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Reflecting on a Year Abroad July 13, 2011

Posted by Christine Morrison in Fulbright, Germany, Undergraduate.
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My flight home is approaching far too quickly. As I pack up and close out this chapter of my life in Germany, I find myself doing a lot of reflecting on my experience here. I would like to share some of these reflections in hopes that they will encourage others to pursue time abroad.

Challenges

The most challenging experience I have had this year – more so than the first 24 hours after my arrival – has been getting ready to leave.

Pillow Fight in front of the Brandenburger Gate in Berlin

A 12,000-person pillow fight in front of the Brandenburger Gate, a famous symbol of the city of Berlin. People of all ages attended the pillow fight, and for 20 minutes it rained feathers on this city square!

It took a few months to get settled (figure out my resources, develop a routine, get my research on track, etc.), but it became a comfortable and familiar life that I love. Yet only a year later, it is time to put everything in suitcases. While I am excited to return home and see my family, it is difficult to think about the end of this chapter.

Rewards

The most rewarding experience I have had this year is my relationship with my supervisor. I spent a lot of time with her in and out of the lab, as well as on trips to meet with collaborators. She set a great example for me as an accomplished professor who overcame the challenges associated with being a woman in a typically male-dominated field. She became a mentor for my own scientific career and helped me answer many questions I have about entering a professorship.

Accomplishments

My greatest professional accomplishment is the scientific publications from my research here, but I think even more important are the skills I have learned and can apply to my PhD work. This year abroad was, in hindsight, the perfect transition from a bachelor’s student to a PhD student. It has allowed me to make the mistakes I did not even know I needed to make to be a better grad student. To put it plainly, I believe I will be able to “hit the ground running” when I start my PhD work this September.

Travel and Culture

Another important part of my experience here has been traveling and cultural exchange. The people I have met and the countries I have visited have given me new insight into intercultural communication and international relations. I also have a newfound appreciation for the culture, food, people, traditions, land, and language(s) that makes each country unique. Even after being here for a year, I still find it amazing that from any point in Europe, one can be in a completely new environment after no more than a few hours on a train.

Bone Chapel in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

The inside of the "Bone Chapel" in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic. In 1870, a wood carver was asked to turn the bones of 40,000 people buried at the site of the chapel into creative works of art. The bones had already been removed from their resting places in the 16th century to make room for more corpses. Some say the artist took his task a little too far, but now we are left with a very unique piece of art!

Takeaways

All in all, I highly recommend that students consider applying for a Fulbright scholarship. What I learned this year has redirected some of my goals, reaffirmed others, and also created new directions, which I think is an important process to go through as a student.

Advice

If I can give one piece of advice to students selected for a Fulbright scholarship, it is to take it! I applied for graduate school the same year as the Fulbright scholarship and I grew so excited about graduate school, I was unsure if I would accept a Fulbright scholarship if one was offered to me. As soon as I arrived at my new home in Germany, I knew that I made the right decision, and that was before I knew what the year would bring. Now that my Fulbright experience is ending, I honestly cannot imagine having done anything else this year.

New Cultural Perspectives April 27, 2011

Posted by Christine Morrison in Fulbright, Germany, Undergraduate.
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Living as an Ausländer (foreigner) in Germany has given me new perspective on cultural differences. Although I look like I could be German, there have been several instances in which I know I stood out because I did not act like a German. Queuing for lines is one such example. When a new register in a supermarket opens up, Americans line up according to the order they were already in, while Germans abide by the first-come, first-served principle. According to an American, one would be considered rude to jump ahead of the person they were previously behind in line but not according to a German.

Christine and members of her lab group play badminton

On Saturday mornings, Christine and members of her lab group play badminton together and then go out for lunch. They especially enjoy playing Olympic-style, in which they compete while representing their respective countries.

Another cultural difference is how birthdays are celebrated. In the U.S., it is common for the family and friends of the birthday person to buy dinner. In Germany, the birthday person pays for the entire dinner party.

Typically, the birthday person personally invites all of the guests (usually only close friends and family). It is sort of like the adult version of kids’ birthday parties in the U.S. where guests do not pay for anything.

Obviously, there is no right or wrong way to form a line or celebrate a birthday, but there are different perspectives on how to do so. I chose these examples to illustrate how I have had to overcome my own cultural biases in order to feel truly integrated into the German culture.

Working with my lab group, which consists of 15 people from nine different countries, has provided its own challenges. Because the group is so diverse, the common language is English, the so-called scientific language, although we speak a lot of German also. For most, neither is their native language, and despite excellent skills, sometimes speaking in English or German just does not work. When this happens, paper and pen do the trick. Although the communication barrier can be awkward, I have realized that to be integrated into the group I cannot be afraid to misunderstand someone, say the wrong thing, or tell a joke that nobody gets. I should be more direct when I do not understand something and not take what others say too literally.

In many ways the communication barrier actually serves as a bonding mechanism. When the languages and cultures present in the group are formally acknowledged, it creates a rich, understanding working environment and the opportunity to learn from each others’ languages and cultures. I learned from the Greeks with whom I work that on the first of every month, people in Greece wish each other “ΚΑΛΩ ΜΗΝΑ” (Kalo Mina) or “good month.” Now, the whole group wishes each other ΚΑΛΩ ΜΗΝΑ.

In another example, I had the opportunity to travel with my lab group to Dublin, Ireland, for a conference in my research area. While walking through the streets I noticed a lot of people staring at me, even though a quick self-check made sure I was perfectly ordinary (no bird poop on my coat, no wrapper stuck to my shoe, no spaghetti sauce on my cheek). I asked some of the Dubliners at the conference about this, and they started giggling after a moment of realization. They said that now it makes sense why they sometimes feel so isolated when they travel–because people are not staring at them. The conversation left us all with a new perspective on interactions between strangers and led to an evening of even greater conversation.

With all of this in mind, I now seek out opportunities to communicate with people of other nationalities in order to gain a greater understanding of differences in culture and language and, of course, to make new friends in the process.

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