Thursday, November 14, 2013

We shall not cease from exploration.

"We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started,
and know the place for the first time." -T.S. Eliot

Anybody who has studied abroad has probably been told to be prepared for disappointment upon returning home, because friends and family are not going to want to listen to endless stories about how wonderful the experience is. But when I applied to be an intern in the Education Abroad office, they said that this would be an opportunity to shamelessly talk about my study abroad experiences.

So, without further ado, I am going to do just that! But bear with me, because what I'd really like to discuss is how beneficial study abroad is for getting to know oneself.

The first time I studied abroad was in high school, in Switzerland, and since then I've grown up a little, or at least I'd like to think so. At that time, there were many reasons why I wanted to study abroad: I was interested in other countries, I was sure life was better somewhere else (oh teenage angst!), and I was up for a challenge. I was convinced I knew a lot about the world already, and probably even thought I already knew what I would learn. I don't know where my pictures from that time have gotten to, but I probably looked and sounded a lot like this guy...

...but actually. One of the first things about me to evolve in Europe was how I dressed. Sixteen year old Swiss girls are a lot more fashionable than sixteen year old small town Wisconsin girls.

Getting back to the point though, the actual experience of study abroad was absolutely, and I can't stress this enough, nothing like what I had imagined. I got to explore places like this for the first time..

...and I was blown away by the awesome beauty of it. I had fantastic experiences, thanks to my wonderful host family, such as skiing lessons in the Alps with a former Olympic athlete and vacations in places like...

 ....the gorgeous Venice, Italy. But life in another country is still life, and I quickly found out that there were plenty of challenges involved. Traveling to another country for the very first time always involves a certain amount of unrealistic expectations of the other culture. For my part, I realized that a part of me had imagined that by living in Europe, I would come to be the things that I associated with being European: stylish, worldly, and some sort of definition of cool. I'm not sure now what exactly I had in mind...

                                                                                                                                       ..something like this?

Some of the challenges I faced that year included learning how to live, work and have fun in a family very different from my own, as well as attend school with peers who had had very different experiences than I had. One example was that my high school life at home consisted of school, extra curricular but still school related activities such as clubs and organizations, and work. In Switzerland, there were very few school related extracurricular activities. If I wanted to participate in something, I had to seek out organizations in the city I lived in. This was a new experience and somewhat daunting at first, but I ended up joining both a volleyball team and a swim team. Additionally, from my perspective at the time, students my age had more experience with parties and socializing than with work. In fact, other than helping out if their parents had businesses, none of my classmates had jobs. This was somewhat hard to relate to at first, because I was more than proud of my work experience, and pretty shy in social situations. As you might guess, by the time I came home I missed going out to clubs, and was not so fond of the idea of going back to my job...

The first club I went to in Switzerland: Kulturfabrik Kofmehl in Solothurn. A little sketch looking in retrospect...

I learned many things that year, including how to be more self sufficient in terms of meeting people and finding organizations or opportunities that I was interested in. I had met a ton of new people from all over the world including places like China, Japan, Russia, and South America, and really felt that I had expanded my horizons. I encountered ideas that I hadn't before: one of the Russian boys introduced me to the myriad of issues that many Russians had with Americans for example, but we were friends anyway. Vinicius, a Brazilian student I met, discussed his feelings on his home country being considered less developed than Switzerland and other European countries. I learned about the history of Switzerland, and why the Swiss aren't interested in joining the European Union. My German skills improved tremendously from when I first arrived, with only one phrase written down that I couldn't understand. By the end of the trip, I could not only speak and understand high German, but was also getting pretty good at understanding Swiss German. It was hard to come home, but the experience had given me a taste of different lifestyles and opportunities and I was interested in learning more.

I graduated high school and started college, and after the first year decided the time was ripe to study abroad again. I went to live in Frankfurt, Germany this time and took classes at the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Universitaet, or Goethe Uni for short. Pictured below is the beautiful Westend Campus of the University, where I had classes. The history of this particular building is complex and fascinating and it provides an insight into the country itself. It was built in the late 20's and was the headquarters of a company called IG Farben. This name may not be known to you, but it was the company that developed many things used by the Nazis during WW2, including the gas known as Zyklon B that was used in the camps. After the war it became the headquarters of the Allied Forces and during the 70's was the site of a bombing by the Baader-Meinhof Group. In 1995, it was purchased for the University. As you can imagine, there were extremely mixed feelings about the building and it's associations with the Nazis. Some thought that it should be renamed in order to rid it of its past. Students disagreed, and thought that the past needs to be confronted. Today the building is still called the IG Farben building, and there are memorials to the victims of the holocaust throughout.

