- Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project. Write two or three sentences describing the main activities your STEP Signature Project entailed.
For my STEP project, I studied abroad for a full semester in the spring of my junior year in an exchange program at the University of Mannheim in Germany. I enrolled in english language political science courses to gain knowledge of the German political system as well as how political science is taught in Germany, while also experiencing German and European culture and society.
- What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project? Write one or two paragraphs to describe the change or transformation that took place.
My STEP project definitely changed the way that I view the world as well as my understanding of myself. I feel that I grew personally during my STEP project, and now that my project is over, that personal growth is already affecting my life. Over the course of the semester, I met people from all over the world. Although I was studying in Germany, my cohort of exchange students came from every continent, and I became friends with people from dozens of other cultures. Although I learned a lot in class, the people I met taught me a lot too. I quickly came to realize that although everyone comes from a different background and speaks a different language, everybody more or less wants the same basic things in life: happiness, friendship, success, et cetera. In other words, spending time with people from other countries and cultures makes it harder to believe the common portrayal of certain cultures as violent or hateful or dangerous. I learned a lot about myself, or at least how I interact with others. Like many people, I have a habit of trying to figure things out for myself, especially when it comes to simple things like looking for directions, or finding something in a store. However when you are in a foreign country where people speak a language that you don’t know, it is much harder to rely on your ability to work through a problem on your own. I came to understand that these simple interactions are valuable, and in a place where you don’t understand the language, entirely necessary.
- What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you? Write three or four paragraphs describing the key aspects of your experiences completing your STEP Signature Project that led to this change/transformation.
One of the most formative events during my education abroad happened on my first day in Germany. As soon as I got off the plane in Frankfurt and left the terminal, I knew I had to find my way to the train station to buy a ticket to Mannheim, the city 30 minutes south where I studied. Once I got to the train station, I was overwhelmed by anxiety. I knew I had to find the ticket desk to buy a ticket, but this meant speaking to the ticket agent, which would be the first time I had to approach somebody and interact with them. I was very nervous, even though I knew I didn’t need to be, and I was unsure if I would be able to speak English with them, even though I knew that almost the entire country speaks English and that I was in the train station of a popular international airport. I had to take a moment to prepare myself for the interaction, and when I approached the ticket desk I asked the agent if she spoke English. She said “yes, of course,” and after that moment I realized that I had no reason to get so worked up. Besides from making me embarrassed, that moment flipped a switch in me that immediately made me feel comfortable and eliminated nearly all of the anxiety I had about finding my way to my apartment in a foreign country for the first time.
Another, similar experience I had was another simple interaction. The closest grocery store to my apartment was a short two minute walk away, so I went often. I quickly came to recognize one of the cashiers there. One time, she was scanning my groceries and she tried to begin a conversation with me in German. I had to respond by telling her I didn’t know what she said and that I didn’t speak German, and she just said: “Oh, nevermind.” Like I often was during the semester, I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to speak to people in German. I continued to go back to the store a few times a week, and over time the cashier came to recognize me too. She began to say “hello again” and I started asking how her day was going. My repeated interaction with the same person gave me more confidence to interact with them, and it helped me become more used to approaching strangers despite knowing I would have to begin every conversation by saying I don’t speak their language.
My second change in mindset came more slowly. Not because it was a harder change to make, but because it was the result of all of the relationships I formed during the semester. The friendships I made with people from Germany, Canada, Australia, Russia, Latin America and other places where people came from different backgrounds and spoke different languages proved to me something that I already believed, and allowed me to see it for myself. Over the course of the semester I came to realize that all of the people I met wanted the same things from life: an education, a decent job, a happy life. It showed me that the rhetoric that is so popular in our national discourse that makes people afraid of others just because they were born somewhere else is nowhere close to true. It made me wish that the people who believe this rhetoric could meet the same people I met, and see that just because someone comes from another country doesn’t mean their culture or lifestyle or background is dangerous or threatening, but in fact that our differences are often times what bring us closer together.
- Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? Write one or two paragraphs discussing why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans.
The changes I experienced during my semester abroad undoubtedly made me a better person, and they helped me get closer to my professional goals. I feel that this semester has made me a more open person, a more confident person, and a wiser person. Professionally, I want to work in public policy. While my experience learning in the German education system will definitely help me reach my academic, and therefore professional goals, I believe that my other experiences will help me professionally even more. I believe that in my future profession it is important to consider all perspectives and take knowledge from all societies and backgrounds, and my semester abroad has made me more open and aware to that. I have also moved closer toward my personal goals. My confidence in speaking to strangers in a foreign country has already begun to translate into confidence in speaking with people back home. I learned a lot this semester. The experiences I had have undoubtedly made me a better person and made me more prepared for my future.