Navigating the Future

Now that I’m knee deep in German classes, I figured I might as well make it official and get a minor while I’m at it. After this spring semester, I believe I’ll be only one class away. This naturally is making me consider what exactly I plan to do after I graduate college. I still want to work in mathematics, of course, but my increasing language competency and my study abroad experience are making me more confident in my ability to work outside the U.S. Unfortunately, I know very little about where I would work internationally and how developed my language skills need to be. If I continued to work on my German, I could work in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or perhaps in the surrounding areas. With English, I can, of course, work in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to start. I like to believe that there are places around the world where I would be able to work without being fluent in the native language, but I do not know where exactly that would be. Such considerations are hardly pressing, but certainly interesting to mull over. I know for a fact that I was not anywhere near as confident in my ability to conduct myself internationally when I started at OU three semesters ago. I find it interesting that such a short period of exposure to different people and places and languages and cultures and aspirations has so drastically affected my outlook on my future. I am still confident and excited, but my vision is different, full of possibilities that I had never considered.

The Value of Gen-Eds

For GEF, I need to know or study a modern foreign language and since I took Latin in high school, I needed to choose a new language to study at OU. To be completely honest, I spent almost my entire summer agonizing over which language to choose. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t trying to learn a language. When I read The Lord of the Rings, I went through the appendix and tried to understand how the elves discussed the weather. When I read Swallows and Amazons, my sister and I learned flag semaphore and would stand on opposite sides of the yard waving pieces of cloth at each other just to say hi. When I volunteered at a local repertory theater or attended a graduation ceremony, I would watch the sign language interpreters working on the sidelines, their swift hand movements so confident and controlled. When I found my mother’s old French textbook, I would wander around the house reciting the simple phrases from the first chapter and trying to wrap my mouth around the unnatural pronunciation. When Duolingo first came out, I started every language they had available, just to see what it was like. I was never disciplined enough to get anywhere, but my unbridled interest was always there.

I’m not quite sure how I landed in German, come to think of it, but I do know I had narrowed it down to German and French. I rejected French because I didn’t like the pronunciation rules. (Of course, now I wish I knew some French so I guess there’s never a wrong answer when it comes to learning.) I originally was just going to take my four classes and get out as quickly as possible. Latin was always the bane of my existence during high school and I didn’t want German to torture me for any longer than necessary. My advisor picked my classes for the first semester and my German teacher was fantastic. I had to attend class every day, since intro language classes are five credits, and I never dreaded doing so. It never felt hard, but when I looked back after the final, I had learned so much more than I’d expected and actually enjoyed doing it. Then the same thing happened the next semester. And during my summer class. And during this past semester. I don’t know if it’s my Latin background helping me out or the amazing German department here or just my excitement at finally taking a solid step towards becoming bilingual, but it’s amazing. It has made me value being in an environment where everyone is learning and everyone is pursuing their passions because it means that I can find out for myself whether my passions and hobbies are actually something worth my time to pursue.

Adjusting to the States

Back in August, I attended You’re Oklahome, a workshop for students returning from study abroad. I didn’t think that I was having any problems adjusting to the U.S. but I figured it would be nice to chat with other students about their experiences. The students who were returning from a semester or a year had many thoughts to share but I didn’t feel like I had anything meaningful to contribute. Now that the semester is ending and it’s been several months since my return from Germany, I find myself wishing that I could talk to students who have studied abroad and see if they feel the same way I do. See how much of an impact their travels actually made on them in the long run. I didn’t think that adjusting would be any trouble, I mean, why would it? I was returning home, to the country where I grew up and where I knew how everything worked. Piece of cake.

I spent a mere six weeks in Germany but it feels like it was so much longer. To my surprise, I spent a few months thinking that half of Europe was just a bus ride away. I would have an empty weekend and think: “Why don’t I go somewhere?” The first places to come to mind were in Stuttgart or the surrounding areas. I keep being reminded of all these little memories, things that made no real impact on me at the time. There was a little Chinese restaurant a few stops north where I would get takeout and then eat it in the plaza down the street. There was an Irish pub with an Australian bartender who was always a great person to talk to. There was this little area in the middle of downtown with narrow cobblestone streets that looked like they belonged in some Italian city. There was this little suburb down south that was pretty bland and uninteresting, except for this tall smokestack that said “DICK” in large, professionally-painted letters. There was an organic food store that reminded me of Whole Foods but smaller and much more authentic. There was a shop sporting the Union Jack that sold tea and red telephone boxes and everything you can imagine emblazoned with the London skyline. There was a French store that sold the most colorful, quirky versions of household items that I’ve ever seen and it took all my willpower not to buy one of everything. There was a fountain that looked like one of those blow-up bubble balls you use when playing human soccer and there was a plaza where breakdancers would practice in the evening and there was a tiny coffee shop that was also selling swimsuits and there was a bar built on top of a parking garage that looked like a sandy beach and there was a piano store with my last name and there was a makeup store where no one would talk to you unless you talked to them first and there was Mexican restaurant that played English pop songs and there was a staircase built for horses and there was just so, so much in such a short time. It’s weird that I can’t stop thinking about it all, right?

