COMM3224 Story 4: Go abroad and outgrow yourself

The years 2009 and 2010 changed my life. In August 2009, it was time for me to get out of my shell and leave the village where my family’s roots are, where I grow up, where my best friends live and where I gained personal and professionals skills. It was time for me to broad my horizon in a way that was not possible in my small German hometown in the middle of nowhere. I switched my well-organized life with an exciting, uncertain and challenging life as an exchange student in a foreign country, the United States of America.  It is too hard to put all of my experiences into one single paragraph. The fact is, I wouldn’t be the person I am today and wouldn’t be where I am today: back in the US further growing.None of these changes could have happened without the support of an amazing, unique and traditional exchange program named Congress-Bundestag-Youth-Exchange for young professionals (CBYX). The CBYX is designed to encourage American and German partnerships. It is equally funded by both governments. Since 1983, they have chosen 75 American students and 75 German Students to participate in an exchange where they live with host families and spending one year immersed in university, work and social-life in another country.

I know how it is to be a German in the US but I am also curious about the opposite. For that reason, I decided to reach out to 23-year-old Jesse Lee from West Windsor, NJ and 21-year-old Caitlin Carnes from Pleasant Hill, CA. Both Lee and Carnes, returned from their CBYX year in Germany a couple of months ago.

“I really like ‘Dudelsack’”, Carnes chuckled when I asked her for her favorite German words. She loves the German way of compounding words to create a new one, like “Fingerspitzengefühl”. She is a senior at UC Berkeley and studies Political Economy and German. She was always interested in Germany and she has been studying German for a long time. Carnes heard about the program from one of her professors. “I just thought that sounded so cool!” she said. “I never could have afforded to do a whole year study abroad without a program like this,” she continued.

Lee, on the other hand, had already spent a summer abroad in Germany when he was a junior in college. He really wanted to go back and tried to find a way to do it. “CBYX provided me the best opportunity to go back to Germany to learn more about the country,” he said, when I visited him at his new job as the Managing Engineer at Delta V Biomechanics in Palo Alto, CA. “For us Americans it is a unique opportunity to have everyday interactions with Germans and learn about German culture beyond what you can learn from the textbooks,” he said.

The yearlong work/study fellowship starts with a two-month intensive Germany language training, followed by a semester at a Germany university merged with a five-month internship in a German company. Besides covering the costs for language school and tuition for university, CBYX provides travel expenses, monthly living stipends and housing with a Germany family. Not every participant can stay with a host family; the program provides student dorms or apartments for them.

After language school in Cologne, Lee moved to Osnabrück for the university phase, where he studied process engineering. He lived in a student dorm for about four months. He finds that there are many more activities and events planned for people in the dorms in the United States than in Germany. This is because people in the US pay much more money for their university life than students do in Germany; therefore, the student organizations in Germany are much more limited.

Although he lived in a dorm, Lee had a host family experience. He got close with his friend’s host-father Andreas. He reached out to Lee to see how he was doing. In addition, he invited him over for dinner once a week. “He’d always be there to talk and have a beer with,” added Lee, smiling.

For his internship, Lee moved to a small town named Epe, near the German-Dutch border. That is when he had a low point because he was only living by himself. “Epe is very, very, very small town. I had just left my friends from the University and I didn’t know any people in that area”, he said. However, after a few weeks, when he adjusted to his new situation and the company he worked for, he felt a lot better.

Caitlin was living in a similar situation. After the language school, she moved to Erfurt where she lived by herself in a one-room apartment until the end of the program. “Especially during the university phase, I felt pretty isolated from other students. I also didn’t live close to the campus of her university,” she said. In the first months, she felt shy to talk to other Germans, but she enjoyed talking to many other international students from all over the world. She meet her closest German friend through a yoga class. “We both took yoga together, and we started talking and became friends. She introduced me to a lot of her friends”. She thinks that living alone can be an obstacle to integrating yourself in a new culture, but if you put yourself out there and really try to reach out to people, you can really have some good relationships.

She interned at the district office of a member of the parliament, Mr. Carsten Schneider. He represents Erfurt and the city, which is closest to it, called Weimar. It was a small office with only four other people working there who were very welcoming to her and tried to give her tasks that were interesting and challenging.

She wrote many blog posts for his website. For example, she accompanied him to events at banks or trade unions and wrote a blog post about it afterwards. She also helped preparing his election campaign, where they went door to door and reached out for people for example.

Although they had a tough start with the German language, both of them did like it. “It was definitely challenging at the beginning, especially when you try to set up a new life in a country,” said Carnes. When she first bought her cell phone, she couldn’t get it work. She called the customer service line. “It was so hard,” she said smiling. “I had no idea what the guy was saying and he had no idea what I was saying,” she continued. She recognized that the more time passed, the better she got the easier it got to talk and the more fun it got. “By the end of the year I felt really good. I felt that I did improve a lot. For Lee the most challenging thing was at language school. He tried to force himself to speak in German, because he was surrounded by other CBYXer and they knew they could speak perfect English to each other.

Caitlin told me that she personally benefitted in so many ways from going to Germany.  “I think I am a lot more mature and I am a lot more independent and proactive about things. I feel more responsible in my own life and I feel very capable because I have had the experience of living alone and taking care of myself. I accomplished a lot throughout the year,” she said enthusiastically. Now she feels more prepared to enter the working world and make that transition from student to a young professional.

Professionally she grew immensely. She developed Germany fluently, which is a huge asset in today’s working world. She also found that the experience of working in another culture directly translates to her life. She learned how to work with people with different backgrounds and to communicate to get her message across and to adapt to a variety of tasks.

Lee grew so much as well, “It definitely wasn’t easy. There are many struggles in living in a foreign situation. There are certainly some days where you just blow up and you just want to be as American as possible and speak English to everyone. It’s really challenging but it is very rewarding. I would do it again!”

To encourage someone else to go abroad Carnes would say, “It may seems a little scary but it’s 100% worth it, because everything that you put into it you are going get so much more out of it. You are going to grow as a person, professionally and you are going to see and experience things that will change your life!”

If the experiences of Carnes and Lee have inspired you to take the challenge going abroad here are the application requirements at a glance:

  • You have to be an US citizen or permanent resident
  • 18-24 years old at start of the program
  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Clear career goals, with some relevant work experience
  • Strong interest in German and international affairs
  • Flexibility, independence and diplomacy, with a strong sense of American identity
  • Prior German language skills are not required

CBYX is designed for participants in business, technical, vocational, and agricultural fields. Therefore, students from all fields mentioned are encouraged to apply online at www.cbyx.info. The application deadline is December 1 every year. For further questions, contact Cultural Vistas at cbyx@culturalvistas.org or 212-497-3522.

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