By Dolores Vargas
The Heidelberg Castle
While studying abroad in Heidelberg, Germany, I was able to visit and experience various different cities all throughout Germany, such as Frankfurt, Mannheim, Düsseldorf, Würzburg, Miltenberg, Weinheim, Munich and Berlin. My experience abroad and the people I met have profoundly affected my life, and I am extremely thankful to Notre Dame and MSPS for providing me with this life-changing opportunity. In writing this reflection, I found it difficult to narrow down the most impactful experiences I had while abroad, but I managed to divide them into two categories: my internship at a German elementary school, and the special trips that promoted my personal and cultural growth.
Homes and shops in Frankfurt
While studying in Heidelberg, I had the opportunity to intern at a German elementary school as an English teaching assistant for first and second graders, which was a way for me to give back to my host community. Not only was I able to improve my German dramatically (children are often the best teachers!), but this experience instilled a newfound desire in me: I realized that teaching was something that I wanted to do in my future. I had a lot of fun teaching, but I had the most fun accompanying my classes on field trips to nearby forests, where the children learned about environmental conservation and protection and about the different animals that live there. I still clearly remember the first field trip that I accompanied them on. The specific goal of this trip was for the children to learn about the animals that live in the creeks (which were mostly tadpoles). The children’s task was to capture a tadpole, identify its stage of development, and carefully release it back into the creek. Many children had great trouble with this task, so I offered to help, and they were amazed at my ability to effortlessly catch multiple tadpoles. For the rest of the day they viewed me as their hero, and even gave me the nickname “Tadpole-Master”! It was a wonderful feeling. Another activity that we did together involved combining nature and art. Armed with one-sided sticky paper, children were tasked with collecting leaves, little stones, dirt, etc. to stick onto their paper to create a work of art. They had a lot of fun creating different designs on their papers with leaf fragments, and the class even worked together to create an art piece for me! These field trips showed me the Germans’ true love of nature and how they successfully combine that with their school curriculum. Working with these children has definitely given me a better appreciation for all of the effort that teachers put into educating their students and for the effort that such students put in everyday as well. I never really appreciated how much work goes into creating lesson plans, ensuring that all children are involved, and maintaining a safe environment, but now I do and I really enjoy it. Before this internship I was quite sure that my future career plans were already set in stone – I knew I wanted to become a clinical psychologist. However, my experience working with children has encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Germany!
Traveling to various different regions of Germany and Austria has allowed me to experience the different foods, customs, cultures and dialects of the people living there, effectively broadening my cultural horizons. Determined to experience as much as I could food-wise, I, an extremely picky eater, ate pork knuckle, sauerkraut, white sausages, Käsespätzle (soft egg noodles with cheese), and schnitzel with a mushroom sauce, among other classic German foods. German customs, on the other hand, were not a completely new topic for me, considering that I learned about the most important ones in my German courses at Notre Dame. However, I always found it odd experiencing these scenarios in real life. For example, a common restaurant custom in Germany is to share the same table with complete strangers if the restaurant is relatively crowded. This would be considered odd in the US, because we are accustomed to having our own table and with that our own privacy. However, I grew to appreciate the efficiency of this and sometimes turned it into an opportunity to meet new people! Furthermore, one of the things that I find the most fascinating is Germany’s commitment to the arts. In my 21 years of living in the US, I have only visited a theater two times (also thanks to MSPS!). However, in Germany, I visited the theater to see a performance almost every other week, because they make it so accessible to students and to the general public. Lastly, I learned that dialects in Germany are as diverse, if not more so, than those in the US. The terminology used in the south can differ significantly from the north, and that differs also from the east and west. Because of this, Germans are easily able to pick out this difference and infer another German’s home state, sometimes even the actual city, based on how they speak. I thought that some of the accents in Munich, Bavaria were difficult to understand, but when I visited Austria, I was in for a surprise. I thought I would have no trouble understanding the people living there, because, after all, I knew that they spoke German. However, I was completely unprepared for the dialects that I experienced. Nevertheless, I considered it an accomplishment, that, after having been there for merely a week, I had no trouble understanding the native dialect.
View of the city of Miltenberg from atop the city castle
As my time in Germany came to an end, I found it odd that the thought of leaving this beautiful country did not make me sad. Rather, I was really happy, because I was looking forward to my return. I am continuously amazed by how much I have learned in the past 5 months. I have developed so much confidence in my German abilities – by the end of my time there, people were mistaking me for an actual German! And now I have so many new wonderful life experiences and memories to cherish. It was a big adjustment living on my own and making new friends, but because of this I was able to grow and develop in a lot of ways. I learned to cook on my own, stepped out of my shell to make friends, and grew accustomed to the rainy weather in Heidelberg, the crowded public transportation, and the southwestern slang. There is a well-known song about the beauty of Heidelberg, called “I lost my Heart in Heidelberg,” which holds true for me as well.
My study abroad group (I am in the middle row, second from the right).