OU’s Diplomat-in-Residence Program

This semester, the U.S. Department of State brought a new Foreign Service officer, Kristin Stewart, to our campus as our Diplomat-in-Residence. In my opinion, the DIR program is a fantastic addition to the College of International Studies. Ms. Stewart hosted an information session early in the semester to introduce herself to the student body which I had the pleasure of attending. My knowledge of the Foreign Service was rather limited, and I had never considered a career in their ranks. As a result, the session was very interesting and informative.

Ms. Stewart led us through the many countries where she has been station, important officials she has met, and responsibilities she has held. I was particularly intrigued by how she balanced her work with her family life. Sometimes, her husband and children will travel with her and settle down while she fulfills her assignment but other times she has to leave them behind. I found her life experiences to be rather inspirational. In general, society is not particularly supportive or encouraging when it comes to long-distance relationships or wives maintaining a thriving career outside the household. Regardless, Ms. Stewart has managed to succeed at both. She has a husband and children and is a senior Foreign Service officer who is frequently required to travel around the world.

The session was brief but it showed that she was an expert at her job and had extensive experience to back up her world views. For those students interested in an international career, particularly through the government, she is certainly a fantastic person to speak with.

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Incorporating Immigrants

A well-known topic of international discussion is the influx of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East into the European Union. As some countries try to close themselves off, Germany has notoriously opened their borders to hundreds of thousands during these past few years alone. Many German citizens and officials cite the unsustainability of their burgeoning economy, when coupled with their aging population, as an incentive to incorporate foreigners into the German populace.

While this may be the end goal, immigrants cannot rejuvenate German society while they remain dependent on welfare and without access to the labor market. As a result, German leadership is working to integrate them into the workforce. This process that was described in the photo exhibit “Germany: Integrating Immigrants” that the German Embassy displayed on campus this semester. The exhibition was part of German Campus Week, organized by several on-campus departments and organizations, including the OU German Club.

I was impressed by the diversity and depth of programs in place to help immigrants in all aspects of life. There were language and culture classes, of course, including German history and the current legal system. Immigrants who had been trained as teachers in their home countries could apply for a qualification program at the University of Potsdam which included a year of intensive German and training with German students and instructors. The program was immediately popular, attracting 700 applications for 45 spots during its first year in 2016. A school in Munich for unaccompanied minor immigrants has several psychologists working with the young refugees to help the often traumatized youth prepare for an independent life in a foreign country. In Berlin, rabbis and imams cycle around the city on tandem bicycles to counter Islamophobia and religious discrimination.

Germany as a whole seems dedicated to incorporating the large immigrant population into German society and the rest of the world should take note.

The Oddity of English

It’s rather surprising how one adapts to change without even realizing it. My first few days in Germany were a tad overwhelming. The jet lag, living in a stranger’s home, using public transportation and buying food when I was incapable of verbal communication. To be fair, I studied German before coming here. However, even the best classroom can’t create that feeling of total immersion. It took me a long while to feel comfortable actually utilizing my German. I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to speak up in the classroom unless I know the answer or feel like a have a good point to add or a useful question. A basic conversation here felt like a test that I hadn’t studied for. However, necessity leads one to overcome such inhibitions. The daily German classes combined with my desire to explore lead me more and more outside my comfort zone. Now, looking back at the past weeks, I am still outside of my comfort zone. But that comfort zone has grown so much bigger. I have gained so much confidence, especially in communication. I have become more open to differences in my environment. I feel like I’m so much better at putting myself out there and rolling with the punches. Studying abroad is difficult, really really difficult. But it seems that if you can endure the struggles, there’s a lot to be gained.

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Sugar Soda, No Ice

Last night I ordered lemonade at a restaurant and I was surprised when I was given a glass with ice in it. It was kinda funny honestly that I was already so accustomed to chilled or lukewarm beverages. Having lived in Germany for over a month now I figured it would be interesting to comment on a few differences between Germany and the United States, or at least the things that struck me during my time here. Full disclaimer, I’m not saying these are negatives or bad things, I’m just saying that they’re different from my experience growing up in the U.S.

Firstly, in this summer heat, NOTHING IS COLD.