During my time there, I learned that Germany now has what it likes to call a "remembering culture." They don't want to forget what took place, and so they engage in actively remembering the people and the tragedies. Throughout the country, you can also find stones such as these:

They are called "stolpersteine" roughly translated as stones to trip over. They are located outside of homes where victims of the Holocaust once lived. They give the name and the fate of each person. You can learn more about the project, initiated by the artist Gunter Demnig, here.

That year in Germany was a year of incredible experiences. In many ways it was easier than my first study abroad experience. I lived by myself, was already somewhat familiar with the culture, and had expectations that were much more realistic. I got to visit Greece one weekend...

Me and my buddy Taylor on the beach in Greece. well as France, Switzerland, Spain and many cities in Germany. I met people from all around the world and had some crazy fun times!
At a paint party organized by the ESN group of international students.
In Germany, my language skills improved again. It was an entirely different ballgame this time because my entire schedule was my own, much as I had experienced my first year in college. I met a German girl who agreed to be my tandem partner. We met up and she would practice her English and I my German. Quite honestly, although we meant to correct each other, we usually just ended up just hanging out, which was great. All of my courses were in German, as they had been in Switzerland and the challenge of keeping up was mostly exciting, but sometimes tiring.
I lived in this dorm complex pictured below along with students from every continent most of whom had come to study in Germany permanently and not as exchange students as I had.

On my floor alone were students from Georgia (the country), the Ukraine, Bolivia, China, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and Turkey. They were all serious students, and their stories were as varied as their origins. The girls from Georgia and the Ukraine had both done their undergraduates in their home countries. Because of a lack of work opportunity and a desire to see the world, they initially came to Germany as au pairs. Some of the families they worked for were decent, and some...not so much. My neighbor across the hall was Iranian and pursuing his PhD in marketing. Quirky and friendly, he and his sister took me out on my birthday to a Persian restaurant when they found out I had no plans, as I was still so new. Later in the year he invited me along on a ski trip to Austria with his co-workers, and it was a huge learning experience.

The view from the University guesthouse that we stayed in.

This was also a trip in which they practiced defending their PhD work, and I got to listen in. People such as these that I met throughout my travels taught me more than I can easily write out here, and at times, when I tried to look at my life through their eyes, I was startled at what I saw.

An example of this was the time when I was talking to a friend of a friend one day about how I would have liked to finish my degree in Germany. I think I was saying something stupid along the lines of "but studying in German can be so hard." I asked her about her experiences moving from Kenya to earn her degree in Frankfurt. She gave me such a look and said "I don't know if it's hard but it's what I have to do. This is where my opportunity is." I don't know much about this girl's particular situation was but many people my age that I met worked and studied in Germany, and sent money back to their families.

There were so many more experiences and people that it would probably take me a hundred more pages to try and put it all down! But against each of these people and experiences, I measured up myself, my life and my values. Sometimes I felt that I fell short, but that has only served to show me that there is always more that I can do, more that I can reach for. And for the record, I don't mean this in the busy, overachieving way that seems to be so common in the U.S. I mean this in the sense that I can reach for what I believe is actually important and I can try to continually improve myself. Maybe this means becoming a little braver, a little stronger, a little more tolerant or friendly or flexible or grateful. I can strive to learn more about the world that I live in and that means what goes beyond our history textbooks and our mass media.

The truth is that through study abroad, I began to explore who I was and am as a person and what my place is in the world. I'm not saying that studying abroad is the only way to start that process...but for me it was. The most important thing though, has been learning that there is always more to explore and learn. And, as in the words of T.S. Eliot, I hope that through this exploration, I can come to have a better understanding of where I come from in terms of my family, my country and the person I started out as.

At the top of Neroberg in Wiesbaden, Germany

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