My Classes at the Universität Trier

There are an innumerable amount of things I love about Germany!  In fact, I’ll probably dedicate a blog post to some of them, soon.   And if you spend even a moderate amount of time with me, I am sure you could recite a few of them =).    But there is one part of my experience that took some major getting used to and was not one of my favorite parts of German culture. . .

Dun, dun, dun. .  . . .University in Germany.  I’m clearly being overdramatic and totally recognize that this was a hard part of my study abroad because I am just way too used to the way I get to learn here at Hamline. But this was, by far, the hardest thing to get used to.

First, let me tell you about my classes.  I took seven classes that were each an hour and a half, once a week.  Three were the German equivalent to ESL classes.  In fact, they even abbreviate it like we do!  They call them DaF Courses and DaF stands for “Deutsch als Fremdsprache” (German as a foreign language). Three classes were regular German classes—two of which were seminars (taught in a style kind of comparable to Hamline classes) and one was a lecture.  I also had a class in English.

They were as follows:
(keep in mind that I’m translating the names into English but I want to still convey what they were, so the titles might sound a bit haphazard)

DaF:  Germany in Film and Literature
DaF: Grammar and Syntax
DaF: German Culture/Applied Geography—Current and Historical
English class: Gender and Language
Lecture: German Phraseology
Seminar:  Introduction to Spanish Philology
THE BEST SEMINAR EVER: US Foreign Policy under President Obama
(See!  I didn’t hate everything!)

What I experienced with most of my classes was not a lot of work throughout the semester other than some reading and maybe a presentation.  In some classes there was a presentation from a different student every class period.  It was a great challenge giving presentations because of the language and the group work, which I really enjoyed! It struck me as odd, however, that in spite of the incredible amount of presentations the German students must have given throughout their studies they mainly consisted of reading off their paper and pointing once or twice at their PowerPoint.  I attributed this to lack of expectation or feedback or something. . .and still do partially.  But there is also clearly a cultural component.  After I gave a lively presentation to one of my classes the Professor kind of smiled, told me that I did a good job, and then told me that my way of presenting was “very American”.   We’ve talked about this in Professional German, too.  Cool, calm, and collected is the way to offer a presentation in Germany! (Not usually how I tend to speak. . .)

Although there wasn’t much work required of me for most of the semester, finals took on a whole new meaning.   Basically, your entire grade is based on one test that you take at the end.  I found this to be REALLY hard.  Especially because I am convinced that class discussions are a major part of my learning process and I wasn’t able to do a whole lot of discussing in my German classes—either because there wasn’t discussion or because I couldn’t catch what the other students were saying and formulate my response quick enough to take part. Long story short, I ended up doing pretty poorly on some of my tests.  (Maybe I’m just bitter. . . ) Also, in hindsight, I maybe should have chosen easier classes. . .

Other differences relating to school that it was hard for me to get used to:

  • No syllabi!
  • The library had (what I interpreted as) strict rules.  You had to lock up your bag and have the belongings you brought into the library checked.  You had to be SILENT (except for in a few select group study areas where you could talk quietly).  Oh, and it was closed on Sunday by 3pm. . . and Sunday nights are my prime homework time.
  • When addressing you, the Profs say Ms. or Mr. and then your last name.  During attendance I would hear, “Frau Polivoda”!  Ha, ha!  They also use the formal “you” when addressing students and students do the same when speaking to the Professor.

Basically, the German university classroom is more of an independent learning space.  Maybe German students would feel like a detailed syllabus and various assignments due leading up to a final term paper as too much “hand-holding” and annoying! It was just became very clear to me how used to Hamline I was and how set I was in my ways.  (My Sunday night study time is a perfect example of that kind of self-centered mindset.)  I should also let you know that I do feel like I learned a lot.  Even in one of the classes I did poorly in, there was information I retained that I think will stay with me for a long time.

Here’s a video blog I made when I was freaking out at the end of the semester!

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Host-Families Help put Studies into Context

Although it’s not typical of a study abroad experience, I have to dedicate at least one post in my blog to my German host-family!  Without them I wouldn’t really know German or half as much as I do about German culture, history, and just general information about the country that at moments feels like my second home (a sentiment also made possible by my amazing host fam!)

That’s me with my host dad and brother!!

