— Maggie Ditmore
I studied at Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany in the spring and summer of 2015. Here are some of the greatest lessons I learned while studying abroad.
1. The first few days will be the most gut wrenching days of your life. I arrived earlier than orientation began. I knew the basics of German but not enough to get around easily. I had no phone, no internet, no knowledge of where to get free internet, and no friends. There was no way for me to get into contact with anyone back in the United States. I remember one of my first entries in my journal: “I give it two weeks.”
This nightmare soon transformed into everything I’d hoped for. I met friends, learned my way around, and learned more German. Sticking to this gave me the courage to take on new challenges without being afraid to fail.
2. Even the names of places will make no sense. Herrenhäuser Markt, a stop on the Strassebahn (the tram), became as simple as my name to pick out in conversation. These names, however, did not exist in my vocabulary six months before, but are now associated with a place I call home. My dorm in Hannover was next to this stop.
I had expected the language gap, but even the places seemed so obscure and unreal. Leibniz, Schneiderberg, Stadtmitte, Kröpke: all of these words mean nothing to most Clarion students. People live, work, and go to school at all the aforementioned places. Places we have never even heard of, never even imagined were home to my new friends. Places I had never heard of before now hold a million memories.
3. Little things really do matter. I had learned in class that there are different greetings across cultures, but in Germany I learned that theory and practice are quite different things. When introducing myself to people, normally I will either say hello and give them a hug or enthusiastically shake their hand. I quickly learned these were not always the proper ways to greet people. When there was a barbecue, for exampl, I ran into people from many cultures. Some would say hi from a distance, some would give hugs, some would give one kiss on the cheek, and others give two kisses on the cheek. These situations can be confusing. Luckily, they were all my friends and were very understanding.
Towards the end of my stay I began to miss hugging. I was surprised to learn that people in many cultures do not hug acquaintances. I learned how different a simple greeting can be and how important.
4. You will change the way you think. I had the amazing opportunity to go to multiple countries while I was abroad. I recognized — and broke — stereotypes that I didn’t even realize I had. I learned a lot about stereotypes from the questions that both my American and my German friends asked. I was asked more than a few times if there was beer everywhere and whether people wore Liederhosen and Dirndls. My German friends drew their stereotypes from American movies and TV shows. Yes, people do drink a lot of beer in Germany; however, people in the Czech Republic drink more beer per person. This may not seem like an important stereotype, but — as a psychology student — I hope to be unbiased and nonjudgmental. This experience showed me that I still have work to do.
Although my stereotypes were inaccurate, I also observed real differences across cultures. We went on a hike for orientation week. We joked that we could guess what country a person was from by where they were. Most of the people in the front were Germans and Americans, reflecting our fast-paced, goal-directed cultures. Most of the Spanish speakers and Greeks were in the back, reflecting their more relaxed approach to time.
5. Context is everything. One of the greatest lessons I have learned as a psychology major is that nothing is as it appears. This is by far the greatest thing I relearned studying abroad. I was able to travel to the Czech Republic, which was like walking through an art museum. We walked through so many portions of the city, but one thing I know will stay with me forever. Our tour guide said that he could never put his birth country on forms; that country no longer existed. He was born in Czechoslovakia. I knew that countries had formed and reformed, but I never considered how these changes might be part of a person’s story.
Something similar happened while I was visiting Berlin. We went to Checkpoint Charlie and learned about the separation of East and West Germany and their very different histories. Later in the day we were lucky enough to get tickets to the top of the Fernsehturm. From there we could see large sections of Berlin. In fact, I could see the different sides that Berlin had been separated into. Today there is no wall; from above I saw a united city.
While we had differences, we had so very much in common. My best friend was from Hungary; two of my other great friends were from Greece. We laughed, cried, and smiled at the same things. While we come from vastly different places, when we came together, there was no country. We were simply people.
Maggie Ditmore is a senior Psychology Major. She hopes to earn a masters in Clinical Psychology. She studied at Liebniz Universitat in Germany from April to August 2015.