Final Thoughts for my Semester in Germany

My semester in Germany is coming to a close soon. In many ways, this study abroad experience has been similar to the time I spent in Taiwan. Yet, not surprisingly, I was able to learn many things about Germany and myself that I wouldn’t have been able to learn in Taiwan, let alone back in the States at OU. I think that one major difference is that I had the opportunity to travel quite a bit while in Europe. When I was in Taiwan, I didn’t do much traveling in general. It might be because I’ve already traveled there many times, so there isn’t as much of a novelty to exploring the island. However, if you’ve been reading my blogs you know that I did have a really fun time on one trip where I had the opportunity to visit many Taiwanese elementary and middle school students, including those that I taught, in the southern city of Chiayi.

Aside from traveling, the way the academic systems are structured is the next difference that I can think of off the top of my head. I’ve gone into quite a bit more details in other posts, but essentially the systems in Taiwan and Germany require you to be significantly more self-motivated in order to succeed (at least from an engineering student’s perspective). However, I believe that Germany’s undergraduate academic experience is even more pronounced in this regard. No homework is assigned, no homework is due. Each final is worth 100% of your grade, and that’s it. No midterms, no attendance (in engineering courses).

I think that experiencing the challenges in these systems has given me a new reason to work harder when I get back to OU. I will now appreciate all of the work that professors put into structuring their classes as well as other things that I take for granted more often that not. In fact, there are many things that professors in the US do that they don’t really have to, like actually have multiple midterms in each class which is plenty of work. Any professor could just decide that they would only have a final, and that would be the culmination of an entire semester’s work, just like the way they do it here in Germany. Of course, I’m fairly certain there would be an uproar among students to a certain degree if any professor did decide to do this.

The point I think that I’m trying to get at is actually quite simple. I expected to go into study abroad and have an amazing time traveling and getting to meet new people. Academically, I was prepared to be challenged by learning the same rigorous engineering coursework in different languages. What I really had no clue about at the beginning of this academic year abroad was that the path to getting these different experiences out of study abroad turned out to be, not surprisingly, completely different from what I expected. It’s almost like I had a goal right in front of me, and in order to actually get there I had to do a complete 180 and take what turned out to be a treacherous path to get to something that I thought would require little to no effort.

These blogs will continue after I get back to OU, although I won’t be studying abroad anymore at that point. I hope to continue to post about my experiences throughout the rest of my academic career (and maybe even beyond that). Although this whole blog thing is actually an assignment that I am required to complete as part of the Global Engagement Fellowship, I am infinitely grateful that it has motivated me to recorded my experiences while abroad, something that I am fairly sure I would not have done otherwise.

My Europe Travel Summary

I’ve decided that this blog post will be essentially a summary of the travelling I’ve done across Europe during my time in Germany. A few months ago I went into detail on my first few trips, including before my semester started in Belgium, Luxembourg, and quite a few cities in Nordrhein-Westfalen (the “Bundesland” or state of Germany in which I’ve been living). While the semester was mostly occupied by lectures and other activities, we did have a week between my orientation course and the official begin of the semester. In early June, there was also a complete week that we had off for a religious holiday. Of course, after my lectures and German class finals, I have around two weeks “free” before I head back to the States. I put quotations around the word free since, as I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been busy preparing for my engineering finals.

Let’s start off with the places I’ve visited in Germany. I’ve been to most of the major cities in Nordrhein-Westfalen, including Düsseldorf and Köln (Cologne in English). Aachen is in the west of the state and lies near the border with the Netherlands. South of Köln is Bonn, which used to be the capital of West Germany and is famous for the Haribo brand of gummy bears. In the north is the Münsterland and its capital Münster. I was able to see the start of the Tour de France in Düsseldorf. Köln is where all of parties usually are (although you can party almost everywhere in Germany), as well as where I was able to see an amazing display of fireworks.

My first major trip outside of Germany was Italy. There I had the opportunity to visit most of the famous central and southern Italian cities. The next weekend I visited a friend of mine who studies in Zürich. After spending a day in the financial capital of Europe, I was able to spend some time at the lake near his parent’s house in the western part of Switzerland. My next stop was Geneva, which is in the southwestern point of Switzerland and probably my favorite city in Europe.

