Month: August 2014

Mission – Prepare for Study Abroad

Before I get started, I just wanted to remind readers that I also have two other blogs that may be interesting: my reading log (perhaps not as interesting) and my running blog (more interesting and most often updated). 

As for this blog, I figured I needed to devote some time to actually talking about the study-abroad process and what it entails. This post is meant as an informal guide for college-level students trying to study abroad in another country while still enrolled at their home institution in the U.S. It’s also meant to be informative/entertaining for other readers, but will perhaps be most relevant for those I specified. Just a heads-up! 

The hardest part of studying abroad, if one’s life is often financially determined like mine is, is actually getting accepted to a study-abroad program. Such programs, like the government funded German Academic Exchange program or the Critical Language Scholarship, or the privately funded Federation of German-American Clubs exchange program are competitive and require a lengthy application process. if one has dual-citizenship, life is so much easier because one can just apply to the university like one would to a U.S. school. The biggest issue in such a situation would be that one is pretty much on one’s own. A program, once accepted to, infinitely simplifies matters. 

For those who were happy when the undergrad acceptance letters finally came in, completing a study-abroad application process can be harrowing. However, despite the time and effort it takes to apply, if one wants to make it to another country for a semester or a year, I don’t need to point out that it’s worth it. 

Yet, even when one is accepted for a program, there’s a lot that needs to be done (though still less than if one studied abroad independently). This post-acceptance work is what the rest of this post is about. I’m going to hypothetically assume that you, the reader, are said accepted person for grammar purposes  and to make my life easier (don’t you love grammar?).

Getting in contact 

The first point of motion is responding to the acceptance letter and beginning communications with the key person who will be responsible for you while abroad. This could be the study-abroad coordinator at the university you will be studying, a local member of the program who is geographically close to your position of placement, or a regional coordinator who gives you all the basic instructions and then later passes you on to the university coordinator or local member. This person may be the one who ends up picking you up from the airport when you arrive in your new location or who helps arrange the practical aspects of your stay, such as where you’ll live, insurance, local transportation passes…

Not many cities use waterways as transportation… Hamburg is one of them.

Insurance

which brings me to my next point. Before you leave for your destination, you need to have several things already set-up, especially because many things need to be coordinated through your home-institution. These points of preparation can be divided between academics and personal life. On the personal life side, things like insurance need to be arranged. I don’t know how it is in other countries. However, in Germany, all students are required to register and pay for basic insurance benefits. No matter how U.S. Americans feel about state-funded insurance, I am grateful that this is an enforced requirement.The last thing I’d want while studying abroad is to break an arm while playing soccer and find that a flight home on basic aspirin is less expensive and painful than emergency medical treatment. Sometimes, a student’s personal insurance in the States may count in Germany, but not always. Sometimes the university where you will study provides an insurance plan; this is also not always the case. Most usually, the program you’ve applied through will provide you with an insurance coverage plan. This plan needs to be recognized abroad and accepted as a suitable replacement for, in the case the the university you’re going to does offer insurance, any other insurance you may be offered. 

Mentor

That’s all I want to say for now about personal business, since that’s the main thing I have to cover while still here that’s not related to academics. Another good way to prepare for the experience is to find yourself a mentor, someone who has done the program or visited the same city/location as you as a study-abroad student and already knows some of the most important things. It really helps to already get an idea of what you should be prepared for such as the exhaustion of total language immersion the first few days, the new eating or dressing habits you may need to develop, the differences in student life. For me, the most important question was: what were some of the things you wish someone had told you/prepared you for when you went over?

Meeting with this person and being able to talk with him/her over phone/skype may be best.

Academics

The other hard part about preparing for study-abroad is making sure that everything is set-up for when you come back. I don’t necessarily mean having the bed made, everything dusted, and your friends arranging a welcome-home party (which of course is very nice), but having everything you do academically while abroad be recognized on your transcript and at your home institution. After all, while people talk about the experience of intense language and cultural exchange, meeting new people and seeing new things, you probably still want to finish your degree and take care of some academic requirements while gone. 

Again, if you go abroad through a program, this is easier than if you try to do it independently. Whether it is financially more friendly depends on the program. 

In some cases, you study-abroad while remaining enrolled at your home-institution. That is, while abroad, you pay tuition and fees to the home institution and get transient credits, or, in more other words, the credits you take abroad are counted as credits at your university. On the transcript, it may even say you took these credits at said home-institution, but that the study was off-campus. This situation is usually the case if the program is intra-scholastic and you participate in the study-abroad program as to fulfill the requirements of your degree. It’s helpful if you have financial aid at your home-institution that you can use, but is a little frustrating when the tuition and fees are more than you would pay abroad. 