In many ways, I went into my study abroad semester set up for success!  Not only could I hold my own speaking German and knew what to expect in a lot of situations, I had my host family that was just a phone call, email, or train ride away.  When I say I wouldn’t know half as much as I do about German culture if it weren’t for them, I’m not just referencing my stay in their home in 2005-2006.  They also helped immensely with my learning this time around.

When a student studies abroad and lives in student housing, it is tough enough finding friends outside of the international student population let alone a real-live-family in that country. Most international students living in student housing may never be in a traditional German home.  For instance, when another international student accompanied me to Frankfurt to visit my family she was so excited to actually be inside an actual German home.  She may have been in students’ dorms or apartments but throughout her yearlong study abroad she hadn’t had the opportunity to enter a conventional German home.

Spending time with my host family really helped put what I was learning into context.  For example, in one class we had discussed a hot topic about German education that turned out to be playing out in my host brother’s life!  Traditionally, it takes five years to complete the German equivalent to high school (Gymnasium) but now many states within Germany are trying to cut it down to four years.  This has lead to lots of discussions about the impact of teaching/learning five years of material in four years.  (For me and other students from countries where we’re used to long school days, like France, we think it’s kind of laughable how they are making a big to-do about being in school till 3 or 4 every afternoon instead of being out in time for a late lunch.  But there is obviously more to it than that!)

One major impact this has on states that are making the change is that for one year there will be two classes graduating at the same time.  The students in the last graduating class of the old system and the first class of the new system will be getting out of Gymnasium at the same time creating double the normal amount of applicants for university, jobs, or the military.   Well, I didn’t really think about this aspect of that change until I was talking to my 11th grade host-brother about his plans for the future.  He informed me that he will be graduating in this very situation.  He is in the last class of the old system in Hessen, the state in which he lives.

That mix of learning the facts and then getting more background and context from my family as they share their stories has helped me learn so much.  Plus, I can ask my host-parents anything and they can explain it to me in a way that I’ll understand.  (And if I don’t understand I have no problem asking them to rephrase it or explain it again!  That’s not always possible in a classroom setting.)

A word about reconnecting. . .

Although I speak so highly of my host-family, I was a little nervous to see them again after being gone for so long.  Although we had emailed and spoke on the phone once or twice, it had been four years since we had seen each other.  My worries were all in vain because spending time with them was just like old times.  I know it may sound cliché, but it was like I had never left at all!  Particularly with them—their house looked and smelled the same, I got to sleep in my old room, I still knew my way around town—so many things were the same.

I actually stayed with two host-families during my exchange and had the chance to reconnect with the second family, too.  Although my connection with them doesn’t run as deep as with my first family I am still have so much gratitude and love for them.  I joined them for dinner a week before I left Germany and, again, was struck by how everything seemed to be the same.

But of all these situations, this feeling couldn’t have been stronger as it was when I reconnected with two of my friends from my Gymnasium in Frankfurt.  I had nothing but limited Facebook contact with these girls for four years but when we met up this spring it was literally like I had only been gone for a few months.  We spent the whole day catching up and spent literally 13 hours talking basically non-stop.  (A girl’s got a lot to talk about after four years apart!!)  Also—in a random, amazing coincidence, a great friend of mine from Australia who I met when we both were exchange students planned a trip to Germany that happened to coincide with my semester there, so we got to reconnect, too.  Seeing her, as you can imagine by how the rest of these stories are going, was simply wonderful! Reconnecting with all of these amazing people who touched my life was a major highlight of my study abroad experience!

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Germany’s amazing stance on the Environment and Sustainability

Last week after an International Round Table, the senior Global Studies majors who recently returned from our experiences abroad were discussing what role sustainable energy and the environment played in discourse in our respective countries.  I was excited to share because I am simply enamored with how invested Germany is in protecting the environment!  I shared with my classmates that I actually don’t remember having many conversations with Germans about the environment, their amazing solar and wind energy programs, crazy detailed recycling practices or other efforts of sustainability.  Although other international students took note, it is as if it’s so developed that it need not be a topic of conversation or debate to the German population—simply a way of life.

The speaker last week that prompted this discussion among my global studies comrades and myself had mentioned that as he travels and presents in other countries they tend to laugh as they reflect on the debates that circulate in the United States around the topic of the environment.  While we argue whether global warming is, in fact, immanent other countries (like Germany) are already years beyond debate.  They accept the fact that actions to become more sustainable are necessary and are working to take progress in those areas.

