Since I am about halfway through both of my majors, I feel pretty confident saying that I made the right choice in my studies. Other degrees still tempt me when I hear students discussing their projects, but it is always my math and German homework that hold my attention and spark my curiosity, even when I’m so frustrated I could throw my textbook across the room. Now that I am settled in my studies, so to speak, my thoughts have been turning to plans after college. The semesters flip by in a blink and I don’t want to be caught at the end of my senior year with no idea where I want to go and what I want to do.
In a way, the Global Engagement Fellowship has made my decision both easier and more difficult at the same time. My increasing language skills and experience with international cultures mean that I am not confined to working within the United States. Rather, I could work with international companies from anywhere in the world. Here is where the choice becomes more difficult. In the face of such diverse options, how can I begin even to consider them? If I decide to pursue a graduate degree, do I turn first to the U.S., Germany, or to another country entirely? Although my attention this time of year is almost fully devoted to my studies, these broader questions lingering in the back of my mind about the future will certainly receive plenty of attention this summer and this fall.
As finals week quickly approaches, and with it the halfway mark of my college career, I am reminded of how much has changed in the past two years. During my first few semesters I met plenty of undergraduates, but the faculty seemed so mysterious and detached. My favorite part of college has been the people, hands down. OU has a broad student body pursuing such radically varied interests with great enthusiasm that the environment is unmatched in my experience. I fell in love with higher education my very first week here. Despite the papers and exams, the stress and the sleep-deprivation, this university is full of people learning, seeking to better themselves and to better the world. The man you bump into on the South Oval has worked with some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, the woman you pass in the Union on your way to lunch speaks four languages, the man in line with you to get lunch is a professional ballet dancer, the woman next to you in class has just won a Fulbright. It’s both intimidating and incredibly inspiring.
Over the past two years, I’ve slowly been meeting more members of the faculty, particularly those within my major departments. Their complete mastery of the topics they are teaching makes me yearn to understand a subject in such depth. Although I will likely not pursue graduate school immediately after graduation, I highly suspect it to be in my future. There are so many fantastic schools filled with the brightest and most dedicated people, it would be a shame not to meet and learn from at least a few of them.
During this semester I have had the pleasure of participating in the Puterbaugh seminar, centered around the works of this year’s Puterbaugh recipient, Jenny Erpenbeck. A German author, playwright, and opera director, Erpenbeck gives an intimate perspective on historical events and the meaning often carried in personal possessions. When she came to campus this semester to accept her award, she gave a keynote speech entitled “Blind Spots.” I believe that World Literature Today will be publishing the text of her speech in an upcoming issue.
Born and raised in East Berlin, Erpenbeck was a young college student when she saw the wall come down and her world change around her. Now seeing firsthand the refugees stranded on the streets of Germany, stuck in a limbo with no work and no home, Erpenbeck is concerned with their treatment and the way the world is reacting to their situation. The speech was eloquently composed and excellently delivered, reminiscent of her written work. I highly recommend taking the time to read her speech slowly and thoughtfully when it is released. Erpenbeck doesn’t pull any punches, but she isn’t overly dramatic either. She addresses head on the ignorance and hypocrisy that are present in so many discussions of recent international events. Her take is so different from the ones I’ve heard before that it makes me wonder what other sides of the story aren’t being told. What else lingers in our blind spots?
Throughout the semester, the College of International studies hosts informational lunches as part of their LEAdership Fellows program (LEAF for short). These lunches cover a wide variety of skills that are helpful for students preparing to engage with international community. The session this past week discussed the etiquette of fine dining. Many families eat their meals in a relaxed environment and college students are so pressed for time that they almost always eat on the go. As a result, students often have little to no experience eating meals in a formal environment.
When a student goes abroad, either studying abroad before graduation or working abroad after, they are ambassadors of the United States and of the University of Oklahoma, whether or not they wish to be. The ability to conduct oneself with grace and ease when dining with superiors or peers that one wishes to impress is therefore a vital skill to learn.
This lunch focused primarily on formal sit-down occasions, ones that usually include multiple forks and cloth napkins. Besides the usual rules, we also discussed the differences between the American style of formal dining and the European style, as well as how to prepare for the often radically different traditions found in Africa and Asia. Since a silent dinner is usually an awkward one, we considered the art of small talk and how to converse with dinner guest from different backgrounds with opinions that might not necessarily agree with our own. Having attending that luncheon and learned how to acclimate to certain formalities, I feel much more comfortable with the idea of dining with others in a foreign country.