The alternative to transient credits are transfer credits. This is an ideal situation if it means that you don’t have to pay tuition to your home institution and only pay the relatively minor student fees at your study-abroad institution. This means that the credits you earn are that institutions granted credits and you are considered enrolled at that school, receiving a transcript from that school. The main difficulty with this method of earning credit is that credits are not internationally recognized and degrees vary from country to country. In Europe, credits are based on contact hours and hours expected to meet with students outside of class, write term papers, and participate in local conferences. In the U.S. credits are purely based on contact hours. Furthermore, a class that seems suitable for your degree may not be recognized by the registrar’s office or the faculty as fulfilling certain requirements. This uncertainty makes transferring credits a little risky and i best if you are at the point in your degree where losing one year of studies is okay, or you have freedom of courses to take. 

Signing up for classes

Once you decide what kinds of credits you’re working for, it helps to also know what you’re studying for those credits. This is something that you may decide while still at home, based on whether or not your program starts before or after your home-institution semester begins. In Europe, most universities start mid-Fall. That’s weeks after most universities start in the U.S. The drop/add period is passed, the fees have all been due, and some students are already taking mid-term exams when the doors of the European university opens. So, it’s important to have a plan for how you register for classes, even if you can’t even sign-up for them yet. 

Here, having good communication with the study-abroad coordinator of your program at your home institution and the academic counselor helps. I found myself meeting with both several times in the week leading up to the registration deadline, and basically was signed up for four filler classes that satisfied being registered full-time. Then, I was able to pay tuition and fees, pay for a parking permit that I won’t even use, and look forward to seeing those credits on my transcript. Once I know what I’m actually taking while abroad (something that I’ll be advised upon during orientation at the university abroad), I can list the actual course names for the registrar to update. 

So, after that long post, you’ve basically seen what I’ve been up to lately. Now, all I have to really do to prepare is pack my suitcases. I’ve been told that I should be prepared for wet and cold weather. Oh boy.  Hopefully I have enough room. 

runner suitcase

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A German says goodbye to his adopted homeland

Today, I want you to read this article (if you can; if not, send me a message and if enough people request it, I’ll translate): 

Die USA machen es ihren Freunden so schwer by Die Welt correspondent Uwe Schmidt.

It says some things that I have felt, but couldn’t express better myself. Mostly, it is a bitter-sweet recognition of some of the best and worst traits of the US, but somehow, the negatives outweigh the positive. In general, the country’s strong standing in the world, morally, politically, and militarily is weakened by a congress who no longer reflects the opinions of its people, a republican party that has strayed further and further right, an economy that lets its stars shine and everyone else fall, a president who isn’t even recognized by a large percentage of the population… the list goes on. While I agree with a lot of what Schmidt writes, I am envious of his ability to move back to Germany and move on with his life.What about those of us who chose to stay?

Some choice quotes:

Jedes Land hat die Vorurteile, die es verdient. Man muss ihnen nicht folgen. Every country has the prejudices it deserves, but one doesn’t have to believe in them. 

Wer Amerika durchquert, versteht, warum sich das Land und seine Menschen selbst genug sind. Es ist eine gigantische Insel, wir anderen sind das Meer. Those who cross America understand why the country and its people only need themselves. It is a giant island, and we others are the sea.

Nach 50 Jahren Raubbau an der Infrastruktur, Jahrzehnte, in denen mindestens die Republikaner Steuererhöhungen prinzipiell bekämpften wie eine tödliche Seuche, beginnt die dritte Welt, die erste zu fressen. After 50 years of over-exploitation of infrastructure, decades in which the Republicans, among others, principly fight tax raises like a deadly plague, the third world begins to devour the first one. 

Das Problem ist nicht, gegen Amerika zu sein. Das Problem ist, dass es Amerika seinen Freunden so viel schwerer macht, es gegen seine Ignoranten und Verächter zu verteidigen

The problem is not whether or not to take sides with the Americans. The problem is that the U.S. makes it so much more difficult for its friends to defend the country against those ignorant and condemning. 

