Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dan P. - Germany - Spring 2013

Trying to sum up a semester of study abroad in a series of blog posts, let alone a single one, would be doing a disservice to what has been for me, and will doubtless be for you, the great semester I have ever had. With that in mind, I’ll give it a paragraph instead and devote the rest of my space to giving some sage advice that my experiences in Europe have granted me.
The beauty of Elmhurst College (other than the trees) is the fact that, for a small school, it actually offers you quite a few choices in terms of where you want to study. For me, I knew I wanted to study in a German speaking country because I’ve studied the language for six years and wanted to convince myself that it was a real language that existed outside of my textbooks. As a political science major, the IES European Union program in Freiburg, Germany was just a logical fit. My choice was easy but that’s not the case with everyone. I know a lot of people who agonized over their decision and some who even think they’ve made the wrong one (Note: this does not mean these people haven’t enjoyed their study abroad. I can’t say I’ve met someone in my life who did not have fun abroad. It just means that their ‘home’ city may not have been the right choice).
At this point in the semester, you probably already have a good idea about where you’ll be going next semester. If you don’t, however, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you’re not a tourist, you’re a resident. Try to do some research and pick a city where the LIFESTYLE is something that appeals to you. Sure Paris has a lot of sights, but in London you’ll actually understand the language. Barcelona may have nice weather but Madrid has fewer tourists (and thieves). Rome may have delicious food but German buses will actually run on time. There are a lot of things to keep in mind but for me one thing stands out above all others: language.
My program is not a language program. Most students who enrolled did so with no background in German at all. All of the people I know who have expressed regrets about studying in Germany count themselves among this group. Language is a big deal. Even if your classes are in English, most things in non-English speaking countries are not. One of my fellow students in my program told me that by far the most he has enjoyed himself abroad was the time he spent on trips to Barcelona, Madrid, and Majorca. It’s not coincidence that this student also speak fluent Spanish. He chose the EU program purely based on the course content without consideration that he would also be living in Germany for the entire semester.
This is not to say, however, that you should only study somewhere you speak the language. Learning new languages is one of the best parts about studying abroad. For example, while I was in Prague I quickly learned that the little bit of Polish I knew actually, with a few minor changes, translated really well into Czech. Being able to communicate with someone in a language that you didn’t know before the semester began is an incredibly rewarding feeling and the look on my classmate’s faces when I flawlessly asked for directions in Czech is something I’ll never forget. The important thing is that, if you don’t speak the language, you need to be willing to learn. The same people who say they made the wrong choice are the same people who refuse to take their German 101 class seriously and never speak it outside of the classroom. One of the problems with Europe, especially in the best educated parts, is that almost everyone will speak English. I had to try really hard to break myself of the habit of speaking English. Even after studying the language for six years, it can be frustrating when you don’t know a word and it’s all too easy to switch over to English. Don’t do it. Languages are a valuable life skill and something that, with a little bit of practice, will be with you the rest of your life.
It also never hurts to pick up a book and try to study the local language before the semester even begins. I know a student who brought an introductory textbook with him on the plane and, by the time he landed, he was already communicating with ease. Picking up the basics of a language is not that hard to do if you put some effort into it and there’s nothing wrong with doing something more productive with your 10 hour (at least) flight than watching reruns of The Office (maybe you could even write your blog post).
Whether you know where you’re going or not, one of the things you are probably most worried about is money. Living abroad is not cheap. You probably got told in class to think about how much money you want to bring and then double it. Well, do it. More importantly, once you get outside the country, do not be afraid to spend that money. I’m not saying make it rain everywhere you go (especially in Europe, 1 Euro coins could hurt somebody) but definitely do not miss out on great experiences (or food) because you’re afraid of wasting money. I know a lot of students who have spent the last month living on noodles and canned pasta sauce because they spent all of their money having a good time and I know a lot of students who are scrambling to experience things now that they skipped before because they thought it was too expensive. I can tell you that the former are usually a lot more satisfied with their time abroad than the latter. Regardless of how you do it, you are in for the best semester of your life. Just know that there are ways to make the best even better. Do your research, try new things, learn knew languages, and get ready to spend some money.



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