On Global Engagement Day this spring I attended a panel discussion, “Student Stories from Abroad.” A few students who had studied abroad for varying lengths of time in different countries shared their stories, experiences, and advice. I personally found the variety of experiences and advice quite interesting to hear. Global Engagement Fellows come from almost every background and major imaginable, meaning that their perception of studying abroad is quite varied. Having studied abroad myself for a short time, I found myself agreeing with a lot of their advice, but disagreeing with a good amount as well. Much of the advice that I heard was unpleasantly, stereotypically American.
Tourists and students from the United States have a generally poor reputation in the international community. We’re loud and obnoxious, don’t understand how local customs work, and usually don’t care to learn. In Germany, I was frequently mistaken for a German when I was by myself, thanks to my German heritage and my efforts to take social cues from my surroundings. When I was with other American students, however, there was never any doubt as to where we came from. Germans spoke English to us from the start, when they weren’t avoiding us, of course. Then I found out that Germans themselves are incredibly loud and obnoxious in comparison to the French and the stereotype of the irritable Frenchman began to make sense.
I think it’s great for nervous undergraduates who have never left the country before to have the chance to interact with experienced world travelers. Unfortunately, not every student who studies abroad has the chance to develop broad knowledge on the subject. While I laud the sharing of stories, I worry about the consequences of placing students in the role of an expert despite their potentially inadequate qualifications.
Every spring semester the entire German department gathers together in a local park to feast on bratwurst and sauerkraut while celebrating the rapidly approaching summer break. I was unable to attend last year but since I recently declared a German major, I made a point of attending the grillfest this spring. Hosted by the OU German Club, the grillfest featured a wide variety of German food. Besides that aforementioned, there was potato salad and tomatoes and cucumbers with dill yogurt and a wide selection of bread paired with Italian soda and finished with some delightful cookies whose name escapes me.
It is now just a few months short of a year since I left Germany and the memory of daily life there grows unfortunately dimmer. However, eating such German fare in the sun surrounded by snippets of German conversions made me feel like I was in my own little slice of Germany in the middle of Norman, OK. I can only imagine what the experience must feel like for the German faculty who either were born in German speaking countries or have spent considerable time there.
Unfortunately, I also noticed that my confidence speaking German outside the classroom has been diminishing as well. Over this summer I will have to work on conversational confidence with my friends who are also learning German.
Now that I’m knee deep in German classes, I figured I might as well make it official and get a minor while I’m at it. After this spring semester, I believe I’ll be only one class away. This naturally is making me consider what exactly I plan to do after I graduate college. I still want to work in mathematics, of course, but my increasing language competency and my study abroad experience are making me more confident in my ability to work outside the U.S. Unfortunately, I know very little about where I would work internationally and how developed my language skills need to be. If I continued to work on my German, I could work in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or perhaps in the surrounding areas. With English, I can, of course, work in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to start. I like to believe that there are places around the world where I would be able to work without being fluent in the native language, but I do not know where exactly that would be. Such considerations are hardly pressing, but certainly interesting to mull over. I know for a fact that I was not anywhere near as confident in my ability to conduct myself internationally when I started at OU three semesters ago. I find it interesting that such a short period of exposure to different people and places and languages and cultures and aspirations has so drastically affected my outlook on my future. I am still confident and excited, but my vision is different, full of possibilities that I had never considered.
For GEF, I need to know or study a modern foreign language and since I took Latin in high school, I needed to choose a new language to study at OU. To be completely honest, I spent almost my entire summer agonizing over which language to choose. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t trying to learn a language. When I read The Lord of the Rings, I went through the appendix and tried to understand how the elves discussed the weather. When I read Swallows and Amazons, my sister and I learned flag semaphore and would stand on opposite sides of the yard waving pieces of cloth at each other just to say hi. When I volunteered at a local repertory theater or attended a graduation ceremony, I would watch the sign language interpreters working on the sidelines, their swift hand movements so confident and controlled. When I found my mother’s old French textbook, I would wander around the house reciting the simple phrases from the first chapter and trying to wrap my mouth around the unnatural pronunciation. When Duolingo first came out, I started every language they had available, just to see what it was like. I was never disciplined enough to get anywhere, but my unbridled interest was always there.
