Thomas C. Begin

Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, United States


My Time Abroad

Five months, one hundred forty seven days, 3,528 hours. This is the amount of time I spent abroad in Germany. But my experience can’t be put in a numerical sense, it doesn’t feel right and I don’t think it accurately sums up the time I spent here. When people ask me how long was in Germany I find it to be more appropriate to say long enough to make connections with people that span across the globe, long enough to not feel like a tourist, and long enough to say that my favorite thing to do didn’t involve bars or clubs but a little café where I regularly went to enjoy a book. Not only is that how I would accurately describe my length of stay in Stuttgart but it is also what I’m most proud of.

Before I started my journey abroad I didn’t really have any big expectations. I knew very little about the country along with the city of Stuttgart. Because of this I was able to arrive with an open mind and everything seemed so new and fresh and I was bewildered by it. Some of the friends I had made here told me about how they had been to Stuttgart before their time abroad here and had gotten the feel of the city and surrounding. For me being 4,000 miles and an ocean away that wasn’t an option, and even if it was I wouldn’t of chosen to do that. Part of why I decided to go abroad was to fully immerse myself in an unknown environment and put myself in an immediate sink or swim situation. I craved and looked forward to that challenge. This is why I made no assumptions, no expectations, and came in hitting the ground running. Since I came here with this approach I got the challenge I was looking for, and a challenge it was. With more cultural differences that I can count I quickly had to learn to adapt to this new and different way of living. Such as having to shop for groceries every day, cooking every day for myself, and to learning how to read and use the tram transportation system.

Although the main focus of my time abroad was to study abroad, there was so much more to my time here than just that. Life outside of school was thrilling with a new adventure every day. When I first got here it consisted of exploring the city center in the heart of Stuttgart, going to local restaurants, and of course checking out the many car museums. After I went through the initial "tourist" phase I begin venturing outwards. Going down the less popular roads without the big flashy shops and signs, enjoying biking through the many near by fields, or meeting up with recently made friends to barbeque need a small pond. As I stated before one of my favorite things to do was to grab my book and head to small out of the way café and sit outside for as long as I wanted and just relax and read. Being independent here and going off on my own gave me a great sense of pride and accomplishment in that I was able to do so in a new country.  It was these things that I enjoyed the most and made me realize that I wasn’t just a tourist here any more.

When it came to the actual "study" part of study abroad I was excited to see how another education system worked. In comparison to what I was used to the education I got here felt so much more organic. Back home classes worked by reading information out of a book and then talking about it or listening to a teach talk at you for and hour and a half or sometimes longer as you try to retain as much as possible. Here it was much more natural than that. My classes here were based on group discussion and questions that any of us had. There would be a loose program for that day but it would mostly be about what we as students would ask to learn about, which made so much sense to me and fascinated me. Something that I was most impressed with was one of my teachers in my Visual Effects class. My teacher the first day of classes explained this was his first time teaching a class and said how much he disliked the same class when he took it years ago and he was determined to make the class about us learning not about him teaching which blew me away. He had told us how he worked for a very well known visual effects company and had worked on movies such as Transformers and The Avengers and explained how he worked on the movies and what it was like working in the real world. Never before had a gained so much experience and knowledge through what just felt like casual conversations, and in this style of teaching I learned so much about my field. Something else I enjoyed was how grading was all work based instead of the usual standardized tests. So instead of having some huge test that you cram study for a few nights before and then forget in time after the test I was graded on my work and projects which I found to be a much better way in assessing my knowledge and what I was taking away from my classes. One last thing that amazed me was how the school set up events allowing the students to proudly show off and display their work to fellow class mates and whoever else chose to attend these functions. During these nights I would go around and see student’s work from all types of classes and mediums from graphic design, to print media, video game design, and many more. It made me proud to see what bigger group I was a part of and made me thankful for being at HDM.

When it came to interacting with people outside of school, I found them be very welcoming and very eager to ask about and to here about my trip in Stuttgart and about Germany. It seems at least 3 times a week I would be on the tram and someone would hear that I was from the United States and would ask me about my time here and I would be more than happy to discuss it with this stranger. Besides just friendly talk people were always very happy to be of help if I was to stop them in the street for directions or to enter a store and ask for help with something. One of the most memorable moments with this was when I was looking to apply for my visa and I was walking in circles for the better part of an hour looking for the building. I asked a near by worker at a restaurant if he could help me and with a smile not only gave me directions, but lead me himself to the building. I told him that I was applying for a visa and he told me how he came to Stuttgart and did exactly what I was doing over twenty years ago and never left. It’s the small connections like this I made with so many people that made me feel so welcomed and happy to be here.

It’s amazing to see where I am now thinking back to when I was going through the steps and motions to get here; it was not an easy task. I spent countless ours filling out application after application and dealing with multiple challenges such as the different school semester schedules, setting up housing, and class selections. It was surprisingly difficult on my home school’s end to line everything up for my trip while the school abroad was very helpful and simple to get my trip in order. At home though I did have a very informative study abroad councilor who gave me everything step by step that I needed to get done. I also have her to thank for telling me about the BWS-World network and stipend. The application process for BWS-World was incredibly simple and easy. It was easy to navigate, straight forward, and kept track of everything you had completed and had yet to complete so you always knew your progress level when it came to finishing. If every other part of my preparation were that simple it would have been amazing. The HDM School in Stuttgart also has a very helpful study abroad coordinator who was more than helpful and went above and beyond to fix any problem that arose during my time here, in and out of school. If I ever had question or a problem from as small as translating something from Germany to English to helping me set up my visa she was always there with a smile to make sure everything worked out. When it came to my own responsibilities on preparing for my time abroad I was very eager to get everything done. I made sure to meet every deadline with time to spare, was constantly asking if there was anything else I should be getting prepared to both my home and host school, and just making sure everything was in check and in place overall when it came to applications and paperwork. It all seemed surreal when it cam down to it though. I never thought that I would be booking flights to and from Europe and looking into housing and into getting visas to stay for so long somewhere. As someone who rarely has an opportunity as big as this to leave my small bubble of a world it was very exciting.

As I stated about the level of ease when it came to joining the BWS network, joining it was one of the most important steps I took when it came to my trip abroad. Not only was the generous stipend extremely helpful for me, but also the network I became a part of was extremely valuable. Reading testimonies about other’s experiences and travels was very easing and reassuring when it came to my initial arrival here. Seeing what others had done and accomplished through and with the help of BWS-World was exciting as well to know that I was a part of that network and had those same opportunities. Upon my arrival home I plan on sharing my experiences and stories of my amazing time abroad with the hopes to get others from my school to study abroad as well. With that my first word of advice will be to join the community of BWS-World and not just for the stipend but also for the connection and be a part of something so big and useful. Other tips I would give to those choosing to study abroad and scholarship recipients would to be to just take every day one day at a time during their journey. If you focus too much on everything that has to get done you’ll be tripping yourself up and quickly feel the pressure of becoming overwhelmed. Look at each day as a day to achieve something new and explore and everything else will fall into place.

As comes the near end of my trip it seems like my time has past in a blink of an eye. I was told before I left that this trip would change me. I took that as just meaning I would see the world differently and become a worldly traveler, but it was much more than that. I now see myself different and see myself stronger and with more ambition to utilize throughout life. I have a new sense of pride in myself that I was able to make it through this journey, and not only survive here but thrive. It didn’t take long for me to get past that sense of feeling like a tourist or being on vacation and that’s something I’m also proud of. Forever after this trip I will be able to say to myself, "I did it." I broke out of my bubble and took on the world. Which is something that I will be able to carry with me wherever I go.