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(July 25, 2002, Gazette)

Carpe diem

Stephanie McCarthyIt is not a regular occurrence and is still not guaranteed even when it is fervently wished for. Sometimes, however, a flight of fancy, considered too unlikely to ever be pulled off, comes true and is better than we had imagined.

With that lead-up, what could I be writing about? In keeping with the topic of the study abroad story penned for this Gazette, I am describing my own undergraduate study abroad experience, which occurred in August 2001. During that month I studied and lived in Heidelberg, Germany.

In January 2001 I was registered in my last semester as an undergraduate student. Despite the fact that I would continue with several undergrad courses post-graduation, completion of this winter semester would permit me to graduate in May. In early January I decided to act on an idea I’d been debating for a while: starting to learn a third language. I was very interested in German. With the approval of the professor, I began auditing the introductory course in addition to my five required courses. As the term progressed and I continued to thoroughly enjoy the class, I officially added the course. I would now complete German 1000 for credit.

Now came the germ of another idea, which I almost dismissed as being too improbable. I knew the German department offered a field school in Heidelberg each summer. It presented the opportunity to study at an institute whose mandate was to immerse students in German as a second language. Pictures of Heidelberg were very enticing. Starting a third language, traveling to Europe for the first time, learning in an environment where it was German-only and German everyday, and participating in a program designed to create the best possible situation for students, the trip to Heidelberg couldn’t have sounded better to me.

Acting on the encouragement of others (I assumed it was too late to apply and knew I lacked one pre-requisite), I contacted the professor who had created, and who each year directs the program. To my surprise and delight, an arrangement was possible whereby, because I would be a degree-holder, and because I fully intended to learn the required German on my own, I was granted permission to enroll in the spring semester courses whose culmination was the month in Heidelberg.

After that, things rolled quickly along. Meetings with the other students were held; we were briefed on what to expect and what was expected of us; course work was done amidst a hectic summer job schedule. On July 31, our group flew out of St. John’s, changed planes in Toronto and landed in sunny, scorching-hot Frankfurt bright and early the next day.

The month in Heidelberg surpassed my expectations for an intensive language program. We were in class for half-a-day every week day, and then were free to do as we wished. We were encouraged and invited to participate in activities designed to acclimate foreign students to the language, the city, and the culture. My class in the Heidelberger Sprachinstitut was taught entirely in German. We had been placed in a level best suited to our abilities by a brief interview and a short written test. We were expected to keep up with the work assigned by the instructor, but, equally as important, class time was allotted for light-hearted discussion (or as light-hearted as possible with our more-often-than-not rudimentary German!), movies, and songs. Our teacher was Mara, whose first question each day upon entering into the classroom was resolutely the same: Was hast du gestern gemacht? What did you do yesterday? Despite our linguistic fumbles and stammers, and sometimes inordinately long pauses-for-thought, Mara kept the conversation going and everyone had to speak up. Some students, having already learned some German, were better than others. Besides the students from Memorial, I attended class with people from Spain, France and the Czech Republic amongst other countries. One particular student was so good in German he not only got his point across during our daily speaking sessions, he cracked jokes...that we understood! I guess that says something positive about our level of German as well.

We were all “beginners” but we all wanted to learn. That was one of the most positive aspects of this trip. I learned a great deal while I was there, and speaking faltering German to a new friend from Japan, who didn’t speak English, didn’t faze me at all. I remember one conversation later in the month that could actually be termed “fluid”; not fluent mind you, I was only there a month! But the German flowed easily enough that I knew I had improved.

And I’d need another page to write about the wonderful trips we took on the weekends outside Heidelberg. One highlight is the two days spent in southern Germany. The train ride alone stands out. The scenery as we headed to Bavaria could have been used as an image splashed in a glossy travel magazine to plug Contiki Tours. In fact, it probably is. A group of us spent a night in the youth hostel in Munich (a hostel that was exceptionally clean and comfortable), and I continued my trip the next day to the famous, tourist-swamped and hard-to-pronounce castle, Neuschwanstein. Needless to say many pictures were taken to record this trip.

If my trip was any indication, studying abroad more than complements an undergraduate career; studying abroad enriches a degree program and imbues it with a positive memory. Such an intensive program brings immediate satisfaction, a sense of true accomplishment and a feeling of confidence. And the vigorous scholastic schedule we followed in Heidelberg was enhanced and made more enjoyable by the “field trips” made after school.

Take advantage of everything your journey abroad offers. If you are like any of us were in Heidelberg, you won’t need much convincing to enjoy the experience as much as possible, wherever you go. That is not to say that a study abroad experience will be absolutely without fault, however. Let’s just say my roommate and I became experts at a quick, efficient two-step method of ridding our residence of unwanted eight-legged creatures. But did we let that spoil our trip? Of course not! But that’s another story.