My other major trips were to famous cities in the countries Österreich (Austria), France and Denmark. For the trip to Österreich, I traveled with the same company that I traveled with to Italy. We visited Hallstatt, and town with a stunning view of the lake surrounded by mountains next to it. Salzburg is a city not far away from the border with Germany, and we had the opportunity to see Mozart’s birth house from the outside.

On my day trip to Paris in France we started by visiting the Eiffel Tower. Yes, I know a lot of people will complain about me only taking one day in Paris. And yes, I will visit the city again in the future if I get the chance again. Our next world-famous stop was the Louvre. A collection of some unique roman sculptures was followed by an amazing display of countless paintings, large and small, famous and yet-to-be-discovered. Of course, we had to see the Mona Lisa, although you couldn’t really get a good view of her since she is constantly surround by a dense semi-circle of desperate tourists trying to get the proverbial selfie with her.

My last major trip before the end of my lectures was to Copenhagen in Denmark. As a college student on a budget, my first observation was that everything in Scandinavia is significantly more expensive than in Germany. Of course, it being a tourist didn’t help much either. We took a boat tour, saw the famous Little Mermaid statue, and had some fun walking around Tivoli, one of the oldest amusement parks in the world.

This post obviously wasn’t able to touch on every single place I visited this semester, but it should suffice as a decent overview of my travel-packed weekends. My last blog of the semester will be up in a few days!

Academics in Germany

While I am enjoying my time at my host family’s home, my days are still busy as I have my finals coming up. After an entire semester of lectures, discussion sessions, and office hour visits, all my knowledge has to be displayed on one test for each of my engineering classes. While it is to be frank quite stressful, I know that I only need to pass them. My strategy now is to work through all the old finals that are available, and asking my TA’s when anything comes up that I don’t fully understand. At this point, all I can do is review the lecture slides and complete as many practice problems as possible.

It’s actually been also quite a bit of work trying to figure out when I am actually going to take my finals. The regular dates for my engineering exams finals are all at the end of August, and I obviously stay until then since my Fall semester will already have begun back at OU. At first my plan was to take them both at the end of July, but this wouldn’t give me much time to prepare for them. The next option was to take them both on the same dates but then have an OU professor proctor them when I am back in the States. This is how I am still planning to take one of my finals.

The other will is actually coming up next Monday, the day before I leave Germany. The professor told me he would rather have me take the final while I am still in Germany. My Best guess is that his reasoning is to prevent the test from accidentally being released to other students. Right now I am in full gear for this upcoming final, and the TA has even been nice enough to offer me separate one-on-one office hours since I am take the final a bit earlier. This is really useful since the classes are large and there are only two TA’s at the regular office hours who are always overwhelmed by stressed out students and their questions.

I am infinitely grateful for all of the people at the Ruhr University here in Bochum that have supported my through this challenging semester. One thing I think I learn more and more as I get older is that working with others makes tougher tasks easier in most cases. A mistake I made in Taiwan was that I didn’t make as much of an effort to seek out help from TA’s and professors. All of this knowledge I have gathered from my year studying abroad in two different countries will help me immensely as I prepare for my transition back to OU.

I am aware that the transition back to an American university will not be easy by any means, but I think that after an entire year abroad, there is a significant part of me that is excited to finally be back at OU soon and to be able to learn all of the new concepts in English (not a foreign language). I’m also aware of what is knows as reverse culture shock, and I am preparing for this as well as other challenges that await me when I get home.

The next blog will be up soon!

First Week with Host Family

I have now stayed with my host family for a week. I think these two weeks were a really good decision for me, especially since I was looking for full immersion in the German language this semester. My family has shown me a few places around where they live, and it has become more apparent the longer I live in Germany that they love nature. During the week everyone was busy, so we only had time to watch a few things on their TV or play a card game. They showed me the famous “Dinner for One” sketch that they all watch on New Year’s Eve.  It is quite entertaining, but I’m still not sure why it became so popular to the point that they watch it every year.

