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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now that I have my summer study abroad planned and underway, I need to start thinking about my semester program. After looking over my degree requirements and talking to various advisors, I decided the best time for me to go will be next spring when I’m a sophomore. That way I will be able to recover after this summer before jumping into another country and I won’t have as much trouble finding classes to fit my requirements. This spring I’ve mainly been focusing on getting my German ducks in order, but the past few weeks I’ve been shopping for a semester program that will work for me. OU offers dozens and dozens of programs all over the world, but finding one that fits my specific needs is a little tricker than I had expected. The main difficulty I am struggling with is my need for math courses. Since I’m a math major, it would be extremely difficult to go a semester without taking any math and still stay on track for graduation. I don’t feel entirely comfortable taking math in another language, so I am limited to universities which offer math classes in English to international students. Most universities that I’ve looked at only offer certain classes to international students and technical subjects are not usually among them. Universities tend to offer the humanities and social sciences over straight STEM subjects. That being said, I do have a few promising programs bookmarked, so stay tuned to see how those turn out.
For one of my classes this semester I went down to the OU law building south of the dorms to attend a showing of REMAND, a documentary about the ongoing reform of the Ugandan legal system. Since the adoption of their new constitution, Ugandans have been trying to develop their government to be as efficient and productive as possible. In order to properly organize their legal system, the Ugandan government turned to U.S. lawyers and professors who offered to host Ugandan lawyers in the U.S. and show them first-hand how the U.S. legal system worked. After observing this system, the Ugandan lawyers were able to go back and implement parts of our system that worked for them. One idea that was suggested by U.S. students attending a legal conference in Uganda was the introduction of plea-bargaining into the Ugandan system. According to Ugandan law, after a criminal was arrested but before he was tried in court, he needed to be kept in prison. However, the court system was overwhelmed by its caseload and prisoners could wait six or seven years in prison for their trial. Even children who were accused of a charge could be imprisoned for years in terrible conditions. The backlog in the courts resulted in an overcrowded prison system. The documentary showed over three thousand men being kept in a facility designed for six hundred. I found it very interesting that in this specific case, U.S. lawyers were able to help implement certain aspects of the U.S. legal system, such as plea-bargaining, without coercing Uganda to imitate us entirely. I find too often that humanitarian efforts attempt to make others just like us, even if that’s not what’s best for them.
Two weeks ago I was able to attend the OU Cousins’ BBQ, the group’s big annual celebration. OU Cousins focuses on helping students feel at home here in Oklahoma and to cap off the year they host a stereotypical American get-together, a BBQ. Buses full of students shuttled U.S. and international students alike to a ranch some 15 or so minutes from Norman. There they were greeted by cowboy hats and red and blue bandanas to help everyone get in the spirit. After filling out name tags with names and countries, students got in line for traditional BBQ fare: brisket, fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, and brownies. Long tables were set up on the dirt floor of the barn and a live band played covers of well-known country songs in the corner. After dinner, students were called out onto the floor to participate in country dancing. I must admit, even being from the States, the whole experience was a little overwhelming. BBQ food and country music, and ranches are a part of my life and not remarkable on their own. However, this BBQ brought everything together into one, over-the-top event. It was fun and I understand why OU Cousins chooses to host this particular event, but I do wonder how it was perceived by the international students. Many of them seemed to enjoy it but others remained at the tables, looking as though they felt terribly out of place. It was amusing to realize that this gathering, with cowboy hats and country music and fried chicken, was a legitimate stereotype that other countries had about some Americans. It makes me wonder what stereotypes I’ve heard about other countries that are as incredibly niche and exaggerated as the ones at the BBQ.
It’s been a while but I have some exciting updates! After months of forms, waiting, more forms, tons of web research, and three thousand signatures, I’ll be spending this summer in Stuttgart, Germany! I may have exaggerated the process a little bit, it’s just hard to be patient when you’re excited. Anyway, Stuttgart is in southern Germany and I will be heading out in only a little over a week, which is crazy to think about.
In Stuttgart, I will be taking intensive German classes to build on my two semesters here at OU, as well as a course on international business. The international business class looks particularly interesting since it includes expeditions. Stuttgart is known as the home of the automobile and houses the headquarters of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. To my understanding, my business class will analyze the operations of these companies and take field trips to their headquarters. Classes are every day but we get out early on Fridays which means it will be easy to explore Stuttgart and the surrounding areas. I am going as an exchange student through the University of Stuttgart and they are placing me with a host family for the duration of my stay. I’ve emailed them a little bit to arrange a few details, but I’m excited to get to know them this summer. I will be the fifth exchange student they’ve hosted but the first from the United States.
A major reason that I came to OU was the availability and accessibility of study abroad programs, but now that it’s coming up, I can’t help but be a little nervous. I’ve never left the States before and spending weeks by myself in a different country is a little daunting. Fortunately, I will have my host family and the University of Stuttgart to help me adapt and I can’t wait to overcome my trepidations and enjoy the first of many adventures to come!
There are international boarding schools which offer International Baccalaureate Diploma programs, primarily taught in English, located all around the world, under the banner of United World Colleges (UWC). Well known individuals such as Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela have served as the organization’s president. The system has over a dozen schools and over 50,000 alumni from more than 181 countries. And still, I had never heard of United World Colleges before I came to OU.
Once I arrived here I began making friends, and it turns out a lot of those friends were UWC students. Some were in my government class, some were in my calculus class, some were friends with the girl I met during the midnight Target event at the beginning of the year. On Thursdays, I would eat lunch with students from different countries including Egypt, Ukraine, India, and Paraguay, who were united by their common experience in UWC schools. Their perspectives in conversation have taught me a great deal about how different international viewpoints are from those of many US citizens. I could discuss our conversations at length but in this post, I would rather focus on one small curiosity I learned from international students.
Walking back to the dorms, I was discussing an upcoming test with one of my classmates, a UWC student from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He mentioned that he was “going to revise” for the exam. I was confused. He elaborated and I realized that he used “revise” in the way I would use “review”. I “review” the material for the exam, while he “revises” his knowledge of it. It was a strange turn of phrase for me, I had never heard such a statement before. I shrugged my shoulders and moved on, forgetting about it until a few weeks later when my German teacher used the same phrase when encouraging us to study for an upcoming quiz. My German teacher this semester is a Fulbright from Austria, a native German speaker fluent in English. I asked her about it after class, but she also claimed a similar meaning. I am still amazed that two different people, with different native language, ten years apart in age, would use both use an English word in a way I had never heard it used. Granted, I cannot claim to have heard every turn of phrase in the English language, but as a native speaker and an avid reader, I am quite surprised. Perhaps it is due to the region where I was raised, or perhaps it is a strange quirk that comes from learning English. I am very interested in finding out.