Ok, yeah, that’s hyperbole. Seriously though, Germany is an incredibly eco-friendly country (more on that later) and I’m blaming this for the lack of cold things. A/C is very uncommon, most of the houses are built with thick walls to keep energy costs down. When there is A/C, it’s weak. Not that weak, but almost nonexistent when compared to the overkill A/C you find in Oklahoma. You know that blast of cold air you feel when you walk into a store? You really won’t find that here. Furthermore, I’ve been pretty hard pressed to find fans. I expected there to be ceiling fans to move the air around or something but I honestly haven’t seen that many.

Circling back to the drinks though, ice isn’t popular. I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve consumed ice on this trip. Unless you’re going for an iced latte, it’s best not to count on it. On a similar point, I didn’t realize how often I drank water for free. Not only do you have to pay for water in restaurants, there aren’t water fountains. When you do order water, you have to be very clear so that you don’t get sparkling water, although to be honest, even then you still get carbonated water half the time. The soda has a very different taste as well. Fanta, which is a German brand, is actually flavored with real orange juice and is far less sweet than the cloying taste of the U.S. version. Most of the soda I’ve tried has been made with real sugar and is far less intense than the bolstered fake flavors I’m used to. I quite like it to be honest. Oh, and have I mentioned the coffee? Rather than the drip coffee you find everywhere in the U.S., lungo is very popular here. It is actually impossible to make drip coffee with the coffee machines at my host family’s house and in the student lounge at school. I really don’t know what I’m going to do without it.

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Germany is so much.

I’ve been here for a little more than a week and I feel as though I could ramble on for ages. My first impression of Stuttgart was from above as my plane made its approach in the dark. I couldn’t see much, some lights of course, but not that and very few rose up from the ground. I could have almost mistaken it for a sprawling suburb. This impression carried over into the next day as I hurried after my host family in a sleep-deprived haze while they tried to introduce me to their hometown. Honestly, it wasn’t until several days later when I was given my transit pass and had to navigate the city on my own that I began to comprehend my surroundings. Stuttgart does not have the size and grandeur of New York or Paris or London or Berlin. Nor does it have the quaint medieval architecture that sprawls in various forms through Europe. Stuttgart was severely damaged during the war and as a result, its modern buildings lining the streets reflect the city’s place in Germany and in Europe as the seat of automotive manufacturing. If you look at the Porsche logo you will see in the center a black horse on a yellow background. And just above that, lightly etched: Stuttgart. Stuttgart was built in a valley and once used to raise horses, to prevent enemies from observing the proceedings. Now, Stuttgart fittingly produces horsepower, housing the headquarters of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz flanked by plants for Audi, Bosch, and other car and car part manufacturers. The automotive industry was honestly the first thing I understood here. From the cars on the streets to the logos on jackets and the names on buildings, it was easy to understand the automotive companies provide life to southwest Germany. Rather unfortunate that the first thing I understood wasn’t the transit system or the way restaurants work, but to be fair there is so much to absorb that I scarcely knew where to begin. Which, if you’re wondering, is why I’m writing about cars and not castles. I’ll save the later for next time. ?

4.1 Miles

I watched 4.1 Miles a few weeks ago, courtesy of the College of International Studies. Although it has faded somewhat recently in favor of the French election and the decisions of President Trump, the Syrian refugee crisis still populates the headlines as the international community argues over responsibility and delegation. 4.1 Miles focuses on a Greek Coast Guard captain responsible for fishing refugees from the water when their boat collapses. Far too often, smugglers will pack boats to the bursting and travel in terrible conditions. Almost every day the Coast Guard gets called out to rescue soaked refugees from overcrowded lifeboats. The documentary was very well done, but difficult to watch. As the panel discussed after the showing, the documentary did an excellent job humanizing the refugees. When discussing where these thousands and thousands of people are going, it is important to remember that they are indeed people.

African Issues (That Aren’t Hunger)

When people think about Africa, they tend to squish the entire continent into the single stereotype of a backward, hunger-torn place full of suffering and poverty. It is important for people, especially college students, to be more in touch with reality and there I appreciate the fact that OU hosts panels and events informing people on events in Africa as well as other parts of the world. The REMAND showing I wrote about was a great example, showing the efforts of a hard-working, developing nation. Another event I attended, much earlier this semester, was a panel discussing African immigration to the United States and sanitary systems in Africa.

Many Africans try to move to the United States but the process is very difficult. The process is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. Furthermore, there are fake U.S. Embassies that issue fake green cards, some of which operate for years undetected. The second half of the discussion was incredibly informative. In certain countries in Africa, toilets are difficult to come by. As a result, private citizens have started building these large bathrooms and charging a small fee to use them. It is an interesting contrast to the free bathrooms all over the U.S. However, the fact that there is money to be made does motive individual to construct these facilities, and it is better to have them and charge than not to have them at all.