Transitions

Transitions occur in math, science, politics, etc. But they are things people go through internally as well. They can take up to an hour, day, week, month, or year. Rarely are transitional periods longer than a year, but that is difficult to determine because the start and end point of transitioning are so ambivalent. Right now, I am going through the second or third transition since finishing up my BA, and it’s a less comfortable situation than it may sound. Since finishing my first year of Masters studies and submitting the grades for the students I taught as a TA, I had a few weeks of side jobs and projects before going to Europe, a trip that was more hanging out and helping out than a real cultural exploration or a real vacation. I made a few observations there that I will update in a bit, but right now I want to talk about the transition I have right now from being a student in the US to being a study-abroad student in Germany. 

It’s a few weeks since I got back from Europe, and a few weeks (well, perhaps more like a month and a few weeks) until I go again. However, when I go again, I go for living and studying, and not just vacationing. Because of that, the preparation takes longer than just a few days before the trip. When I left for Europe back in May, I packed the suitcase the night before with some shopping for socks and small things during the week before. I packed with the awareness that I would return to a place that had all my things and that I could buy anything while over there to satisfy the little things I wanted to make vacationing more paradise-y. Now, I need to prepare for a trip where I need to be ready to complete the second part of my Masters studies, go through my comprehensive exams, and write and defend my thesis. I also want to join a soccer league and find some fellow runners to make my way into the Hamburg Marathon (if I’m lucky). On top of that, I need to fulfill my responsibilities to the VDAC that brings me to Hamburg and financially and socially supports me. The first weekend, I am already expected to attend the first VDAC convention of the year in another city on the Elbe–Dresden. These things are all material and supply heavy and mean that I need to be well-prepared. Of course, I can buy things in Hamburg, just as well as I can buy here, but my financial situation will be a bit shaky at the beginning and I need to save my money. 

So while waiting for that situation, I stabilized my situation here. I still live at home with my family, and I still occupy the same room I’ve had since I was 6. There was a lot of stuff swimming around in boxes under my bed, in my closet, and in the shelves, that I collected over the years. A lot of things survived a pretty big clearing out last year when we started transitioning my room into a guestroom and study. With this study-abroad, I am spending the longest gap away from home than I’ve ever spent in my life. I think the longest I was away from my family were the first three weeks of college. Now, I am leaving for more than two months. To others, this may seem short; to me, this seems long, though not as long as it could potentially be. Let’s just say I’m conditioning myself slowly to being alone in the great, big world. 

Because of the length of time I am away, I realize that it would be selfish to expect my room to be left unused and all the things left to stand where they are. Being a bit OCD, I also wouldn’t want things to sit around and collect dust anyway. Because of this realization and the realization that I will go to a PhD program soon after completing my VDAC program, I know that I will likely never live in this house in the same way again. The things I collected over the years also can’t just stay here, and I don’t want to have to take so much with me wherever I end up going. So, between reading works from my reading list and taking care of some bureaucracies in relation to being a Masters student and studying abroad (for example, I still need to figure out how I register and get credit for my classes), I cleaned my room. I am fairly documentation-friendly, so one of the most time consuming tasks was going through literally stacks of papers, notes, mementos, and cards that required patience and reason to work through.

Picture stolen off google, but it pretty much looks like a section of my room did. The cups of coffee were necessary.

I write “reason” because while many of the things that I saw again burst upon me with memories, happiness, nostalgia, or soft sadness, I needed to use the cooler half of my wits and remember that the memories that the mementos bring would be there with or without the physical reminder. I thought for a while that I would want to have whole scrapbooks for my children to look through to understand and get to know their mother better, but one of the more significant things I learned from spending a lot of time alone with my mother this summer is that the most powerful way to get to know someone is through time spent together. The more time people spend together, the more conversation happens, and the more things are brought out of the other person’s memories into one’s life. So, I was able to take four long boxes that roll under the bed and turn them into two; a lot of the containers around the room that I collected knick-knacks in are now cleared. 

I already started to collect things that I don’t use here in Florida (because most of the time it’s above 80 degrees and enough humidity to dampen paper) like warm clothes and power converters in a box in my closet. I am also slowly categorizing things in my head that I will want to bring over to Germany, like my Tagesdecke, alarm clocks, shoe organizer… I have a room in a dorm over in Hamburg reserved for me the moment I arrive in the city, but as anyone can attest, a bed, a shelf and a dresser leave something to be desired when it comes to actually spending time in the room. However, unlike my first few years at college, I don’t intend to bring cars-full of stuff with me. I am taking this trip as a chance to live more lightly, to carry less baggage with me, so to speak, and be more aware of experiences and how I spend my time than the things I spend my time with.