My Daughter’s Boyfriend, Joe, came back to California after spending a year studying German in Germany. (There really is a certain irony to having a kid who refused to speak German as a child dating a German Major…). I asked him what it was like to spend a year overseas, because I know there are other kids out there who are curious to learn about what it’s like to be on an exchange program. Joe does not come from a traditional German family, so he went without any idea of what to expect. His primary focus was in learning German, and working out the differences in culture. This is what he wrote…
Studying German in Germany
In Heidelberg- Photo by Susan P.
Being an exchange student in a city 9,181 km from home in a country with an entirely different language, set of cultural rules, social norms and settings can sound terrifying or amazing depending on the person. My time in Heidelberg as a California kid from the Bay Area was, as one might expect, one full of exchanges, amazing ones at that. Whether they were linguistic exchanges with my slowly-improving German or cultural exchanges with people from countries in far off corners of the globe, I walked away from all of them a changed person. I think if I had to define the purpose of any time abroad as a student, it would be for change.
Campus Altstadt Neue Universität Heidelberg Innenhof im Winter
– wikipedia commons photo by Ribax
At the Universität Heidelberg I learned not just to better my German but to be a more autonomous adult, something that the culture of Germany lends itself to very well. You are given far more responsibility over your studies and private affairs than in a traditional university in the United States. During my first semester, I took a grand total of 4 classes to satisfy my 15 EU university credits, all of which amounted to 12 hours spent in the classroom a week. It is expected that you spend a majority of your time outside of class studying, reading and preparing for your exams throughout the semester. There is no hand-holding. You are made to feel like you are transitioning from a young man/woman to a full-fledged working and studying adult. You are not given repetitive weekly homework assignments in which your main task is to memorize and regurgitate information. But rather you are taught concepts and ideas and given the chance to put them into practice both inside and outside of the classroom. All-in-all the academic life of a student in Heidelberg is what I believe all universities should strive for, with a focus on autonomy and self-reliance with constant opportunities to challenge one’s own predispositions and misconceptions.
I lived in an apartment with 3 other German students who had already been living there and studying at the university for some years. We all had our own rooms and shared 1 ½ bathrooms and a kitchen. My room came furnished modestly with a bed, dresser, desk and chair. We needed to supply our own bedding. Not all dorms were alike and we were free to search for new accommodations if we pleased. I personally lived on the outskirts of the university near the science/medical buildings, whilst some of my friends lived directly in the old town or in neighboring towns. As far as meals go we were left to buy groceries for ourselves or eat at one of the several cafeterias dotted throughout the town. The ‘Mensas’ as they are called in German were far superior to those in the United States. They had a variety of options ranging from fresh and poultry to vegetables and side dishes. There was always something new for lunch and dinner. And a whole plate of food usually costed no more than 5 Euros.
The fact that about 70 % of Germans speak English at a near fluent level can be a blessing and a curse for some students. On the one hand, their English prowess means that someone with absolutely zero German language skills can do just fine in most parts of the country. On the other hand, if you are like me and trying to practice your German as often as possible (after all, I was supposed to be studying GERMAN in Germany), it can be hard to struggle through language barriers of your own when you know that you could more-than-likely switch to English and be just fine with the Deutscher across from you. Finding another German who wanted to practice their English was often fun, but led me into the trap of using almost no German in some interactions. Fortunately, the university planned for such pitfalls. They have a program called Tandem, wherein students with two different native languages meet on their own time and spend equal parts with on language and equal parts with the other, thus giving both parties a chance to practice and ask for corrections. Not only is this a great way to meet people and get to know some locals, but it is worth credits at the university as well.
In the Mensa
It is nigh impossible not to meet people from all around the world when you find yourself at a cultural hub like Heidelberg. The university really goes out of its way to link you with other exchange students from both your own country and others. The first day of my pre-semester preparatory class included sharing conversations with Cambodians, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, English, Irish and Korean students. And all in German! I was truly amazed by the variety of ethnicities and nationalities on display at the university. I don’t think I could recommend being an exchange student in Heidelberg highly enough. I came back to the United States a changed person, and I will never forget the people and experiences during my time in Germany.
Thanks again to Joe for sharing his experiences with us!
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