 

On the weekend, we finally had quite a bit more time to explore the local area. Since the region traditionally used to revolved around mining, they had to deposit the leftovers from the mining process somewhere. What they ended up with a what is a called a “Halde” in German. The top has been covered and plants grow freely all over these hills. There are paths all across each hill, and we took an hour or two to enjoy the fresh air and amazing view from the top of the hill.

 

We also visited a special event called the “Cranger Kirmes” in the nearby city of Herne. I didn’t know this before they told me, but apparently this “Kirmes” or festival is the second largest of its kind in all of Germany, right behind the famous “Oktoberfest” in Munich. The place was packed with people, and I headed directly for what I later found out is the largest portable roller coaster in the world! After that we people watched for a while and went for a few drinks at different stands. We also had the chance to see some amazing fireworks before heading back home after a long day.

 

Yesterday, my host mom and I biked around the city of Recklinghausen (where they live) and enjoyed the nice weather. My host dad is currently traveling for work and will be spending three days in Berlin. He’s a trainer for a call center at his company. Because he is a trainer and not actually one of the callers, his schedule is a little more flexible. For example, he still has to let his boss his schedule for the week, but he is free to show up at work anytime between 8 and 10 am each morning.

 

Speaking of schedules, Germans love them. While it may not be true for all German families, my family seems to have their schedules, even on a normal day, figured out quite well in advance. They always would prefer to know if I will be back for dinner each day, and if so what time exactly. While it is a little more work to have to coordinate everything the night before, it does mean that they don’t have to wait on anyone too long since they then know approximately when they are meeting other people.

 

That’s it for this blog. The next one will be up soon!

Moving in with my host family!

This week I moved to stay with my host family for the rest of my time in Germany. After spending more than four months in my student dorm near my university, I am excited to be able to get a better feel for regular life in Germany. While staying in the student dorm is convenient, many of the students there only speak English (or another language) and are often busy with classes and exams. Now that I will be staying with a German family for the next two weeks, I already feel more at home!

The family I am staying with lives around one-hour north of Bochum. I’m still going to campus everyday since I am in the process of preparing for finals which take place a few weeks after lectures are finished. Even though the commute is significantly longer, I have the opportunity most mornings to have breakfast with the family. When possible, I will travel with the father and he will drop me off at one of the subway stations nearby his workplace.

I’ve only been with this family for a few days now, and I can already say that unsurprisingly some stereotypes relating to Germans are true and some are outright wrong. For example, Germans are known to be straight to the point when they talk, almost to the point of appearing rude in certain cases. This is certainly true with this family, as evidenced by our attempt yesterday to decide what we should do after dinner. They were decisive enough to quickly decide on a card game.

Another common stereotype is that Germans are not friendly or are downright cold. While this may be true for strangers, I have found that once I get to know anyone here on a slightly more personal level (which entails having spoken to them more than a few sentences) they are willing to answer everything to their best knowledge. In fact, I have found that they are very thorough in answering any questions I have for them. For example, I asked the father of the family yesterday about his video game collection and what he thought about his games, and he said something about every single game on his shelf! I feel like most Americans would simply make general comments or only comment on a few games.

Even though I have been busy the last few days wrapping up a few things and moving from my student dorm to my host family, I am immensely grateful for the change of environment. I think it has allowed me to clear my mind in order to prepare for my upcoming finals here in Germany. More importantly, I am excited to finally be fully immersed with the language around me now that I also can always speak German at home!

My Semester in Germany So Far

Here’s a quick update on how academics are going for me right now!

My schedule this semester is essentially four main classes. The first two are engineering classes: Grundlagen der Strömungsmechanik (Fundamentals of Fluid Mechanics) and Grundlagen der Regelungstechnik (Fundamentals of Control Theory). The other two are German languages courses: Fachsprache Technik (Language for Technology) and Allgemeiner Sprachkurs C1 (General Language Course).