Germany takes lots of environmental actions on a national and international level. . but what I find most interesting are the normal, everyday things they do which I think are a big deal but that German’s don’t find at all out of the ordinary.  Living in Germany, countless reminders of their commitment to the environment present themselves to me regularly. . .

  • In buildings and at homes all of the appliances are smaller—toilets use less water (there is actually a light flush button and regular flush button on almost every toilet) and most refrigerators are about half the size of ours.
  • There is rarely air-conditioning in most buildings or homes.
  • Most Germans take public transportation and many rely upon it solely.  It is easy to get anywhere you need to go via bus or train.
  • Gas is also really expensive which I think encourages people to use other modes of transportation.  As I write this gas is about $7.15 a gallon (1.35€/liter) in Frankfurt, Germany and, in my experience, I hear Americans complain about gas prices way more than Germans!
  • At the grocery store you have to pay for bags so most people bring their own and bottles are returned to the store for .15€ -.25€.
  • Oh, and we can’t forget the 4 or 5 different garbage cans you have to choose from when throwing something away in Germany! [Paper, glass (brown, green, white), recyclable plastics (almost every kind of container), compost, bin for bottles, and then, if it doesn’t work in any of those, the actually garbage.]

Here are two of my video blogs that touch on recycling/garbage sorting and returning bottles for money.

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Traveling around Europe

The first time I was in Germany I had the opportunity to travel a bit around Europe but mainly around Germany itself.  It was a great experience because I have seen more of Germany than many Germans have.  (Isn’t that always the case?  People tend to not travel as much within their own county as they do when they are visiting a different country. For instance, I have never been to New York and a very large number of people I encountered in Germany and Europe have traveled there. . .or it is close to number one on their list!)

This time around I was able to do a lot of traveling within Europe!  I didn’t actually realize how many countries I had visited until I was filling out the Re-entry form for customs in the airport when I arrived home.  Many of the travel opportunities were made possible by the international student center at the Uni Trier (Internationales Zentrum) or because of relationships with other international students.

Here’s the list:

March 24th: Luxemburg (city), Luxemburg
Day trip with a friend from Greece.
Luxemburg was only a half hour train ride away from Trier!

April 8th:  Strasbourg, France
Day trip with the Internationales Zentrum


May 20th-26th: Torino, Italy
During vacation in the Penocostal Holiday (Pfingstferien), which I compare
to the German version of Spring Break, I went home with a friend from Italy!

June 9th-13th: Vienna, Austria
I took THE longest train trip in an effort to save some Euros and made it to Vienna in about 14 hours!  I was visiting the host sister from my first host family from my foreign exchange in 2005.  (It was the first time we’d met in person because
she had been abroad while I was living with her family.)

June 25th—27th:  Brussels and Bruges, Belgium
Another trip with the Internationales Zentrum!

July 23rd-27th: Tampere and Helsinki, Finland
After classes ended I was able to travel to Finland to spend time with a friend I had met
in Trier!  It was the most amazing trip and a fantastic end to my experience abroad.

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Benefits of Bilateral Exchange

Hamline has a strong relationship with the University of Trier which makes our bilateral exchange program great!  Although students from Hamline can study at a vast variety of universities all around the world, I was happy to study at a university that had a strong connection with Hamline.  The tight connection allows the Trier and Hamline study abroad professionals to be very knowledgeable and aware of our situations (where grades should be sent, how our stipend work, what dorms we would live in, etc), but also gave me a support system made up of the other students who had studid  there before.

As I updated my Facebook profile with issues, questions, or joys about my study abroad experience, many Hamline students who had studied in Trier would weigh in with tips, ideas, or simply offer understanding.

Whether it was posing questions about school-related concerns, lamenting about the gigabyte limit and the always malfunctioning printers, or sharing any number of exciting experiences, it was always comforting to hear from other students who had gone through it before.

Another great part of bilateral exchange was that I was able to pass on some of my belongings to the next Hamline student to study in Trier.   When arriving in Trier I purchased a lot of stuff!  Pots and pans, bath mat, shower curtain, lamp, sheets, pillow, rug, knives, plates—what seemed like SO MUCH stuff!  Instead of giving it away to a random person, I was able to connect with another student staying into the fall semester that could hold onto my stuff until the next Hamline student arrived.

Here’s me talking about this on my video blog:

(P.S.  I do this video blog for Hamline Marketing and Communications.  It was a fun excuse to record parts of my experience in Germany and some of the videos relate to what I will write about here— so it’s perfect!!)

