That’s right. Half a year. Six months. In honor of that stunning amount of time, I wanted to write an extended “Germany Thus Far” post. Just to warn you, this post is more reflective than it is story-telling.
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Sitting on the ferry a few days ago, I looked out at the mountains. They’re still snow-covered even though daffodils and an assortment of other flowers are popping up all over Konstanz. I was listening to a podcast discuss reactions to the recent terrorism in Brussels. A sound clip of Obama’s reaction played.
“I understand, when we see the sight of these kinds of attacks, our hearts bleed because we know that could be our children. That could be our family members or our friends or our coworkers who travel to a place like Brussels. And it scares the American people. And it horrifies me. I’ve got two young daughters who are growing up a little too fast, and I want them to have the freedom to move and to travel around the world without the possibility that they’d be killed.”
–Barack Obama, 23 March 2016
For some reason, I had a knee-jerk reaction to his comments. I immediately wanted to respond to him, to tell him that the “possibility” of which he speaks doesn’t matter. I have a grandmother who especially worries a lot. However, no matter how much she, or the rest of my family, or my friends, or anyone else worries, I’m not going to go back to the States.
If we allow ourselves to live in fear of the “possibilities,” then we will never experience the world. I for one would not feel fulfilled if I were not where I am today. This fear that leads us to restrict ourselves, to be isolationists, is exactly what the terrorists want us to feel. By giving in, they win. If anything, I will stay here in Europe just to stubbornly defy the wishes of terrorists.
This fear that people have about terrorist attacks, Syrian refugees, Muslims in general… It’s ridiculous. Statistically speaking, since 9/11 only three refugees in the United States have been arrested on terrorism charges, and no refugees have been successful with terrorist plots. Want more statistics? I am more likely to be killed in a car accident back in Missouri than I am to be killed by terrorists here in Europe.
My point is this: Fear cannot control our actions. I have not let it control my choice to move to and stay in Germany. I didn’t let fear hold me back from studying in Northern Ireland. I didn’t let fear hold me back from spending May Term in Mexico.
Going back even further, my 18-year-old self didn’t let fear hold me back from moving half-way across the country for college, to a state where I knew no one. When I think back over all of my accomplishments and challenges in life, I realize that while I may have been worried or even terrified, I never chose not to do something because of fear.
That’s when it hit me.
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Ever since I came to Germany I have been stressed about one thing or another. How am I going to manage this presentation? Will these student loans ever defer? Will I ever understand German? Will I get the money I need for my second year’s residence permit? Why am I not understanding x political theory? What happens if I fail? What happens if I decide this isn’t for me?
So many questions and not enough answers. I worry all the time that something will not work out. I do not want to have to go back to the United States, and I do not want to look like a failure. When I was thinking about how stupid it is to be afraid to travel based on the rare chance one might be killed in a terrorist attack, I realized how much of a hypocrite I am.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what happens with graduate school. Yes, there are consequences and outcomes to my actions, but in the end, life goes on.
So what if I get sent back to the States? It’s not a death sentence. I could just work three jobs at the same time again (or one higher-paying job), and then return to finish the program, albeit late. Sure, I might be pretty unhappy about having to leave, but I’d have the possibility to return.
So what if I decide graduate school isn’t for me? I have my days, but so far I am sticking with it. A lot of the reason is I feel like I’m not good enough to be here. It takes daily reminders to myself to remember that I’m here mainly because I worked hard to be here, not because I was lucky (though I’m sure luck and white privilege were also factors). I did get accepted, not rejected, into the program after all.
So what if I fail? While wonderful friends can reassure me as often as they want that I will not fail, I very well could. I could keep letting impostor syndrome tell me that I will never understand these theories. It could be the case that I bit off more than I can chew with this particular educational path. But so what? Graduate school is hard. People fail sometimes. At the end of the day, I still have a Bachelor’s degree and a set of passions that I could apply to earn a living.
I have been so busy worrying about all the “what if’s” in my life that I’ve managed to allow myself to have, hands down, the worst semester of my academic career. If I were to apply the same fearless approach I have towards living abroad to the other parts of my life here in Germany, then I’d be a lot better off.
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If you’ve been following along on this blog, you’ll recall that I counted ordering what I wanted at the bakery as a victory. There are a lot of little things here that are more difficult because there’s a different language, or a different set of residence laws, or a different education system. Even the things I find easy in Missouri become difficult when I try to do them in Germany. If the easy things are hard, try imagining how much more difficult the hard things are.
Still, as I think back over these first six months, I know that things wouldn’t be nearly as difficult if I were to just overcome my hesitation. I need to use the same bravery that I have walking up to the edge of a cliff to start chucking out some (most definitely horrible) German sentences.
To be honest, whether I fail graduate school or not, I think that my most critical concern with being in Germany is whether or not I can learn the language and get along in everyday life.
So far I’ve managed to get along at bakeries, grocery stores, public transportation, restaurants, etc. I also found a part-time job to help with the financial worries. I have even managed to do alright with socializing while at a table full of Germans. I think I have the basics all together, I just need to start applying speaking German to all of these situations.
I know it takes time, but I’m so impatient. I just want to be able to speak German, you know, effortlessly and without hard work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Instead, I’m stuck reminding myself that I have to stop being afraid to speak horrible German. To begin, let’s see how many times I can confuse der, die, and das in one day….
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In reflecting on these past six months, I’ve done a lot of really cool things. I went sledding down a mountain. I climbed to the top of a really tall church. I went hiking in the Alps. I adjusted to living in a city older than my home country’s government. I celebrated holidays new to me, and different to me. If ten years ago someone would have told me I would be doing these things, I’d have laughed.
While all these things are great (and I mean epic!), I have to think back about why I originally decided to come here. I came for the education, of course. I also came to Germany because I want to actively live the globally-oriented life I was fostering at my undergraduate college for four years. Professionally, I wanted to gain experience living abroad and grow a network in Europe. These are compelling reasons, but there’s something deeper when I really think about my motivation.
I didn’t want to take the safe, steady route after I graduated. I didn’t want to just settle for a “real job” in the States. I didn’t want to make myself work at a secure job with retirement benefits just to pay off my student loans and have the promise of “someday I’ll travel.”
Instead, I chose to seize the moment. I put all of my energy into graduate school applications and never even looked at a job ad. When I found out I was accepted, I put all my time into working summer jobs to finance my time here. At the end of the summer, I put all of my financial resources into the big move. In other words, I went all in.
Along with the guidance and unwavering support of friends and family, I’ve managed to move abroad successfully. Regardless of what happens, I’ll always have some great experiences to remember and stories to share for the rest of my life. I’ll always know that I broke down some pretty daunting barriers to make “the German graduate school dream” happen.
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It was winter last year, when sitting on my bed I looked over some program requirements. “This is it,” I thought. The University of Konstanz. For a moment, my breath caught and the world stood still. This one felt right.
I checked the admission requirements, and I fit them all. I looked the city up on a map. Approving of the location, I went to the two professors I most trusted and asked their opinions on the program. Hearing that they both thought it seemed to be a good fit for me, I started my application.
I can pinpoint several pivotal moments in my life. At the time, none of those moments seemed particularly special. I simply made decisions, not knowing how life-altering they would be. The moment that I decided to come to Germany I had an inkling that I may be off my rocker, but I seized the moment and went for it anyway.
To my Baldwin sisters who are graduating in less than two months, I hope you find your own moments. To all of the other wonderful people in my life who are undergoing incredible changes, stand by your moment. Go all in. It’s worth it.