November 3, 2023

Change of Scenery, Change of Life

Change of Scenery, Change of Life

Change of Scenery, Change of Life

By Julia Fulmer  |  November 2023  |  FMU Focus Magazine Fall 2023

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FMU’s Julia Fulmer (’24) discovered more than historic markers and pretty landscapes during a semester studying abroad. Here’s her version of what she found.

I would be lying if I said it was my lifelong dream to study abroad.

In fact, before I got to college, I thought everything I’d ever need to see was already in the U.S. Maybe this was just fear of the unknown. Maybe it was just immaturity.

Whatever the case, my views began to change after I arrived at FMU. Somewhere during my sophomore and junior years I was exposed to the idea of traveling and studying abroad and the idea began to find a place in the front of my mind. One source of inspiration was my older brother, who had just returned from a two-year stint working abroad. I also had some friends who were either considering international travel or had traveled in the past.

One day, I heard about an international students’ interest meeting at school. I can’t explain exactly why, but I just felt like I needed to go. On a whim, I pulled up a chair in the crowded Honors Center classroom.

An hour or so later, I left with something completely unexpected: a firm idea that I was going to study for an entire semester in a small, rural town in Germany.

The decision wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I had to sort through a long list of pros and cons, and I had to get over my initial fears. What pushed me over the line was realizing that most of the “cons” started with “what if …?” Should two little words stop me from a life-changing adventure? I decided they should not.

As it turned out, this was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Small Walls, No Micro!

Five students from FMU traveled to Germany with me. Three of us — Ronisha Genright, Nyah Pee, and me — attended the Schmalkalden University of Applied Sciences. We were all able to stay on-campus. I shared a two-room apartment with Ronisha for the semester, which turned out to be really cool since it gave us a chance to compare notes and share each others’ experiences.

Dorm life in a new and very different place took a bit of getting used to. I’d never been able to touch all four walls of a bathroom from one spot — it was a little small! — or lived without a microwave. But, in time I became attached to our humble abode, my very first apartment.

Whatever the apartment lacked in conveniences, it was conveniently located. I could walk to every class in under five minutes. That’s quite a difference from my life as a commuter student at FMU. The semester in Germany spoiled me in that regard: quick commutes and big savings on gas money.

Once I got to class there were even bigger differences. The approach to education at Schmalkalden is very different. In the U.S., it’s standard for the final grade in our college courses to depend on a combination of our performance on homework assignments, projects, participation, and exams. The final grade was based on an accumulation of work. At Schmalkalden — and I understand this is common across Europe — the final grade depends upon one exam at the end of the semester.

This could be considered a blessing and a curse. On one hand, this allowed some students to travel internationally for weeks on end and keep up with their studies remotely. On the other hand, if someone learns better in a classroom, missing sessions frequently could have a massive effect on their performance. Sorting this out was an important step.

Class meetings were different, too. Most classes at Schmalkalden met just once or twice a week. The schedule was also more random. A class might meet at the end of the day Tuesday and pick up with a second section early on Wednesday.

There was some method to this madness. For instance, the way my classes aligned allowed me to have a built-in four-day weekend. I took full advantage.

Easy Travel

Our student IDs (or “Thoskas”) were good for free train travel in our region. So, I traveled all the time. I discovered that, for whatever reason, sitting on a train and having the countryside fly by the window helped with my focus, so it was frequently my study environment of choice. It did, unfortunately, have an element of commitment, so there were a few funny instances of being asked to hang out while I was on an outbound train to a neighboring town.

Traveling in Germany and Europe is incredibly easy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a fellow classmate say they were “just popping over to Prague for the weekend” or “booked a last-minute train to Paris.” After some budget airline recommendations from friends, I was even able to grab a couple of weekend trips to Ireland and England.

For a lot of people in the U.S., international travel is a hefty commitment, requiring months or even years of planning. However, because so many countries are grouped so closely together in Europe, and because of the European Common Market, traveling from country to country is, for the most part, as easy as traveling from state to state in the U.S.

Of course, when you cross the border in Europe you’re in a new country, with a new language and culture. The biggest hurdle to international travel is just getting in the vicinity, but once you’re there, you’ve got a whole world waiting to be explored.

And, there’s plenty to discover — about that world and about yourself.

Stepping out of your comfort zone, out of the “normal” life you’ve spent years creating, is a surreal experience. There is a realization that you can start afresh, building up the parts of yourself that you want to strengthen.

Before I went to Europe, I would describe myself — most people who know me would describe me this way, too — as someone who is friendly but not outgoing. I wasn’t a recluse, but I wasn’t in the middle of everything either.

Almost as soon as we landed in Germany, it was as if a switch had flipped. Suddenly, I was talking to nearly everyone I saw, making whole new groups of friends, hopping on trains and exploring random towns “just because.”

I was more outgoing, and yet, somehow more confident, content to explore by myself too. I met students from countless countries (I learned I needed to brush up on my geography) and had incredibly rich conversations purely based on mutual curiosity and respect.

The classrooms at Schmalkalden overflowed with the hustle, bustle, and the intriguing chatter of a dozen languages. Every so often, just when I felt like I was getting used to it, the excitement about the whole experience would hit me again.

A Few Takeaways

There is so much that I gained from my experience abroad, but here are some of the biggest takeaways, at least at this early date, just a few months removed:

New place, new ways

I always knew other countries existed, of course, and I’ve always known there are different languages with different histories connected to different traditions and towns full of different architecture. But stepping into these countries and viewing “differences” to the U.S. through the lenses of what is “normalcy” to locals is an eye-opening experience.

It shows up in, among other things, the ways each country finds solutions to the same problem. This can be as simple as how to store a shopping cart at a grocery store, how to recycle cans and bottles, or simply how to cook potatoes.

New place, new perspectives

There’s great value in traveling internationally for the first time, if only for that moment when it dawns on you just how much is out there that you still haven’t seen.

Similarly, being gone for an extended period allowed me to view my own home and life with fresh eyes. I now approach small nuances in the U.S. from a similar air of curiosity, motivated to search for better solutions to the same problems.

Not every day abroad was an upbeat adventure. I struggled at times when I missed friends and family back home. There were times when I saw the person I didn’t want to be.

But those days were few in number. Most of the time, I danced down the street (sometimes literally), laughed with friends, and learned what kind of person I did want to be.

Traveling wasn’t just an educational experience. It helped shape my growth into the person I am today and the person I want to be for the rest of my life.

I’d say it went pretty well.

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