Independence, Confidence, and Global Perspective: Gradual Change in Study Abroad

Kathryn Kudlaty ’14 is the current president of Honors Student Council and will graduate this May with a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering. She provides Texas A&M University Honors Program’s second contribution to the second-annual National Honors Blog Week. The theme for this synchroblog is “Things You Can’t Learn in a Classroom.” To read other contributions to this effort, visit the hub hosted at http://www.honorslounge.com/taxonomy/term/3287.

By Kathryn Kudlaty –

When I started college at A&M, I possessed a fascination with world German Countrysidetravel that was relatively unsubstantiated.  A few family vacations and a short trip to Italy with some fellow Aggies before the start of our freshman year had left me with a strong desire to study abroad, wanting to really experience the world of which I had only gotten a tiny glimpse. I had a chance to do so the spring semester of my sophomore year. Reminiscing back on the time I spent in Germany and various other European countries, it strikes me as funny that the experience is encompassed with such a phrase—“study abroad” when really, the importance of being abroad so vastly overwhelms the classroom studying being done. Don’t get me wrong, I was still enrolled in all of my rightful biomedical engineering classes and there was plenty of schoolwork that went along with that, but all of that is way down the list of things I took away from that semester.

One of my fondest early memories of the semester started out as a Group in front of a cathedralbit of a misadventure. I wanted to keep up with my running in Germany and I also wanted to get acquainted with Bonn (my new hometown) a little better. I decided that looking at a few maps and jogging out the door would be a great way to accomplish both of these goals…
There seem to be two basic arguments when it comes to getting lost:

  1. It is a regrettable side effect of being ill-prepared and easily confused, or
  2. It is a wonderful way to see unknown places and new scenery.

Since the weather was a little warmer than it had been previously (a whopping 8⁰C), I was trying to stay with the optimistic point of view while getting increasingly more and more turned around. I did manage to make it to the Rhine River (my desired destination) and—perhaps more importantly—back home again. Despite the few wrong turns, I think that this event kind of sums up a key point of my study abroad experience- becoming independent. Whether it was making my way through a country in which I only spoke a few words of the language or figuring out the public transit system for weekend trips, my time in Germany really fostered my independence. I learned that the risks that take us outside of our comfort zones are often the most rewarding, and that I had been in the habit of underestimating my abilities. It took being immersed in a totally foreign place and culture for me to realize that I could reasonably navigate unknown situations. I don’t think that this kind of upheaval is necessary for everyone to realize their potential, but I needed all the help I could get.

Another huge benefit of my trip was Germany’s rich past and exciting present. One such remnant of the past is the TowerSachesenhausen concentration camp, which my fellow classmates and I had the chance to visit. Neither words or pictures can do it justice. Even the emotions that I experienced upon walking the grounds were relatively shallow compared to the reality of what happened there and many other similar places. It was visiting places such as these that really granted me a global perspective—how happenings in one country were both influenced by and catalysts for events in many others…

On a similar (but much more uplifting) note, I was able to pursue an independent study program on this trip, shadowing German surgeons as I did research on the history and development of prosthetic devices. It was surprising to me how similar the operating room was to those in the United States; I wouldn’t have been able to pick one from the other. It’s just a reminder of how modernSurgery technology is a ground which unites us globally. German prosthetics share lead spots in the market with American and other European devices. Although I did gain insight into the different medical atmosphere of Germany in regards to their “universal” healthcare and governmental regulations, I was more impressed by the similarities in our lives than the differences.

Upon returning to the US, I experienced quite a few instances of culture shock. (American bills are oddly the same size… and water fountains everywhere, I mean water… for free? What a novel idea!) Really though, the most important changes I experienced were those alterations which had taken place gradually, in daily steps throughout the semester, culminating in my being miles away from where I started in terms of independence, confidence, and global perspective.

The list of things that I learned is extensive, but I’ll leave a few comical or otherwise practical items here. I know that most of these relate to studying abroad or being in a foreign country, but it’s just another example of how much experiential knowledge you can gain outside of the classroom.

  • Memorize your train/tram stops and schedule. Just as importantly, know what time of night and for what occasions it no longer runs. And if while you’re walking to the stop you hear it coming from around the corner, run! It’ll be worth it.
  • Keep a personal journal. Not just for the big impressive stuff, but the little things too, because they’re easier to forget and just as valuable.
  • Double check your train tickets at connection points and be prepared to ask for directions when for some reason platform 12 is not between platforms 11 and 13.
  • Don’t get too frustrated by the initial culture shock. Expect things to be different in a foreign country, and try to appreciate it.
  • Pack efficiently. Not necessarily bare-bone—you need to be prepared for the weather and activities. Just realize that there may be a time when you have to carry all of your possessions through multiple train cars worth of crowded aisles or up several flights of subway stairs.
  • NEVER let yourself take the amazing buildings and history for granted, even if you walk through town every day. When you get back to Texas, there are no towering Gothic cathedrals.

 

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