Last week, I have finally arrived in the US. It has taken two and a half months after the landing of my airplane. Considering that university here will be over in three weeks, that’s a long time. Not that I haven’t been warned: The German Academic Scholarship Foundation writes on their website that “the first semester abroad serves as an orientation – only after this period one will reap the personal and academic benefits”. This translated quotation might sound pessimistic and overly conservative. The Foundation has understood something fundamental though: It takes time to arrive.
Everyone always speaks of the 1000 skills they acquired during their semester abroad. However, the only skill people really learn to master during that time is adaptation. It’s a myth that you can go abroad and advance in your field of studies like never before. Even more so if your host university splits its year into quarters of ten weeks. These ten weeks of studying will hopefully inject some academic content into your brain, but that content is not what it is all about.
Adaptation is what foreign countries force you to do and learn. Cultural differences, language, new people, food, …the list continues indefinitely. All of this must be processed by the mind and the body. It burns energy, is tiring and takes a long time. The great reward is the skill of adaptation which is invaluable when it comes to success in various parts of life. Another benefit is the feeling of having arrived. It’s a feeling of relief, calm and deep satisfaction.
Learning to type
What does it take to arrive in a country? To be honest, any definition is highly arbitrary and subjective. I would even claim that we never fully arrive anywhere. Let’s not get too philosophical though.
I simply decided I had arrived last week. It happened while holding an extemporaneous speech. Such a speech takes 7 minutes and aims at answering a controversial political question. The catch is that one has only 30 minutes to prepare it. Usually, I would never expose myself to such a hustle, but the Speech Team on campus has enabled me to do so. Being somewhat decent at “extemp” speaking requires you to dive into the news. Not just read them, but make sense of what’s happening, figuring out connections and personal opinions. Knowing more about Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate than about coalition negotiations back in Austria was a clear sign for me that I had arrived in the US.
Other signs are hidden in the details. For example, when typing this text at one of the library’s computers on a keyboard where “y” and “z” are in the wrong spots. Or when calling one of these letters “zee” rather than “zed” like I learned to say in high school. Arriving for me involves adapting to the language, lowkey using slang words in conversations. It involves establishing habits that fit the new environment, picking up routines and rituals. Eating scrambled eggs every morning without questioning that this has never been part of my morning diet – that’s arriving in a new place.
Building up resistance
Arriving is tough, exhausting, even disappointing sometimes. In these moments, we build up resistance. Our brains are experts in arrival prevention and delay. They’re even better when fed with the hope of going back after a few months. Brains have two destinations to escape to: The past and the future.
Escaping to the past comes in the form of nostalgia. In my case, German newspapers are an example: I catch myself reading articles on suedeutsche.de or orf.at just for the satisfaction of soaking in information from back home. When in the library, I look at the headlines of “Die Zeit” when I actually wanted to read the New York Times. As weeks have passed, I’ve become more and more curious about what’s going on here rather than thousands of miles away. Nostalgia has been replaced by the interest for this new place, the past has made space for the present.
Fleeing to the future is more about planning. What will I do first when arriving in Munich? Which courses will I take during the summer semester? What are exciting things back home that I’ve always wanted to do? All of these questions are completely irrelevant right now. Two days before flying home, I could start worrying who’ll pick me up from the airport. The summer semester is far away, considering the snow here at Northwestern. And Chicago has probably more exciting stuff to offer than Munich. Planning is just another tool our brain has to delay our arrival when studying abroad.
We should appreciate our mind’s defense mechanisms, but we should also bear in mind what the Scholarship Foundation has taught us. “Reaping the benefits” will inevitably require us to arrive. And these benefits – these lessons and experiences – are the whole point of study abroad programs.
Embracing the package
So far, we know that in order to reap the benefits abroad, we need to arrive which first requires us to adapt. Our heads apparently resist this step of adaptation which includes understanding culture and acquiring some useless skills, like typing on an English keyboard. It’s a whole package of weird quirks and habits one has to absorb when coming to a new place. In an earlier blog post, I’ve called the weird package culture. Today, I want to argue that the more you immerse yourself into this package, the more benefits you’ll have.
The stereotypical exchange student is a party animal, a hyperactive tourist and a prisoner of his international community. This was clearly not what I wanted to be like. I wanted to immerse myself. Therefore, I joined the volleyball club, the speech team, and the local AIESEC committee. These decisions allowed me to have the stereotypical abroad experience through the backdoor. Traveling to Michigan for a volleyball tournament and going to Indiana for a speech competition has satisfied my appetite to see the country. The clubs have provided me with a community and even with an opportunity to party.
The reason why I’m so passionate about full immersion is the authentic and holistic experience it provides. The package is so vast and complex that it requires you to dive into it all the way. People who think they can grasp the whole thing by picking out some splinters, like drinking a glass of Champaign on the Eiffel Tower, are terribly wrong. If you go abroad, make an effort to embrace the package! Overcome your barriers and fully arrive.
I promise that the package contains something shiny and that arriving will make you feel wonderful.