next couple of years and I will be keeping 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 and expects to graduate in 2012.

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