The two engineering classes are more challenging than the German classes, especially since a lot of self motivation is expected of engineering students in Germany. While in the US we have several midterms and homework weekly or biweekly that all count towards the final grade in a class, here your entire grade is only based on the Klausur (final). That’s right: 100% of your grade in one sitting. If you’re sick that day, that’s just really bad luck. I’m sure however that they do make exceptions based on other things that might be out of your control.

Aside from the terrifying aspect of grading, the classes themselves are interesting and well organized. For examples, every engineering class has at least one lecture and one practice session per week. While the lectures serve as background knowledge to understand the logic behind solving new problems, the practice sessions are where we learn to implement assumptions into solving more complicated scenarios. In the US it is really up to the professor what the ratio of theory and problem solving is during lectures.

Another important distinction between engineering classes in the US and Germany is that here the class sizes are very large. At least at OU, upper level engineering courses usually never exceed 75 students in each section. In fact, there aren’t really sections for engineering courses, and each semester one professor teaches all the students who wish to take a certain course. While it does seem more efficient to have less faculty responsible for lectures at any given time, the drawback is that it is quite hard to ask the TA or professor questions during lectures. However, in general the professors here are very organized and do a great job of presenting the material to such a large crowd of students.

Now on to my German language courses: these are structured much differently than the engineering students since they are offered to international students. One similarity is that the Klausur counts for almost all of your grade at the end. On the other hand, the classes are much smaller and the professor expects the lectures to be more of a discussion. In fact, one of my German professors told us that she didn’t think we should call them lectures, since lectures are essentially a one-way dialogue. While the language courses require far less effort in terms of in-class learning and homework, they are still invaluable in allowing me to improve my written and spoken German.

The semester is flying by and I’m making new friendships all the time while learning about the German culture. Before I know it, I’ll be back at the regular grind for the Fall 2017 semester at OU!

Trip to Italy

Last week I went on a trip to Italy with a student travel company called ‘Studifahrten’. Here is a summary of what I did and got to see.

The trip overall was great, but let me just get the only downside of this trip out of the way: the long bus rides to and from Italy. We traveled all the way from Dortmund (next to Bochum) to Mannheim and then to Stuttgart. After picking up all of the other students we were finally on our way to Italy.

Our first stop was La Spezia/Cinque Terre. We got off the bus at La Spezia and took the train to the five beautiful towns of Cinque Terre (cinque = five) since no cars/buses are allowed there. All I can say is that the cities next to the sea looked amazing in the pictures before we started the trip and were even more so when we were actually there. Although the towns themselves weren’t that large, almost every corner had a unique view of the buildings on the hillsides or the sea to offer. While the first four towns were quite similar, the last one (Monterosso) was basically a beach resort for what seemed to be mostly Americans. To illustrate my point, one of the local bars was playing country music! From the last point we took the train back to La Spezia and quickly hopped back on the bus.

I was quite late by the time we got to our hostel outside of Rome. Everybody was extremely exhausted and we quickly settled into our rooms. After a great night of sleep we woke up early to take as much advantage of the day as possible to see famous capital of Italy. Upon arriving in Rome, we first took a quick bus tour to get a feeling for the layout of the city as well as learn some basic historical facts. The bus dropped us off in front off the Colosseum and upon entering I was not disappointed by the sheer size of the former fighting arena. The well-known monument is very well preserved, and I was not expecting a large maze in the center. I had always pictured a flat surface on which the gladiators would fight each other.

We visited many more interesting building throughout the day, but possibly the most interesting part of Rome and our last stop was the Vatican City. It is quite unique in that it is officially the smallest country in the world, but based on the massive flow of tourists in and out it is essentially integrated into the capital. After waiting in line for about an hour to visit St. Peters Basilica we were able to marvel at the most astounding display of grace and reverence I have even seen in one building. One of my favorite parts was seeing the Swiss Guards in their fancy outfits standing guard at various point in the Vatican. Unfortunately we were too late and weren’t able to see the Sistine Chapel and many other points for that matter in Rome, but we were able to get a good overview of the city and see the most important attractions by the end of a long day.

