Familiar Places, New Outlooks: Living and Studying in Bonn, Germany through STEP

With funding from STEP, I spent the spring and summer of 2019 studying abroad in Bonn, Germany, with other students from Ohio State and beyond. The program entailed taking classes through the University of Bonn’s international office, and during my time there I also participated in two university seminars with native German students. It was an eye-opening experience that gave me insight into living in a foreign country, interacting with people of different backgrounds, and studying at a European university.

As a history and German double major, I had known since the beginning of my freshman year that I would study abroad in Germany. I had been there on exchange before and was eager to return with fresh eyes and in an academic context. My previous experience in the country mitigated some of the challenges that come with transition into a new community. However, my time in Bonn was anything but predictable. The friends, places, and experiences that made up my time abroad ultimately had a vast impact on my worldview and my understanding of life in other countries. Taking classes and making friends with native German students, I picked up on differences within German society. Like the US, it is a decentralized and diverse country that is home to many different identities, dialects, landscapes, and cultures. Learning about and visiting many parts of the country, I acquired an understanding of Germany that I never could have without living there. The same is true for other countries I visited more than once over the course of the semester, including Spain and France. My experience abroad taught me to be cautious with preconceived notions I might have had about a given place, as it is impossible to truly understand a culture without experiencing it firsthand.

That said, it was not only the places that opened my eyes to new ideas. Someone who impacted me greatly during my time in Bonn was a university student and aide to the exchange program named Jacob. Born and raised in China, Jacob was enrolled in boarding school in the US as a teenager and moved to Germany to pursue a masters’ degree in political science. By moving frequently between such distinct places, he has acquired a level of assimilation and identity in all three countries and is fluent in all three languages. What Jacob taught me was to move past my preconceived idea of assimilation. To me, it was always an end goal. By learning the language fluently, I would fit in perfectly, or so I thought. Jacob’s story taught me that integrating into a new culture has no limits. There is always something more I could learn to better connect with native speakers. Similarly, my fluency and knowledge of colloquial language can always improve to sound more natural. And finally, I learned that by continuing to think of the country as foreign, it will remain just that. It is by establishing a life and valuable relationships somewhere that a place has its most meaning.

Another important takeaway from Bonn was that the most valuable experiences came from stepping out of my comfort zone. Before studying in Bonn, I took two months to conduct independent research in Berlin and Madrid. Arriving in Berlin to begin my work in the archives, I realized I had never done anything like this before, let alone in a foreign country and language. What started out a taxing and nerve-wracking responsibility became an incredibly rewarding experience that has since taken center-stage in my academic career as I now begin to write my undergraduate research thesis. The lesson I learned was not to miss out on something just because the setting is not as comfortable as it could be. Conducting archival research is hardly a glamorous process, but as someone truly passionate about history, I can’t imagine having missed out on it. Additionally, without being comfortable in the unknown, I would not have made the lasting friendships that I did. Being adventurous was an important and valuable component of the experience.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I learned that most of my experiences in life are in large part what I make of them. There were of course difficulties, from roommate issues to cultural faux pas to work overloads, and it’s easy to get bogged down in the negative aspects of anything. Still, during difficult moments, I realized that I only had so much time to be living in Europe. Pessimism can be overcome by getting out and keeping things exciting. Exploring a new part of the city, trying a new activity, or even doing something familiar in a new setting were all ways I determined to make the most of my semester abroad every day.

The time I spent in Bonn will continue to serve me as I finish up my undergraduate career and begin my next phase of life. I already have begun finding opportunities to continue my education abroad, whether in Germany or elsewhere in Europe. While in Bonn, I achieved a high enough score on a language exam to pursue a master’s degree at a German university, where I would study in German with other local and international students. I also have now come much closer to finishing my German major, and the research I conducted abroad has been integral to my thesis, the cornerstone of my undergraduate academic career. Lastly, the relationships I made with both German and other international students have continued to last and are a cherished takeaway from my life in Bonn. I know that I will never forget the impact of my experience abroad, and I hope that other students discover the same is true for them.