Another great part of bilateral exchange is that it’s very likely that you will meet students coming to our university!  I was giving a presentation about Hamline for a gathering put on by Trier’s equivalent to the Study Abroad Office (Akademisches Auslandsamt) and, in closing, asked if there were any questions.  Someone in the audience asked me which dorm I thought he should live in because he was coming to Hamline the following semester!  I was so excited to connect with students from Trier coming here.

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you know, that culture shock thing they warn you about. . .

Anyone who has studied abroad has heard warnings of culture shock! These didn’t really apply to me so much for my study abroad experience.  I felt quite at home from the start. . .but that’s not to say I’ve never went through culture shock. That’s why I can’t just describe my semester abroad by itself but need to also reflect on my first time living in Germany.  So let me tell you about the extreme differences in what I experienced. . .

When I went to Germany after high school in 2005, I was convinced I wouldn’t have culture shock—or if I did it would be so mild that I would barely even notice it.  Of course we had several discussions about it in trainings as well as being told that the first three months would be very difficult, the next three would be better, and the last three would be fantastic.  For my 18-year-old-I-think-I-know-everything-about-everything-self, this all went in one ear and out the other. Well, three and a half weeks of crying myself to sleep later, I had realized that my transition wasn’t going to be as easy as I had thought. But as I gave it time the 3-3-3 model seemed to play out like clockwork and by the end of my exchange I couldn’t imagine my life outside of Germany.

Because I had reacted so strongly the first time I was abroad, I wasn’t sure how things would be the second time around.   I remained open to whatever feelings I had, especially because of the huge difference in how I thought I would react the first time and how I actually did feel.

With this study abroad trip, it was completely different.  I felt a huge sense of “finally, back to my second home” as soon as I arrived!    While other struggled with why things were done a certain way, why the water was carbonated, why the garbage was sorted, or why someone made such-and-such comment, I would simply respond (either internally or aloud) “This is Germany!  That’s how they do it here!”  In that regard, I felt no culture shock.  Even with the language—it was a joy to be speaking German again!

In fact, as I was there I kept waiting for things to sink in. . . I kept waiting for that “WOW, I’m in Germany!” realization to be big and overwhelming as it had been the first time.  This never came.  It was almost disconcerting how normal everything felt (if that makes sense. . . ).

Naturally throughout the semester I would have occasional “I CANNOT STAND HOW THEY (fill in the blank with any number of things)!!”—moments, but I think that’s only natural.   I missed my friends and family at home, too. . . especially with the communication difficulties I had because of internet limits and the time difference.  But this is all part of the experience and came and went as one would expect.

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Introductions and General Info

I am a senior at Hamline University majoring in German and Global Studies.  For spring semester 2010, I studied abroad in Trier, Germany.  This blog will primarily detail my experiences during the semester but also touch on other time I have spent abroad.  I am excited to share snit bits from my travels as well as observations and reflections though my lens as a global studies student and citizen of the world.

Trier is located on the south, west side of Germany close to France and Luxembourg.  The population of Trier is about 100,000 including most of the students that study and live there.  Trier’s claims to fame include (but are not limited to):  being the oldest city in Germany, the Porta Nigra, the birthplace of Karl Marx, and home to the Holy Tunic of Jesus.

I arrived in Trier on March 17th, 2010.  Orientation started the following day and the first three weeks were consumed with Einführungseminar (orientation) with German classes in the morning, taking-care-of-business activities in the afternoon (like setting up a bank account, registering for classes, filling out the variety of forms necessary to attend the university, register with the city, ect.) and fun activities on some of the evenings and weekends.  On April 12th, classes began.  The Summer Semester, as they call it, continued till July 16th. (I’ll give details about school in another post.)  Not only did I attend classes, I had the chance to travel to a variety of countries, meet lots of people, and have loads of adventures!

When I mention I will also touch on other experiences abroad, I am mainly referring to the 2005-2006 school year when I lived in Frankfurt, Germany as an exchange student through Rotary International.  I was 18 when I lived in Germany the first time and it proved to be a life hanging experience.  This being my first time returning to Germany, I, admittedly, had a lot of expectations and made several comparisons about the two experiences.  I’ll touch on some of that here. . .specifically because, for me, things just felt different the second time around.

Stay tuned for more. . .

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