After another well-deserved sleep at the hostel, we headed for Pompeii and Naples in Southern Italy. I had actually visited Pompeii before when I was little (around five or six), but it was nevertheless a treat to be able to learn about the ancient city again now that I could actually understand and remember everything the tour guide said. The funniest part of the tour was me remembering the Roman roads as wider. Now that I’m an adult, the paths throughout the city didn’t seem to be large anymore. Of course, I love pizza and decided to have it right after our tour of Pompeii and also in Naples, the second stop of the day. The bus first stopped right next to the sea where we were able to take some photos of the Mediterranean and Mt. Vesuvius behind us. Afterwards we took a quick tour to learn about the city and then relaxed for the rest of the day.

Yet another night passes at the hostel, and before we know it we start the long trip back to Germany. However, we still had one more stop in Italy. The city of Siena is unique in that the current buildings and their architecture still resemble those of a medieval city. In the center there is a large square (Piazza del Campo) which holds an annual horse racing competition between members of the city. The Siena Cathedral is the major attraction and has influences from Middle Eastern architecture. The city was a nice bonus to the trip, and before we knew it the journey back to Germany had begun.

Overall, the trip was well worth the price tag (not only money, but exhaustion from long bus rides) attached to it. Although it lasted a bit longer that I would have liked it to, I now have amazing memories and new friendships. Europe still continues to amaze me not only with its diversity, but with the convenience factor of being able to visit so many places in a manner of days. After a fun trip I am ready to tackle regular studying and lectures back in Bochum!

Belgium/Luxembourg Trip & Orientation Course

I can’t believe it’s already the last day of April! Things have gone by so quickly, and so much has happened. Here’s a quick overview of what has been going on since my last post.

After spending a month in Ghana, my sister and I went on a short trip in Europe as a vacation of sorts before my semester in Germany. Our first destination was the beautiful city of Brussels in Belgium. It was there that I learned about the two different languages that are spoken in the country. Dutch is spoken in the north, while French is spoken in the south. The area around the capital is officially bilingual, but I found that French was the more common language. After a few days in the capital, we headed to Ghent in the north. The highlight of this leg of the trip was riding bikes throughout the city. The freedom of biking while passing impressive historical monuments like the Gravensteen at almost every corner is something I will never forget.

The next stop after spending almost a week in Belgium was Luxembourg. We didn’t have a lot of time so we decided to visit the capital, Luxembourg City. The area surrounding the hostel we stayed at was breathtaking, and our breath was literally taken away each time we hiked up and down the steep sidewalks scattered throughout the city. The distinct image ingrained in my mind is an old fortress wall in front of us and a towering bridge stretching across the other side of the valley. Below there is a skateboard park that serves as a stark contrast to the antique buildings and roads nearby in the city center.

The next leg of the trip was from Luxembourg City to Aachen, Germany. To reach Aachen, we had to first travel through Belgium once again, and then take another train from Liège to reach our final destination. Aachen sits near the border tripoint of German, Belgium, and the Netherlands. I really enjoyed the fact that a 20-minute bus ride from the city center could take us to the border with the Netherlands. The city itself was really beautiful, and it was a relief to finally only hear one language (German!). Up to this point, we had always been in an area where multiple languages are spoken*.

The small trip from Aachen to Bochum lasted a few hours. I was extremely excited to finally get to know the city I had done so much research on before. After arriving in Bochum and resting for a few days, I began my official orientation course at the Ruhr University of Bochum. Over the next three weeks I had the opportunity to participate in a German language course as well as many other excursions throughout the surrounding Ruhr region during the evenings and weekends. My personal favorite was probably the Zeche (coal mine) Zollverein in the nearby city of Essen. As a Mechanical Engineering student, the machines that we learned about were fascinating to me. I had never thought so much about all that goes on inside a coal mine!

This blog post is getting pretty long, so I’ll talk about my trips to other European countries and the first few weeks of classes in a separate post. Be prepared to hear back from me in the next week or two!

* In Ghent (Flanders) there is technically only one official language, but Dutch speakers are very fluent in English so you’ll hear both from natives.

