As strange as it is to contemplate, I only have three semesters left before graduating. As I finish up my finals, I am realizing that my once intimidatingly lengthy degree sheet has been mostly checked off. I still need a number of math classes, of courses, but otherwise I will mostly be filling up my upper-division hours with classes of my choice. This was an amazing discovery earlier this semester as I prepare to study abroad in the spring.
The main difficulty with study abroad is taking classes that you can actually use. Every school does things differently and schools in foreign countries do things very differently than schools in the United States. Particularly as a STEM major, it can be difficult to find courses that build on information you already know without relying on information you have not yet learned. Fortunately, I was able to straighten out my math courses and now just have to worry about electives.
Even after gen-ed, major, and minor requirements, I still have the flexibility to indulge in classes of my choosing. This is partially due to the math major and partially due to the the aggressive number of hours I have been taking each semester. On one hand, I could continue to pursue some of my interests that I have already been studying. There are several upper-division math and German courses which have caught my eye. I am qualified for a number of classes in the English department and in international studies. On the other hand, I could take an entry-level in an entirely new subject. OU is a huge university with a plethora of academic departments, many of which I have never touched. A good portion of my winter break will be spent determining which classes I should take abroad this spring and then at OU my senior year in order to meet my graduation requirements but still enjoy the ride.
During my first semester at OU, and during my first-ever German class, I was invited to attend a German poetry night hosted by the OU German Club. I don’t remember exactly why I went, although I suspect that my teacher offered extra credit. It was a lovely experience and it really opened my eye to German in new setting. The only German I had ever heard outside of class was in familiar Christmas carols sung every winter. My teacher encouraged me and everyone else in the class to participate, by reciting a poem or singing a song, but I was much too hesitant about my beginner-level German. Like most people, I get nervous talking in front of groups. My hands start shaking and my heart starts racing and I worry about how I’m standing, where I’m looking, and how I’m pronouncing my words. Everything gets worse when I’m not using my native language. When I attended the German poetry night this year, I decided to face my fears. In pursuit of extra credit, of course.
This semester I have been taking German Literature and Film, a course that dives into the expression of German artists as they process and reflect upon the tumultuous events of the twentieth century. It was difficult at first to process the metaphors and subtle insinuations that were tucked into innocuous, even simplistic events. Sarcasm is a great example. In English, I can follow the train of conversation well enough to recognize when a speaker is utilizing irony to emphasize a point or make a joke. This skill, however, has not yet carried over to German. In order to challenge my limits, I selected a poem by Bertolt Brecht. An esteemed playwright, Brecht is a master of provoking his audience and defying their expectations. When searching for the poem I wanted to recite, I found one stuffed with irony about the pursuit of education. It intrigued me, as did the poem’s effect on the audience. I think that as I move forward towards fluency, poetry will become a useful tool in exploring the subtleties of the language.
As a German minor, I sincerely appreciate how active the OU German Club is on campus. Every semester, the club organizes a variety of events to bring together faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates of all skill levels in their mutual appreciation of German language and culture. Throughout the semester, the club meets weekly, usually at a local restaurant, for a Stammtisch. Stammtisch translates as regulars table. An old German tradition, Stammtisch involves sitting around a table weekly and discussing events both current and personal. The club’s Stammtisch is often conducted in a mixture of English and German.
Every semester, the German club holds one big Stammtisch, gathering together as many people from the department as possible. This year, the big Stammtisch was held at Das Boot Camp on main street. An offshoot of Royal Bavaria, Das Boot serves traditional German fare, including schnitzel, bratwurst, spaetzle, and gurkensalat. The Stammtisch filled most of the restaurant, tables pushed together and overflowing with people. I recognized several professors, graduate students, and undergraduates with whom I had shared classes, but many faces were new to me. We discussed classes and teaching styles, unusual German traditions and regional dishes, and swapped stories from trips to Germany or Austria. The professors are either native speakers themselves or have extensively developed their fluency in German-speaking countries. Most if not all of the graduate students have studied abroad at some point and the undergraduate majors are required to spend a minimum of three-weeks immersed in the language. Although Germany is geographically smaller than Montana, it is home to roughly 80 million people and the differences from one region to the next are astounding. The big Stammtisch is a great way to gather an otherwise scattered population and bring a piece of Germany to the middle of Oklahoma.
As I wrap up this semester in a flurry of assignments and papers and truly terrifying exams, I cannot help but be excited for the coming semester. I have been accepted to study abroad at the University of Sheffield. It is a fantastic school with a rigorous mathematics program and I am thrilled to try out a new style of learning. The minimal homework sounds fantastic, although the finals worth 80% of your grade sound intimidating. While I will not not much about the academic experience until I arrive, I have eagerly been researching the country itself.
Despite reading a thousand books set in the UK and having seen a thousand more films and television shows, I have not had the opportunity to visit in person. England’s rich history has been present in many of my history classes and my grandfather has frequently explained my English roots, many generations back, of course. In comparison with Oklahoma, or Missouri, or half the states in this country, the UK seems incredibly small. Sheffield is closer to London than Norman is to Dallas and I have gone to Dallas for day trips on multiple occasions. Granted, I will not have a car there but I am looking forward to exploring the UK and Ireland via bus, train, and ferry. At the university, I will be reverting back to freshman year and living in a dorm again. Fortunately, I will have my own bedroom, which is a vast improvement from dorm life in the United States. Not to mention, I am beyond thrilled to be on a meal plan again.
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.