Melissa Gile: My Year with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX)
As I write, I have exactly one month left of my year abroad in Germany with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals. Although it is a strange and displacing feeling to know that I am going to be leaving the life, culture, and community that I have found here, I am excited to head back to Seattle to finish my last year at the University of Washington.
To get an idea of my background and interests, I come from a suburb just outside of Seattle called Maple Valley, where I attended Tahoma Senior High School and part-time running start at Green River Community College. I am a rising senior in Chemical Engineering with a minor in mathematics and College Honors. Although I originally planned to graduate in June 2015, I chose to instead take a gap year in Germany with the CBYX program and graduate in June 2016.
I am very passionate about education and STEM outreach, and I want to go into a career with researching and inventing technologies, similar to what Intellectual Ventures does. On my spare time I like to stay active, which usually involves soccer or swing dancing, but also includes surfing, wild water kayaking, hiking, or really anything outdoors. I am a firm believer in having a well-balanced life and venturing beyond one’s comfort zone.
The CBYX Program
The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program for Young Professionals is a yearlong fellowship, designed to strengthen ties between younger generations of the United States and Germany. Primarily a cultural exchange, the program combines language study, professional schooling, and a practical internship component, providing participants with firsthand experience in many aspects of German culture, academics, and professional life. This program is supported by the German Bundestag as well as the United States Department of State, and will be starting its 32nd year in July 2015. I find this program to be quite unique, because it does an excellent job of simultaneously fostering global relationships, as well as providing opportunities for personal and professional development for its 75 individual participants, each of which have widely different backgrounds, personalities, and future goals.
At the time of application in December 2013, the thought of going abroad for a year absolutely terrified me, but it has been a grand adventure that I have since then learned very much from. I have been forced to tackle new situations and solve different problems, which has helped me better prioritize my needs, understand my values, and ultimately gain a better sense of who I am.
This has given me a chance to displace myself from the expectations and social norms of my own home community, and reevaluate what I want through a slightly different lens. While this different perspective has not changed my future goals, it has definitely changed how I want to pursue them. For example, I would like to continue maintaining the same work-life balance that I have seen here in Germany; however, I really appreciate the extroversion and energy that I have seen in my American work and school environments.
So although leaving my home behind and going abroad for an extended amount of time was at first an uncomfortable idea, it has really expanded my own comfort zone and lent me many new perspectives. For this reason, I would recommend that every student (or person for that matter) spend some time abroad at some point in his or her life.
Learning the German Language
In this section, I want to talk about the good and difficult aspects of learning a language, as well as share some of the learning tips that helped me this year. A new language means something different to every individual, whether it is a school requirement, personal venture, random curiosity, or what have you. For me, I started learning German in Winter 2012 as a random interest, but it has since then opened many doors for me, allowing me to pursue academic, personal and professional diversity in my life.
Although I had been learning German for over two years by the time I arrived in Germany, and I felt relatively good about my speaking abilities and familiarity with the grammar, I had a lot of issues when I arrived. Perhaps these issues are familiar for anyone reading this who has studied abroad before or made the transition to living in a new language. It started with the mental exhaustion and inability to listen or speak properly. I made mistakes and stumbled to correct them, and when I went to make jokes or explain something that I normally would have in English, my mind just went blank. In general, I felt like I lost my personality and confidence, because I could not express myself.
So I would say that I was a mess every once in awhile. I cried once or twice, but was mostly just in a constant state of being flustered- very similar to what a cat looks like after spending 20 minutes with a small child. When I talked to my host mother in Köln about this, she just told me that the language would come with time. And she was right. However, I want to list a couple of methods that helped me develop my language skills, because although time is a large factor in learning a language, this time is useless if you don’t spend it being proactive and intentional about improving.
1) Pay attention to your body language: A huge part of language learning depends heavily on self-confidence, so stand up straight and keep your head up when talking. It makes a large difference in how you think, speak and perceive your surroundings.
2) Social Placement: The social analogue to body language: place yourself strategically when with others. For instance, walk with people, not behind them; and when in groups of more than two, place yourself somewhere in the middle where it forces you to keep track of the conversations running past you.
3) Keep a journal: Write stories, lists of new words, etc. This helps with thinking or expressing yourself in German.
4) Get a good translator or dictionary: I use Linguee, which has a bunch of useful phrases and examples, but Leo is also good. Google Translate is too grammatically wonky in my opinion, but can still be helpful when making sense of sentences and longer phrases.
5) Reading: It helps your vocabulary, grammar and overall writing style.
6) Make friends in German: Making friends makes it easier for you to practice and subconsciously recognize the social relevance of a new language. What helps here is being persistent with speaking the language and not switching to English, and being clear and sincere about your interest in practicing your language skills from the start.
7) Make a fool out of yourself: Language learning is a humbling experience. Embrace and expect the fact that you are going to make approximately 1000 mistakes per minute- it makes it easier to correct them ;)
So for all of those who are considering learning German, currently taking German classes, or planning to go to Germany in the near future, here are my two cents in a nutshell- language learning is hard, but it comes with a combination of time and effort, and the best feeling in the world is when these language skills and one’s confidence in them have developed enough for humor and other personality traits to develop as well. I personally love learning a new language, because it has forced me to use a breadth of skills such as self-awareness, empathy, interpersonal attention, logic, and more. It adds an intellectual diversity and flavor to life that, as far as I have experienced, cannot be achieved anywhere else.