I remember the night I arrived in Berlin. I got to the airport with nothing but the phone number of my soon-to-be roommate. I went over to a payphone and tried calling, but she wasn’t answering. I was already jittery, and having no one to tell that I had made it to Germany in one piece sent the butterflies in my stomach soaring. I took a deep breath and found the bus I needed to take to my neighbourhood for the summer: Kreuzberg.
As the bus drove into the city, the dark night was illuminated by bright lights and hustling bodies and unfamiliar statues and alleyways and parks. I was relieved to remember that I was somewhere exciting, a brave new world of things to see packed into my numbered weeks abroad.
I arrived to my apartment in the rain, and my roommate was there, smiling and radiant and offering me food and asking how my trip was. Throwing my bags down in my new room, I was struck by that always welcome sense that everything was going to be alright.
More than that, everything was going to be great. Over the next couple of months, I would meet new people, see Berlin and some other cities too, and learn in class with a diverse group of students.
I actually studied abroad twice in my undergraduate degree – once at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and once at Humboldt University in Berlin. For both trips, I was able to secure enough funding to make the experience affordable, to transfer my credits, and to have incredible summers.
In Berlin, I participated in the Leo Baeck Summer University in Jewish Studies. The six-week course is divided into three two-week seminars with a major research project due at the end. The rest of your grade is made up of short reading response papers, presentations, and participation in class discussion. Mornings are spent in the seminar room discussing the night’s reading. Afternoons are always an excursion. The focus of the course is Holocaust studies and particularly Holocaust memory, so there is plenty to see in Berlin and sometimes beyond it (occasionally, we went on trips to sites outside the city).
The seminars are taught by different professors each year – in past years, at least one U of T professor that I can think of has participated. They bring different perspectives that keep the seminars current and interesting. The students hail from all over the world and are a mix of undergraduates and master’s students from unique academic backgrounds, making the collaborative final projects especially innovative.
On weekends, I explored the city, went to lakes with friends, took trips to Prague and Budapest, got groceries at the nearby Turkish market, and did course readings on Holocaust memory surrounded by the very monuments they referenced.
One of the things we often talked about in our course was what function memorials serve and how people should “act” in them. There isn’t a clear-cut answer, but in Berlin, seeing people simply living among the memorials – singing awful Michael Jackson karaoke in the former Death Strip of the wall in Mauerpark or children playing in the maze of the central Holocaust memorial – made them feel alive, important parts of the landscape of the city.
Studying abroad gives you the space to think about things like that – to immerse yourself in a culture and let people and places breathe new life into your course material. After mornings spent turning our readings over and over, our excursions would provide new context and new ideas. We visited artists’ studios, community organizations, memorials, museums, and sites that took learning outside the classroom and made it more holistic and meaningful.
As clearly as I remember my first night in Berlin, I also remember my last. We decided to stay out all night because that is always a wise thing to do when you have an endless flight the next day (read: it is not a wise thing to do, but it is a fun thing to do). We hopped around different spots in Kreuzberg, and then met up at the pond by our apartment complex to watch the sun rise with shawarma from the best shawarma place in the world, or at least in Kreuzberg (Maroush, in case you were wondering). It was one of those really full moments, bursting with feeling and, once again, that calming sense – everything was going to be alright. More than that, wonderful.
For those of you who are thinking about studying abroad, below is my synthesized advice!
Step 1: Plan… Planning ahead is key to studying abroad. Things you can plan for:
- What do you want to study, and where does it make sense to study it? Do research to find a program that makes sense for you.
- How are you going to pay for it? Go the Centre for International Experience and research online to find out about funding opportunities. Apply on time and apply for a lot of them – small scholarships can add up! Also, start saving money!
- How many credits are you transferring back? Contact your department and apply in advance to get your credit transfers in order so there are no surprises when you get back.
- What else do you need to do before you go? There are applications that need to be filled out, safety orientations that need to be attended, pets that need places to stay, packing that needs to get done. Don’t let it all overwhelm you in the days before you go – make a list now with tentative deadlines for your tasks so there’s no stress, in addition to the stress of going abroad, before you leave.
- How much are you going to spend while you’re there? Make a budget before you go! Look around online to see how much food seems to cost and how much the attractions or excursions you want to see cost. There may be some tickets you can buy in advance to save money or skip costs (A lot of museums, for example – I’m looking at you, Paris; or flights are always cheaper in advance if you’re planning to travel around). When you’re abroad, it will be tempting to buy souvenirs, to eat out a lot, to see everything – and certainly, you should grant yourself some leeway since you’re on a trip – but if you go in with a budget, you will save yourself from overspending and ensure you’re thinking about your overall expenses as you spend.
Step 2: Then don’t plan! Once you arrive to your study abroad school, focus on seeing lots, learning lots, meeting new people, and enjoying yourself. Be spontaneous and have fun!
For more information, check out the Centre for International Experience. Don’t be afraid to pop into the building – the staff are super friendly and helpful!
Did you study abroad, or do you want to? Know a better shawarma place in Kreuzberg? Let’s chat on twitter at @lifeatUofT or in the comments below!