I jumped off the train, exhausted, ready to go to sleep as soon as I had two feet on the platform. A girl, maybe a few years older, greeted us and began to lead us to our apartment, as we dragged our luggage across the unforgiving cobblestone.
Fulda, Germany. Fall 2014.
It was quiet and smelt like a mixture of horse manure and second-hand smoke, but nonetheless, it seemed like a beautiful, peaceful village.
Then the walk was over. We were given the keys to our apartment, and when we stepped inside, we found the place was lovely, but there was nothing to cook with, like they said there would be. The ambassador said she’d fix that. The ambassador said she’s fix a lot of things.
Turns out, out of the group of mostly American girls that made up the program, I was the only one with bedding, my roommate and I getting the only apartment with fully functioning electricity and running water. None of us had a way to contact home with no internet or functioning cell service. We were told to wait in our apartments so the ambassadors could find us. It was like this for a week and a half.
By the time we got to talk to administration, the students were yelled at and berated for being “needy Americans” asking about bedding, things to cook with, and internet access, or at least a way to call home to tell our families that we were okay. These things were promised in papers we previously signed with our American university, but the German university didn’t seem to care.
As we continued to sit in our apartments, I became miserable. How could this be happening? I have never left the East Coast of the United States, and I wanted to call home more than anything.
What’s worse, there was an “International Students Group” in the same school, that my group wasn’t part of! They got everything that we had been promised, complete with field trips and help with obtaining a visa. The American girls continued to be lectured about being needy every time we asked about this.
Apparently, our “International Social Work Program” was separate, as we ironically turned our focus to immigrants and the difficulties they face. This specific focus was because of the refuge crisis, climbing to its peak in 2014.
I soon learned not to rely on the program for my needs, and to just do things by myself and deal with it. Eventually we got the things we asked for, our cups saying “Princess” as the ambassadors continued to share what they thought of us. The other girls still looked at the program as reliable, that it couldn’t be that bad, could it?
So I did what I have never done before: I became a minimal student… and left.
I quickly grew to hate the village, the smell of it, the lack of manners, the sternness of the elders, the public displays of affection happening on top of me as I tried to read by myself on a park bench. I was done with this program, and I was done with Fulda, too.
So I left.
But damn it, I always had to come back for a class or two! I vowed to not spend a single weekend in Fulda. I took 4-5 day “weekend excursions” at a time. I began having the time of my life, traveling all over Europe! The professors would say, “But you need to learn!” but I was already out the door, learning to not listen to what everyone told me.
I always made sure I made it back to my internship on Wednesdays. I worked with Russian migrant children, and I was the only American to stick with the original internship given to them. It took a few weeks of me standing there trying to communicate, before the children warmed up to me. I’ve always worked with kids, and some things are universal, but these kids were tougher and more independent than any 6-15 year olds I had ever met.
The other social workers were kind as well. That youth center was my Fulda refuge as must as it was the kids’.
I got my visa by myself, which was difficult to say the least, especially with a language barrier. The other girls chose to wait for the administration to help, like they kept promising, and when the administration didn’t step in, the girls became illegal immigrants and could no longer travel.
As for being a minimal student, I got a D- in my German class, but spoke it better than my classmates. I asked for a C- and my professor said sure, why not. I got C’s and above (a tragedy in my family), but soon found out that it didn’t even matter. The grades didn’t affect my American GPA! It was just a big stack of credits for half showing up!
My experience in Fulda was started really rough, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I learned to be resilient, independent, and to keep pushing forward. And now, I’m comfortable traveling anywhere by myself. I’m my own travel agent and ambassador, and that is priceless. The personal growth you’ll gain from leaping out of your comfort zone is immeasurable.
“I feel about travel the way a new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby- I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to- I just don’t care.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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