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A Study Abroad Experience in Review

I formally end this blog with a final post about all the valuable life lessons I have learned.

In the blink of an eye, it was over.

The best times in your life always seem like the shortest. This post, though, will be anything but short, unfortunate for those of you who would just like a quick synopsis of the many things I have learned by participating in a semester abroad program. I’m going to attempt to summarize the unsummarizable, truly the greatest experience of my life, and attempt to keep this post somewhat interesting. I’m going to tie some of the things I’ve learned to what I am doing now, and I'm going to offer my broad opinions on some of life’s many treasures. If you want the gist of it, look for the lessons in bold.

I will start with one of the most stereotypical comments about Europe: the public transport really is better over there. It’s just a fact. We Americans have had this vehicle centric lifestyle coded into the fiber of our bodies for our entire lives. Here in Detroit, where I am working at Ford this summer, the entire city is built around the vehicle. I mean, it makes so much sense given that the Motor City has earned its place in history in this fashion. But I have gone from one extreme to the other. In almost every major European city I’ve been, there is incredibly robust transportation infrastructure; huge subways, hundreds of bus lines, even water taxis. You don’t need a car in the city (wait, isn’t that what we are seeing currently with the upwards trend in mobility solutions like Uber?) and if you need to travel, take a luxurious ICE train that will get you there faster. Or, take a 10 euro flight to almost anywhere. While lots of American cities do have great transportation systems (NYC, San Fran, etc.), many of them, like Detroit, simply don’t. There aren’t even sidewalks here; you have huge avenues and medians and one way streets, all arranged in boring square blocks. For the vehicle this makes perfect sense, but as humans transition from needing cars to move to needing merely a way to move, the cities that have these systems in place thrive, as I have seen in Europe.

One of the important things I have learned while traveling a lot is how to navigate a city and adapt quickly. Not just how to look at Google Maps, but actually navigate using the signs, maps, and information at your fingertips. It’s hard to describe how fun it is over the course of a trip to leave knowing you’ve “cracked” the city. Knowing which way of traveling is superior, knowing how to look for information on signs in different languages, knowing that there are always a few different routes to the same place. Taking ownership of your travel experience by figuring out the area and mapping these places in your brain brings a real sense of satisfaction by the end. And, it’s good experience for when you really need to get somewhere. It’s as if you’ve made friends with the city; you know it, and it knows you. Take the time to learn how it all works, and you can go anywhere. Plus, you know the lay of the land when you come back again!

Change is one of those things in life that is inevitable. We all know this, but we all—myself included—don’t necessarily embrace it. It’s hard to change and new things are not easy, but I have learned they are good for you. My study abroad semester has taught me how to better adapt to change, because that’s about all I ever did! I was constantly packing up and flying to wherever, communicating with people of many different cultures, making new and close friends, and learning. Before I went on a trip to Cinque Terra and Venice, I was having a hard time deciding if I should go or not—I would’ve been by myself and needed to study, yet these are places you cannot miss. My dad’s advice? “Just go for it!” These simple words were all it took, yet perfectly describe an important takeaway from this entire experience. You cannot possibly know what changes are ahead for you, but you can approach whatever it is positively and welcome whatever opportunities they might present. I took this attitude to Germany when I started on January 4th, and I honestly believe I got everything I could have out of those short 5 months. I now will approach my summer with Ford and my career in general in the same way.

One of my coworkers and friends that semester told me once, “we are not alone on this planet.” I mean, of course not, there are people all over the world. But have you really seen them? Have you seen where they live, how they live, what they do? No. Traveling is the only way to experience everything in all 5 senses. There is so much value in seeing what lies around you. Traveling is so important to fully see the history of cultures completely unlike your own, and I think it adds perspective to your daily life. To visit Rome and see in one field the ruins of literally thousands of years of civilization, to which we owe many modern ideals, makes you wonder just how impactful the Romans really were. Attending Easter mass at the Vatican with 100,000 people from all over the planet is a perfect example of how humans can be so different, yet come together at the same time and same place, and experience the same thing. We all call Earth home, and we are all in it together. At ZF TRW, I worked closest with a German, an Indian, a Frenchman, and an American. It’s hard enough for 4 people of differing cultures to speak the same language, let alone being able to communicate humor and tone and expression. But in fighting through it all, you learn things from each other, and get to benefit from mutual differences. So through travel or not, we are not alone on this planet, and there are always opportunities to see that.

War sucks. I always knew this, of course, but there was one moment in particular while on a Tauschie trip to Berlin that I remember having this feeling. Thankfully my family hasn’t been directly impacted by any of the violence and war going on around the world, but there was a time where they were. WWII was a tragedy and you wonder why it ever got so bad. My Aunt’s family lived in Berlin during the time when the wall was built and run, and they had relatives who actually escaped from the communist East to the democratic West, and then further to England. The wall itself is awe inspiring in how terrible it was and what it represented, yet there are very few places where you can actually see the entirety of the wall. I always wondered why it was vandalized and not preserved at least in part—from the perspective of a tourist, it’s almost like a monument to all the bad that should never exist again. But after seeing more of the horrors that went along with the wall and the war, the emotions and pain of the millions of people affected, it became so clear to me how ignorant that was. You cannot move forward as a civilization by building walls and starting wars; you have to tear them down and argue peacefully. You have to open up your borders (like the EU does) and allow cultures to mix. Some of these same things are going on now, or might go on in the future, and it’s definitely a scary thought to know that history tends to repeat itself. I hope nothing like that ever happens again, because war sucks.

Another thing I learned from this experience was the value of true friends/family. Not that I didn’t know that; I love my friends and family back home, but having the opportunity to introduce yourself to an entirely different group of people you interact with on a daily basis gives you an interesting look into how you make friends and form friend groups. I formed my friend group on the very first day; I still don’t know how I was so lucky, but I recalled the effort that goes into that kind of thing. remember sitting in a coffee shop with a friend I’d just met, and seeing one of the other two UT guys walk past. I could have let him walk by, but I went out and invited him in. That’s not something I’d usually do, but you need to be open to do whatever, and you need to put yourself out there a bit. And all of a sudden we had gathered 6 or 7 people there, and it was the beginning of our squad. It helped that everyone was so friendly and we were all feeling the same thing, which was that we have no idea what we are getting ourselves into but everything will work out. All it takes is a little effort, but effort in the right places—don’t waste your time trying to be friends with people you don’t click with. If it works, it works.

Finally, although this is something I’ve thought my whole life, I think it was proved to me more times than I can even count over my experiences: there is a tremendous value in learning, and you should make it your goal to learn your entire life. Now that I work at Ford, I think I can plug this Henry Ford quote: “Anyone who stops learning is old. Whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” This is something that resonates so well with me, and I think it’s important to strive for learning in your life. Whether that’s learning through formal education or learning through new experiences, they both do the job. Find out what you’re interested in and do it, regardless of whether or not you know what you’re getting into. I had no idea what I was getting into, dropping my life and starting anew in Germany, but I can tell anyone and everyone with confidence that I learned so much. I learned about myself, about my country, and about this beautiful and amazing place we call Earth. I am forever grateful to my parents (seriously, thank you SO much) and to those who supported me along the way, and I can say now that I have learned about studying abroad.

Thank you for reading.

Posted by jbolt 20:11 Archived in Germany Tagged travel friends family europe abroad exchange final eu lessons study semester learned

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Great reflection Jonathan! I'm thrilled you were able to have the experience of a lifetime! This will shape you and you'll grow immensely through this. I wish I did this when I was your age. Wow, treasure this forever. Take care.

John

by John Maklary

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