March 13, 2013

Jacob Jones, Center for International Programs intern

Natalie Tanner: Study Abroad in Germany, London

VALDOSTA — From study abroad trips to student assistantships, Valdosta State University’s Natalie Tanner is becoming a tossed salad. A native of Jacksonville, Fla., she is majoring in international business, with a minor in German.

As a sophomore in college Tanner already has quite a bit of experience under her belt. Midway through her freshman year she decided she wanted to study abroad, and by January of the following year, she was already in Germany, studying politics and cultural studies at Zeppelin University, a privately funded business and research university in the lakeside town of Friedrichshafen, located in Southern Germany, along the banks of the Bodensee (Lake Constance).

During her six-month stay in Germany, Tanner attended classes with 800 Zeppelin students and around 25 other international students representing countries from all over the world, like Taiwan, Denmark, Mexico, Brazil, China, and Japan. These classes were taught in English, which, being her native language, gave Tanner a natural advantage over the other international students.

“Since the German students already took classes in English, the international students did as well,” she said. “Being from America, I knew English already, and German is my minor, so it definitely made things easier for me. But for the other internationals, it was more difficult; they were taking classes in their non-native language while in Germany, a country whose host language was also foreign to them.”

While there, these 25 international students became completely immersed in German culture. Once enrolled at Zeppelin, they were responsible for finding housing, transportation, classes, and food. The students literally lived, learned, and breathed German. Classes were totally mixed between international and Zeppelin students, exemplifying complete integration.

Another component of being in Germany that Tanner took part in was the “Rent an American” program. This program consisted of Tanner traveling to several local German schools to speak to children ranging in age from 5 to 14 about America.

For Tanner, one of the most significant cultural differences she experienced while in Germany was the demeanor of the people.

“Here,” she said, “especially in the South, I feel like it’s stressed to be polite, hospitable, and sometimes even overly friendly. There, though, that is not the case. Germans are more aloof. At first it is really easy to mistake that for rudeness, but then you realize that they just don’t feel like it’s necessary to be nice to complete strangers, like it is here. It’s almost like the stereotypical New York mindset -- every man for himself.”

An example Tanner gave of that individualist attitude is the concept of a sleepover. In the United States, young people frequently spend the night at a friend’s house; crashing on a friend’s couch is completely acceptable. In Germany, however, the mentality is that it is more logical for everyone to go back to their own place where they are paying to live.

Riding home after a night out is easier in Germany as well. Typically, more populous German cities have an established subway system (called a u-bahn) that many people ride, and if the city is too small to require a subway, as was the case with Tanner in Friedrichshafen, there is generally at least a reliable bus service in its place. Tanner noticed while in Germany something she thought was strange about the buses. When boarding, she was not checked for a ticket. However, all of the patrons still bought a ticket.

“It’s an honor system for them,” she said. “They know that their government is supplying them with this transportation, so they’re going to buy a ticket because it’s the respectful thing to do.”

Tanner speculated that in America that concept would never work because too many people would abuse it.

The education system is set up a bit differently in Germany as well. Zeppelin classes end in late April, similar to VSU, but in Germany, a student’s final work (exams, papers, and projects) is not due until mid-July, giving them approximately two months to complete. At first, Tanner thought that this concept sounded really innovative, but she soon realized that having finals two months after classes end has its downside. While it gives students time to take a break and then come back and really tackle those projects, she noted it also showcases procrastination at its finest.

After her classes were finished in April, Tanner spent the next two months working on final projects and traveling abroad in Europe. Since she knew people there from an exchange in high school, she went to Munich twice, and then Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, France, Lichtenstein, and later, Turkey. Once her rent had been paid and her finals had been completed, she then started the next leg of her study abroad experience — London.

Tanner’s experience in London was different than Friedrichshafen, as this trip was set up through the European Council; students were not only participating from VSU but from all over the state of Georgia. It was a much shorter trip, lasting only about four weeks, but she made the best of it. While there, Tanner studied intercultural communication as well as musical theatre, a class that required her to attend several theatre performances included in the price of the trip. Her repertoire included “The Wizard of Oz,” “Billy Elliott,” “Matilda,” and “Blood Brothers,” a British tragedy about fraternal twins separated at birth.

One of Tanner’s favorite experiences while studying abroad was in London when she lucked out and was able to attend the Wireless Festival, a music festival started in 2005 on par with New York’s Woodstock Music & Art Fair. She was able to see big-name musicians like Drake, Jessie J, Wiz Khalifa, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj. Another milestone for her was being able to see the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies, an event which required her to spend an extra week in London after her European Council group returned back to the US.

Overall, Tanner said that her experiences abroad have opened her up to a completely new worldview and given her a fresh perspective on how things in the world are done (and sometimes how they should be changed). She thinks everybody should travel abroad, given the chance, and that they should not let financial burdens stand in their way. Her philosophy is that if a student wants it bad enough, the money will fall into place. For her, these were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and she jumped at them.

“It was humbling,” she said, “and I feel better prepared now.” When asked for what, she simply smiled and said, “My major. My career. My dreams.”