If you’ve ever studied abroad, or have friends who’ve studied abroad, you’ll know what I mean. ERASMUS in Dortmund, Germany 2015-16, at the TU Dortmund – a great chapter in my life and here’s why.
As my About & Bio page says, it was the main inspiration for this blog. Not only do I have memories for a lifetime: in the adventures, lessons learned and people met, I’d say the spirit of the whole experience is still with me today. I knew my future self would be envious, and all too soon I would be depressingly packing my bags. I had to make the most of this: I had to make this count.
Such a rich and memorable experience, but how on earth do I get it all into one reasonable-length post? Will I have to cut some valuable lessons? Where do I begin? After all, the whole learning experience wasn’t only my studies (logistics, management, engineering & German if you’re interested). Writing this both excited and uneased me.
After a bit of thought, I’ve realised this is going to need an entire blog series. But for starters, I’ve settled on four headings:
Communication: With many other international students, there were inevitably barriers to break down. Of course one such barrier was language, so having to figure out and complement others and the point they were trying to make. Not helped either by my Scottish accent, which was even stronger in the first weeks. It was my first real sense of ‘Emotional Intelligence’: trying to understand people from their perspective, “putting myself in their shoes”, thinking inside the other person. Essentially, self-awareness, self-management & interpersonal skills – which led to some great friendships, in turn leading to a valuable international network. Related:
Acceptance: Germany has some past history of course, something it’s today keen to distance itself from. Although finding myself the only Scottish or British person in many cases, I never once felt unwelcome. I am by no means the most extroverted person on the planet, but I took a simple approach: genuinely trying to understand and learn something from everyone I met – and not being judgmental. There was also the sense of having a stake in each other, everyone trying to make the best they could of their short-lived once-in-a-lifetime experience. Naturally, making friends and having fun was a breeze – possibly easier than back home! But when reflecting, the main theme was breaking stereotypes, a real process of becoming more accepting and tolerant of people.
Co-operation & Togetherness: As my first, and many others’, extended time away from home, I had far less to rely and depend upon. I lived with two other internationals in my accommodation on the south campus (Campus Süd), so realised early on it was also about learning to share things and organise around different routines and preferences. The same went for the 100+ international students as a whole: everyone was “in the same boat” so to speak, meaning we provided assistance with different needs and problems, especially those faced when a distance from home.
A big part of this was through the Erasmus Student Network – ESN and the IBZ (Internationales Begegnungszentrum/International HQ). By students, for students, they organised so many events throughout the year for everyone, allowing no problem fitting in and finding support. This, combined with the Intensive German Course (Intensiv Deutschkurs) & Cultural Programme events throughout September, was how I first met many other international students (I shared a course group with Belgian, Czech, French, Italian, Polish, Portugese, & Turkish students).
Responsibility: Alone at the beginning, in terms of people I knew and nationality, everything was up to me. There was a real sense of being outside my comfort zone. And if anything untoward happened, there was nowhere else to turn: what counted was my response: It helped when I told myself: Unexpected things happen, dealing with them is part of this, no-one else is going to do it for you.
I also took this approach to building a network: if I wanted support with anything, I had to foster the required connections and relationships. As I’ve said, not the most extroverted, I looked at it as a challenge. Time to ‘step outside myself’. Engage. Often I had to be pro-active and break the ice to get anywhere. Reminder: this wasn’t just about fun, it was self-development and self-discovery.
That’s at least an outline. Though early on, I’ve realised it’s going to take several posts to truly do it justice. The content and depth is there. Every time I go back to that familiar ‘old’ city, ‘old’ campus (and now) ‘old’ friends – German and foreign – I’m reminded of that time, and of course it’s impossible to separate the memories, experience and lessons alongside it.
Of course everyone has the “you had to be there” moments people inevitably won’t get, but are a big part of the experience. There’ll also no doubt be some repetition as I explore and take things further in future travels (like I did in Frankfurt) but I’ll stick to doing this only when it’s relevant and with back-referencing.
Tools & Tips
ERASMUS never ends, and social media keeps the network alive. It also means you can keep up with things after you’re home but a word of warning: the nostalgia can be torture.
- Erasmus Student Network – If you’re a student in Europe (home or international), this voluntary organisation has been fantastic for organising events & meeting people as well as discounts, cultural understanding and self-development. And I don’t mean just for exchange students: home students and volunteer helpers too. Based on the principle of students helping students, this seriously ensures your limited time abroad is an unforgettable experience. ESN Dortmund was great for organising trips, events & games on campus and the many student pubs.
- Tourism Dortmund – more insight into Dortmund’s famous historical, sporting and cultural attractions. I visited many with ESN and on the Cultural Programme, and I’ll expand on these in the coming posts.
I also found the following two books useful for overcoming cultural bias and getting the most from different people’s perspectives and positions. As Tim Ferriss says, “The commonsense rules of the “real world” are a fragile collection of socially reinforced illusions. “
- “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves – ‘EQ’ and the argument that it is just as important, if not more important, than IQ.
- “The Magic of Thinking Big” by David J. Schwartz – Recommended in The 4-Hour Workweek, this encourages optimism, making the most of every encounter (for yourself and others), and the poison of gossip and negativity. Not necessarily revolutionary, but consider it was published in 1959.
In some cases, I left more confused. It soon became clear perspectives, lifestyles and cultures can be so different, leaving so much more ambiguous and open-ended. Things became far more open to interpretation than I thought. Including events in life & the world, language, right and wrong, good and bad.
With trying to understand people’s positions I got the sense that as humans, different personalities mean many different emotions, and we largely act according to whatever emotion is the strongest at that time. Reason, logic and feeling don’t always mix. 6:00 in this Rupert Sheldrake interview gets at the same idea.
Next: Part I: DFB-Pokal Final>