As a first-year student looking for something meaningful to do over the summer, I was scrambling (unsuccessfully) the winter before to find the right opportunity. I was especially interested in applying computational and mathematical techniques to develop advanced simulations of biological systems. Stumbling upon UROP at RWTH Aachen in Germany, I knew I found the perfect way to spend 10 weeks of my summer.
Understandably, adjusting to daily life in Germany seemed daunting, thanks to the language barrier: I am a Korean student who speaks English fluently, sings 17/18th century Italian opera, and has thrived though 3 years of high school Spanish. I often felt powerless and disengaged when with Aachen residents, not being able to speak; the German language classes provided by UROP could only take me so far. Still, with my knowledge of anime and extra efforts to learn some extra “street” German, I made a couple friends on my dorm floor.
Living in Germany for 10 weeks has improved myself as both a researcher and a person. I was excited to obtain intriguing research results under the guidance of my mentor. But more importantly, I was impressed by how much more independent I became through each little hurdle I had to overcome by myself: walking kilometers to find groceries, getting to meetings spread all throughout Aachen on time, organizing day trips by bus/train, managing my time better to handle these addition responsibilities, and more.
What made my 10 weeks in Germany most memorable was the fact that it was in Germany. You can conduct meaningful research from anywhere. You can learn German through the Internet. However, you cannot experience the joys of daily life in a new place without physically being there. The fact that students can get around on regional buses/trains for free at any time highlighted this point. In addition to my weekend excursions to Koln (exceptional sights), Ahrweiler (nice winery), Dusseldorf (cool anime convention and a lot of Asian diaspora), Belgium (15 minutes away), and the Netherlands (15 minutes away), I got to experience what it was like to live in Germany as a student.
Going to live in a new place introduces a lot of unanticipated variability. In addition to the invaluable guidelines from the Study Abroad Office, I would like to highlight some tips of my own. (1) Be safe by acting responsibly. (2) Get to understand the culture as much as possible. (3) Be prepared: learn a decent chunk of the language (numbers are amazing), figure out how transportation works (Bus? Train? Feet?), and locate important places around town (groceries, dorms, campus centers) beforehand. (4) Watch your health (Heard of “Freshman-10”? Can become “Freshman-20” abroad). (5) Be happy, have fun, make new friends (while following 1-4).