My Time in Ghana

“Akwaaba!” It’s one of the first things you hear when you get off the airplane and enter the Kotoka Airport Terminal. I’ll go ahead and argue that Ghanaians are some of the nicest people in the world. Everytime you pass someone on the street, they ask you how your day is and expect an answer because they really do care! I’ve met many people from different backgrounds, from entrepeneurs to tro-tro drivers. Tro-tros are the cheapest and most common form of public transportation. They sometime get somewhat crowded, but taking one across town only costs around 2 cedis (50 cents)!

I came to Ghana in West Africa because my sister runs a science education business called Practical Education Network (PEN). The mission is to equip local science teachers with the tools they need to succeed in a resource-limited environment. She told me about an opportunity to help her with workshops as well developing a new manual for a hands-on approach to learn science. Because my fall and spring study abroad semesters have a gap in between them, I essentially have the whole month of February as my break. I decided that this would be a great time to visit Africa and see what it is like to impact people through education. It was an especially convenient option since I could work and visit Ghana before heading to Germany.

The main trip I took with my sister was to the city of Kumasi in the Ashanti region. It is about a four-hour drive to the north of Accra, the capital of Ghana. The Ashanti region is especially interesting because it is essentially a kingdom inside of a country. There is a king who has real political power and acts as a head of state. I got to learn about this and much more at the Manhyia Palace Museum. Aside from learning about the history of the Ashanti Empire, we also visited the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). It is considered the top university of students interested in the STEM field. My sister and I visited a student there and learned about life in college in Ghana. It was really cool to get a unique view of education in yet another country! After three exciting and tiring days, we finally made our way back to Accra to continue our work.

Perhaps two of the best parts of Ghana (at least to me) are the food and languages. Let’s start with the food first. I love it! Love, love, love it! My favorite is kenkey with shitor. Kenkey is basically ground corn, yet it tastes amazing just by adding the shitor spices! A runner-up for me would be jollof rice which is also quite basic. It is rice with some other interesting and flavory spices mixed in to give it a reddish look. As for the languages, there are many of them! The most common one in Ghana is Twi. If I recall correctly, this is because it is the language used in the Ashanti Empire which was historically a larger area than the current region. In Accra and the coastal region, they speak Ga. In fact many people in the capital are trilingual since they speak two Ghanaian languages alongside English. The third most common language is Ewe, and it is spoken in the Volta region to the east as well as in Togo and Benin. I did my best to learn some Twi, and after a month I think I have made decent progress. I can do basic greetings, but more importantly I know how to say I like Ghanaian food!

This month has gone by really quickly! I’ve experienced an entire new culture while contributing to the local education system. It’s exciting to see so much progress happening in Ghana, and I can’t wait to see how much of an impact PEN and other startups will have many years down the road. As for myself, my next adventure awaits across the Mediterranean. I will be taking a trip through Belgium and Luxembourg before ending up in Germany for my next study abroad semester.

More stories to come!

 

Reflections on this semester

The semester is over, and with it I have safely tucked away all of the memories it has given me. It has been a time of ups and downs as with many other things in life. As I predicted at the beginning of the semester, I am a different person with a new perspective on the world.

Without a doubt the best part of the first leg of my study abroad year was the combination of many small events. These include the many times I was engaging with not only Taiwanese students, but others from all around the world. I went on many trips and joined a few groups, so I can confidently say that I got the most out of this semester. Focusing on studies as well as the entire international experience was challenging, but I welcomed it openly and used it to my advantage to gain a more solid foundation in achieving my goals.

Speaking of academics, classes were probably the hardest part of this journey. I took on a full load of engineering coursework. Although I am fluent in Chinese, I found knowing a language and being able to apply it are two almost entirely different things. Take the example of going to office hours. This is something I took advantage of while at OU, but having to explain your question about an equation in your second language really pushes language learning. However, this challenge has let me achieve a level of fluency that I could find through few other opportunities.

Looking forward and in reverse, I find that the next semester is approaching quickly and that thanks to my time in Taiwan I am all the more prepared to tackle new adventures on my bucket list. I’m sure I will learn countless new things on later trips, but this first one might provide the foundation I need to achieve a unique experience. My study abroad year might be almost halfway over already, but I feel like it has just started!