I’m not quite sure how I landed in German, come to think of it, but I do know I had narrowed it down to German and French. I rejected French because I didn’t like the pronunciation rules. (Of course, now I wish I knew some French so I guess there’s never a wrong answer when it comes to learning.) I originally was just going to take my four classes and get out as quickly as possible. Latin was always the bane of my existence during high school and I didn’t want German to torture me for any longer than necessary. My advisor picked my classes for the first semester and my German teacher was fantastic. I had to attend class every day, since intro language classes are five credits, and I never dreaded doing so. It never felt hard, but when I looked back after the final, I had learned so much more than I’d expected and actually enjoyed doing it. Then the same thing happened the next semester. And during my summer class. And during this past semester. I don’t know if it’s my Latin background helping me out or the amazing German department here or just my excitement at finally taking a solid step towards becoming bilingual, but it’s amazing. It has made me value being in an environment where everyone is learning and everyone is pursuing their passions because it means that I can find out for myself whether my passions and hobbies are actually something worth my time to pursue.
Back in August, I attended You’re Oklahome, a workshop for students returning from study abroad. I didn’t think that I was having any problems adjusting to the U.S. but I figured it would be nice to chat with other students about their experiences. The students who were returning from a semester or a year had many thoughts to share but I didn’t feel like I had anything meaningful to contribute. Now that the semester is ending and it’s been several months since my return from Germany, I find myself wishing that I could talk to students who have studied abroad and see if they feel the same way I do. See how much of an impact their travels actually made on them in the long run. I didn’t think that adjusting would be any trouble, I mean, why would it? I was returning home, to the country where I grew up and where I knew how everything worked. Piece of cake.
I spent a mere six weeks in Germany but it feels like it was so much longer. To my surprise, I spent a few months thinking that half of Europe was just a bus ride away. I would have an empty weekend and think: “Why don’t I go somewhere?” The first places to come to mind were in Stuttgart or the surrounding areas. I keep being reminded of all these little memories, things that made no real impact on me at the time. There was a little Chinese restaurant a few stops north where I would get takeout and then eat it in the plaza down the street. There was an Irish pub with an Australian bartender who was always a great person to talk to. There was this little area in the middle of downtown with narrow cobblestone streets that looked like they belonged in some Italian city. There was this little suburb down south that was pretty bland and uninteresting, except for this tall smokestack that said “DICK” in large, professionally-painted letters. There was an organic food store that reminded me of Whole Foods but smaller and much more authentic. There was a shop sporting the Union Jack that sold tea and red telephone boxes and everything you can imagine emblazoned with the London skyline. There was a French store that sold the most colorful, quirky versions of household items that I’ve ever seen and it took all my willpower not to buy one of everything. There was a fountain that looked like one of those blow-up bubble balls you use when playing human soccer and there was a plaza where breakdancers would practice in the evening and there was a tiny coffee shop that was also selling swimsuits and there was a bar built on top of a parking garage that looked like a sandy beach and there was a piano store with my last name and there was a makeup store where no one would talk to you unless you talked to them first and there was Mexican restaurant that played English pop songs and there was a staircase built for horses and there was just so, so much in such a short time. It’s weird that I can’t stop thinking about it all, right?
This semester, the U.S. Department of State brought a new Foreign Service officer, Kristin Stewart, to our campus as our Diplomat-in-Residence. In my opinion, the DIR program is a fantastic addition to the College of International Studies. Ms. Stewart hosted an information session early in the semester to introduce herself to the student body which I had the pleasure of attending. My knowledge of the Foreign Service was rather limited, and I had never considered a career in their ranks. As a result, the session was very interesting and informative.
Ms. Stewart led us through the many countries where she has been station, important officials she has met, and responsibilities she has held. I was particularly intrigued by how she balanced her work with her family life. Sometimes, her husband and children will travel with her and settle down while she fulfills her assignment but other times she has to leave them behind. I found her life experiences to be rather inspirational. In general, society is not particularly supportive or encouraging when it comes to long-distance relationships or wives maintaining a thriving career outside the household. Regardless, Ms. Stewart has managed to succeed at both. She has a husband and children and is a senior Foreign Service officer who is frequently required to travel around the world.
The session was brief but it showed that she was an expert at her job and had extensive experience to back up her world views. For those students interested in an international career, particularly through the government, she is certainly a fantastic person to speak with.