Back to real life… the side of student exchange they dont tell you about

The semester is now in full swing and ‘real’ classes have begun.   No more slow mornings strolling into class hungover and an hour or two late, or ‘tests’ where we are provided the answers the day before.  Our German Intensive class has split up into their various faculties, it is a shame not seeing everyone every day.

I haven’t had the smoothest of starts to the semester, in fact the last three weeks have been more stressful than anything I have experienced at my home university.  Now prepare yourself for my rant:

  On the Friday before classes started I was told the units FH Joanneum (the university I am attending in Austria) had approved for me were not offered this semester.  The department heads had suggested and enrolled me in these units, but not bothered to check whether they were taught during the semester I was attending, until the start of semester!  It had been a long and painful 6 month process getting those units approved before I left Australia, but the most difficult part was yet to come…

It proved near impossible to find a new set of units to enroll in as most offered this semester were strictly German speaking classes – I can barely order my morning coffee in German there is no way I could complete third year university units!  To make matters worse my home university declined every unit available, claiming unit after unit after unit, to be too different from the units I would otherwise be taking back home.  Of course they would be different!  This is a different university, with a different system, in a different country – they even speak a different language!

With reluctance from my home university to cooperate and little assistance from the FH department heads who put me in this predicament, I spent the last three weeks in a constant pool of frustrated tears.  Being so far from home, trying to sort my enrollment, with little assistance, in a university in which I do not speak the language or understand the different and complicated administration system, was one of the most stressful things I have ever had to do – even more so than managing last year’s FTP Charity Ball!

  Eventually after a pile of empty tissue boxes, multiple angry emails and some job-risking, toe stepping, on behalf of my home university’s Dean, I have now been enrolled in classes!  In comparison, my classes have proved to be a much more positive experience.

 If you thought icebreakers were awkward enough, try doing them in another language

Within the first 10 minutes of my very first class, I was struck with guilt.  In Australia we complain about the international students in our classes.  That they slow us down with their lack of English or that they are a waste of space, sitting quietly in the corner, presumably too embarrassed to speak their second language – a feeling I now know very well.  Unfortunately, I have even seen student-erected posters around the Curtin campus, declaring the campus to be a ‘English-Speaking Only Campus’, criticising international students for speaking their own language amongst themselves during breaks – in their own free time!

But here at FH, students and teachers alike have been incredibly accommodating.  In each class the unit coordinator has visited and explained to the class in German that I could not speak the language and may need assistance from my class to understand, or the tutor has done so.  They have each asked the class for volunteers to team up with me throughout the semester and assist me with translation, a timely and scrupulous task for any student.  But in each class it has taken only a few seconds for the majority of the room to raise their hands, almost bringing me to tears, on one of my more sensitive days.  Even the tutor, in my first class, who spoke very little English, struggled in front of her brand new class to try and explain how they could accommodate me in the German speaking class.  I could tell she was completely out of her comfort zone but I was so grateful for her willingness to try and include me in the class.

Despite the kindness and understanding of my classmates, I still feel awkward and completely out of place in my classes.  The lectures are delivered in German, so I sit there trying to assemble any understanding from body language, voice expression of the tutor and images on the lecture slides.  Or when that fails, I sit blank faced, embarrassed and feeling like I wouldn’t be smart enough for a Kindergarden class, let alone university.  However most classes have been slightly altered to allow for my German incompetency.  In one class, presentations were delivered in English by the other students, for my sake.  Which is very humbling but at the same time makes me feel like I am a hassle, adding difficulty or creating extra work for my classmates.

Things that I didn’t give a second thought to, in classes back home, are suddenly problematic.  Just sitting in class is a struggle and at times I am even too nervous to turn around and ask the person next to me to borrow a pen in case I say a wrong word and embarrass myself, stumbling through a simple everyday question.  Of course my classmates all speak brilliant English, but I also feel rude initially speaking to them English, as if I just expect them to speak my language.  As for contributing to class discussions in German, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon!  As I am usually a big class contributor and a bit of a nerd, this is something I think I will struggle to get used to throughout the semester.  But I will have to take this exchange for what it is:  a new and completely different experience of learning and living.


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