Where did you study abroad? Did you have a study focus?
From March to July last summer, I spent a semester abroad at the University of Konstanz, in Konstanz, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. I spent several weeks before and after the exchange traveling in various places in Europe as well. Because I was studying kinesiology at my home university, I focused on taking similar sport sciences courses in Konstanz, as well as courses in German and finance.
What made you want to study abroad?
My main motivation was to take advantage of the fact I could continue to earn my credits towards my degree while being able to roam the European continent. A lot of people told me that after graduation, the chances of being able to take an extended amount of time off to travel would be slim. So in essence, the reason I decided to go for an exchange was to live life while I was young.
How did you search for programs? What made you select your program?
I knew that if I were to study abroad, it had to be in Germany. From the age of one until I was nine, I grew up in Berlin. Since 1999, I'd never had a chance to go back to the country I once called home. Luckily, the state of Baden-Wurttemberg and my home province of Ontario have a partnership (called OBW) that allows for an almost painless exchange between the two countries. If you choose to go to a country that your home nation, state, or province has a partnership with, well-organized orientations and documents could be available for you to make it easier.
What was the biggest surprise about your study abroad experience?
I would have to say the gap in studiousness. Maybe it was the atmosphere of the town I studied in (it was a touristy lakeside town that could have been plucked from a picturesque postcard), but I felt as though I was more on vacation than on a study abroad term. I knew that technically, the bottom line was that I had to pass my courses, but I also wanted to do well. I suppose it was just a pleasant surprise to know the academic pressures we go through with midterms, exams, and papers here didn't seem to apply as much to the classes abroad. But the academic formality that exists in the German school system is certainly something I had to adapt to. From interactions with professors after a class, to the way exams were written, I always felt they were a step up from what I was used to in Canada. And that's where I simply made sure to know what the unspoken rules were, so as to display the adequate amount of respect, or not to offend anyone.
What made your study abroad experience abroad a success?
Taking chances. The beauty of it all was that for half a year, I lived somewhere where no one knew who I was before I stepped off that plane. I don't mean I had a radical personality change or anything, but if there were situations back home in which I would have chosen the safe (and somewhat boring) option, I tried to change that up while I was in Konstanz. This applied to social, academic and cultural situations, and you know what? I don't regret it. I know it's very vague advice, but if you end up going somewhere that just captures your heart, trust me, you'll find the inspiration to seize the moment.
Do you have a classroom story that gave you particular insight into other cultures?
What I found to be extremely interesting is the level of respect students had for lecturing professors. Maybe it was a regional thing, or perhaps it happens nation-wide, but every time a professor finished their lecture, all the students would knock on their desk in thanks or appreciation. It wasn't always the most genuine (it seems to be a matter of habit), but it sure is a contrast to the lazy shuffle we exit the classrooms with after a lecture here at home. I just thought that that was a nice way to acknowledge the work of the professor, something I'd love to see happen here.
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture while you were studying abroad?
You never, ever, ever sound stupid. My German was once at a fluent level, but fast-forward a decade, and I was right at a beginner's level again. But I feel as though worldwide, locals who see you genuinely trying to learn their language become so appreciative of your efforts that they'll do what they can to help you master the language further. So whether it's in the classroom, or out at the bar, or asking for directions, don't be afraid to try in the local language, and when all fails, use your English as it may also surprise you how well non-native English speakers know the language.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
If you go to Europe, you're going to be using RyanAir (or some other incredibly cheap budget airline). My advice to you is, go on their website, pull up their airport map, and plan your trips according to the destinations they fly to. You could get away to some incredible city on less than 20 euros -- especially in the off-season. My favourite city to visit was Porto, Portugal. We got there on a five euro flight (not a typo!) from Barcelona and just loved it. It's truly a hidden treasure within Europe. Have the tarte de natas, the Franceschinas, the port wine and soak in the sights that'll rock your world until your heart is full!
Do you have anything else to add?
I think the stereotype that Canadians are incredibly polite is also true and amplified when outside of Canada. A mere bump into someone and I would quickly say "Entschuldigung," the equivalent of "excuse me." Germans were always so surprised at the fact I apologized for something so little and were quick to respond "Oh goodness, no worries!" or something similar. I'm not saying I became ruder, but I definitely noticed myself using different words when around Germans. And that's just something that comes with getting acquainted with the lifestyle of someplace new.
If you're sitting on the fence about whether or not to apply for an exchange, I can tell you that my experience changed my life. Wherever you decide to go, if you go, it will change yours too. So take a chance, do your research, step on that plane, and enjoy every moment of it.
If you'd like to take a 12-minute look at how my time went, watch this:
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
Now that I've had a taste of it, I have to have more. I'm currently doing a master's in sport management in Ottawa, and I hope that one day down the road, I'll find a job or placement that will take me abroad to explore Europe again. If that unfortunate bout of unemployment hit me upon graduation for an extended period of time, I can see myself borrowing some money and going back to Europe in the low-season of spring or late fall to do it all again. For me the bottom line is this: Europe is not a place you have a fling with just once!
Although Khanh has a personal connection with Germany and took full advantage of the travel opportunities while in Europe, we'd suggest that she expand her horizons and encounter different regions of the world where she'll be forced to adapt to new cultural norms and develop new cross-cultural communication techniques. The fact that Khanh focuses on sports management could open up doors with NGOs in developing nations. We'd suggest that Khanh check out some of the sports-oriented NGOs working in Africa or South America. This way she'd be expanding her international skills while building relevant career experience. Khanh could also consider teaching English abroad. Once settled in her host country, she could easily network within her school or community in order to find sports-related activities or side jobs.
- International Volunteer Opportunities is a Resource List offering links to over 300 international volunteer opportunities around the world.
- NGOs and Their Work Abroad and Finding a Job With an NGO are two articles that will give you a broad sense of whether working with an NGO abroad might be the next step for you.