I was inspired to go abroad at a very young age, and told my mom that I wanted to live in every country in the world at about age six. More realistically, I always saw going abroad as part of my path in college, and began looking for programs that would combine my desire to travel and my academic interests. Friends who had spent even a couple of weeks studying abroad recommended I go, and I was definitely drawn to the unique life experience I believe venturing outside of your home culture and land can offer.
Additionally, I've traveled outside of the U.S. several times, but never with the intention of living somewhere new; it was always for vacation or brief studies on location. When I found out that it was possible to go within the structure of my field of studies, I knew I had to take advantage of this opportunity.
Why did you choose IES Abroad’s European Union program?
I spent what felt like weeks sifting through programs during my sophomore year, and eventually happened upon several that caught my interest. What made me choose IES Abroad's European Union program, however, was the almost three weeks of travel included in the course curriculum and the hands-on approach to learning. Course excursions included visits to the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, as well as major academic institutions.
Because the program was based in Germany, we were in a relatively central location, and students were able to travel via the program and on their own. I also got the opportunity to continue learning German, which I began in my first year of college and was excited to utilize when making friends with locals.
The application process was also relatively straightforward, and I was contacted by IES Abroad representatives for clarification on any issue I was confronted with.
What was your favorite part about studying in Freiburg?
While I spent much of the time in my abroad program exploring Europe generally, I loved Freiburg. Nestled in the Black Forest and about an hour from France and Switzerland, it is the perfect location for people looking for outdoor adventuring like hiking and skiing. The city itself is mostly populated with university students and young families, so it feels very youthful and open. The people were very welcoming, and always tried to practice their English with me when I tried to practice my German. It also has a history of being on the forefront of environmental urban planning, which is evident by the extensive public transit system and integration of green spaces throughout the city. My favorite thing about Freiburg is how easy it was to get around, either by bike, tram, or on foot, and how beautiful the city looked while you were doing it.
What made your experience abroad unique?
I think that IES Abroad's EU program is unique in itself, because I feel so lucky to have had the chance to visit a myriad of countries and institutions while getting to study exactly what I'm interested in. The EU program is structured to make the most of your four months with them, so they really try to get as much in as possible. Within the month of February alone, I had trdelnik (look them up, they're fantastic) while walking the streets of Prague, brunched with one of my best friends in London, visited both the Palace of Versailles and the Disney Paris castle, and saw Angela Merkel walking into the Bundestag in Berlin. I couldn't have wished for that vast array of experiences, and that was only one of the four months!
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
The staff at IES Abroad should get a medal for everything they do. Coordinating the bi-weekly travel accommodations for 80+ people with shifting political concerns and attention to safety? They are super heroes, and often they did it all while smiling. The staff in the office were wonderful when recommending local activities and access to healthcare services, and professors really engaged in their topics at meetings during our excursions.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I think that if I could do one thing differently, I would have done more hiking and outdoor exploring in the immediate areas around Freiburg. I briefly visited the trails near my flat, but didn't adventure out until the program was almost over. I wish I had done more early on in the program so that I knew the landscape better.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
I was placed in a flat with another IES Abroad student, and we lived with four other German university students. Most days I would get up and cook myself breakfast (cooking being a task that I improved upon greatly in my time abroad), and then walk to the tram stop. All of the tram stops in central Freiburg are within 600 meters of each other, so I would trek to P. Modersohn Platz to catch the 3 Line to Holzmarkt Platz, about a 15-minute journey. From there, it was a quick walk to IES Abroad's center, which is located in a retrofitted villa.
I usually had two or three classes a day, and the length of each would range from roughly an hour to 95 minutes. These classes often encouraged debate in and outside of the classroom, and I happened upon several discussions about environmental legislation and human rights issues in Europe.
Food was also a social catalyst. Some students ate lunch at the nearby Uni Mensa (cafeteria) or at local restaurants, while others brought their lunches from home. My favorite thing to do was to go with friends to get Döner (kebab) and have a 1 Euro ice cream from Eis Cafe. In the evening, we would return to our flats to cook and wind down, and sometimes cooked delicious meals together that we found on the internet. Eventually, students in the program began picnicking if it got warm enough, and it was so exciting when we could finally sit outside and take in the Schönes Wetter.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
In my free time, I often hung out with friends from the program. When not cooking together, we assembled groups and played cards or watched movies. The occasional night out may have included a run to a döner shop after a trip to Puzzles, one of the local hot spots for young people in the city. I have many fond memories of dancing in my friend's kitchen while blasting tunes from the 80s (and screaming the high notes in "Take on Me"), and of singing along to High School Musical (poorly).
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
I lived in a flat with five other people, four of which were German university students. The apartment came fully furnished and had high ceilings, which was ideal for me, because I used the wall space for maps and postcards that I picked up through my travels. Each person had their own room, and the kitchen and hall spaces were communal. My flatmates and I communicated in a mix of German and English, and I got the chance to hang out with them and their friends from time to time.
The flat was in Vauban, which is a community of about 5000 people in total that includes an area specifically for students. The buildings were brightly painted and one of my favorite activities was visiting the farmer's market that happened on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. It was such a lovely community.
What is one thing every student should know before participating in your program?
I think that every person looking to do this program should know that one of the most important things you can do when traveling is just to listen. I encountered a lot of people who were closed off to the thought of trying new things, or were so set in their ways that they couldn't accept new ideas or new conceptions of how others saw the world.
Going abroad will likely (if not definitely) expose you to some new mindsets, so staying open and just listening to what others have to say is sometimes the best thing you can do to get the most out of your experience.
With the EU program in particular, I definitely came into contact with other students who didn't necessarily share my views on life, but I viewed the opportunity to learn from their perspective as a positive one, and feel that I have a greater understanding of people who don't necessarily think the way I do.
Now that you're home, how has studying abroad impacted your life?
Readjusting to life in the States was a shock at first, especially because grocery stores don't close at 8 p.m. and everything stays open on Sunday (what is this madness?). Once the initial feelings subsided, I realized how much I missed being in the community I had grown accustomed to, and to the ease of traveling when in Europe. I think that being abroad has made me more aware of the impact of following international news instead of just U.S. focused sources as well.
Mostly though, I want to keep exploring and have begun to look into graduate programs abroad. The feeling of adventure that has come out of this experience has me hooked, and I can't wait to see where I go next.
Would you recommend IES Abroad’s EU program to other students? Why?
Yes, I would 100 percent recommend the program to others. I definitely found what I was looking for in an abroad program, and if others are interested in European history, politics, and international affairs, then this is a great program. I will say that some of my friends really struggled with the way it was structured, however, and felt that we were too boxed into our schedules. If you're looking for something that is more flexible, then perhaps this is not the program for you. If what you're looking for is unique opportunities and a jam-packed semester, look no further.
Rachael is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, where she is double majoring in history and politics with a minor in music. Her academic interests include law and policy, urban planning and development, and sustainability research. Rachael spent the summer following her semester abroad working in Switzerland. Her hobbies include making puns at the wrong time, cooking too much food, and collecting cool socks.