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Reichstag dome

Studying abroad teaches lessons for life

Reichstag dome

Inside the Reichstag dome, this educational monument showcases the government history of Germany in pictures and paragraphs in a 360-degree display. (Nicholas Jhl photo)

Story by Arjun Sehgal
Vacay.ca Social Media Specialist

BERLIN, GERMANY — Two summers ago, I left home and my comfort zone for the first time. Most of the travelling I had done before that July was on my couch. I would watch plenty of the Travel Channel and make a mental list of all the places I wanted to go. When I did travel, it was with my family on road trips or back to my motherland, India. In 2011, though, I decided to study abroad.

There were strategic reasons why I chose the program that was offered through the University of Toronto. From fast tracking credits to having the opportunity to study with my favourite professor (who travelled with a few of us) to — most of all — being able to travel within the central part of Europe and experience one of its cultural hot spots, Berlin.

When we arrived, my classmates and I stayed in a student residence in Kreuzberg, the area of the German capital that has one of the largest Turkish communities in the world. Our residence was only a short commute to Humboldt University. The residence was in old Marxist East Berlin, across the street from a brothel, and it was spartan. Our space was in a former communist set up. My two roommates and I shared a dormitory with three chairs, three pieces of cutlery and a Cold War-era oven (that took almost three hours to warm up); and sadly we had zero WiFi connection — which was the worst part of living there, being disconnected to home. The area itself was lively, however, and so, too, was our dorm.

Residence 301 became the happening spot for students from around the world who were studying at the campus. While other people were living off macaroni and sandwiches, we went all out, following the YOLO mantra, cooking and eating like kaisers. Rather than buy the cheapest drinks from the convenience stores, we dined with quality wines from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region and threw back black label liquor (which was at a fraction of the price in Canada). Soon, word got out about our stash of quality food and drink, and our fellow classmates suddenly decided they would be hanging out in our residence. It became so crazy that we were up until near dawn, just a few hours before our class. Almost nightly, our neighbours (who thought we were American) would scream and throw things on our balconies. We considered putting a bouncer outside our door to keep people out.

With all the late-night entertainment, we almost got kicked out in two separate occasions. The program had three rules that, if broken, were supposed to lead to immediate expulsion: do not miss school orientation, do not be late, and do not miss class. Yet, we managed to break two of these on two separate occasions of the first three days of the first week. I still don’t know how we managed to stay in the program. But fear of expulsion made us take action. We realized we couldn’t have our place be the happy-hour spot any longer. It was from there onwards, with our core group and a select few others, that we enjoyed the city as a compact unit.

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We travelled through our neighbourhood, nearby towns and around downtown Berlin’s most famous street: Unter den Linden, home to many historical events. It is where JFK uttered the phrase: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The street will lead you to the Brandenburg Gate, the Kempinski-owned Hotel Adlon (where Michael Jackson notoriously dangled his baby over a balcony) and many other attractions. Our nights would end with discussions covering culture, philosophy, politics, entertainment topics, including a memorable debate over the merits of East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop music.

Valuable Experiences for Students Who Travel Abroad

One of the best features of Berlin is actually its proximity to everywhere else in Europe. Being in such a central location, it allows visitors to easily travel to surrounding nations. On weekends, we ventured to Italy, the Netherlands (before most of its cities banned the sale of marijuana to foreign tourists) and Stockholm. Those trips were in addition to visiting Poland and Brussels as part of the curriculum for our studies.

In Sweden, I felt like the Fresh Prince of Stockholm while visiting extended family. They took me in, pampered and nourished me for five days, sending me back to Berlin on a 7 am flight. I landed at 8:30 am and took a cab straight from the airport to class, making it just in time for the 9 am session — and avoiding certain punishment (phew!).

The following week, I celebrated my birthday in Rome with my two roommates and our closest friend from the program. We counted down to midnight in honour of my 21st birthday and spent the day in Modena, the headquarters of Maserati, Lamborghini and Ferrari. We checked out the Ferrari factory and I test drove three models, making me feel like Ferris Bueller. The greatest drive of my life jetted me through the scenic hills of Italy, with the wind in my hair and the speedometer topping 200 km per hour.

When my summer abroad was done, the lessons I learned had little to do with what took place in class. That is why anyone should travel, especially if you’re a young person aiming to make sense of the world and your place in it. I had met dozens of  people from different backgrounds and schools who enlightened me during the more than two months in Europe. The discussions and new connections are truly what made it worthwhile to study abroad. Every night, I realized how little I knew of the world and the different cultures in it.

Those were the happiest days, I would say not only of that summer or year, but quite possibly of my undergrad experience. I encourage all students to leave their comfort zone and take advantage of opportunities outside of the classroom (and their campuses) while they can. It’s a unique experience, studying with fellow students from around the world, and it won’t come around again once you graduate.

More About Studying Abroad in Germany and Elsewhere

Background Information: More than 120,000 undergraduate students in Canada take advantage of study-abroad programs each year, according to Statistics Canada. Programs are available to dozens of countries and for various lengths of time. The application deadlines are typically in the first semester of the school year or early in the second semester. Contact your university department’s office for more information about what your school offers.
University of Toronto Centre for International Experience: If you are a U of T student, you can contact the centre to begin your study-abroad plans by telephoning 416-978-2564, or emailing www.cie.utoronto.ca. Information is available on the centre’s website.
Cost of the Program: The six-week Germany program costs close to $6,000, including airfares, residence stay, meal plan, textbooks and course fees. Medical insurance and transportation costs associated with some field trips were additional. The school negotiated a round-trip group airfare rate with British Airways that cost less than $1,500 per person. To see all of the fees and learn more about the Study Abroad Program in Germany, visit the University of Toronto’s Germany webpage.

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While studying at the University of Toronto, Arjun built and excelled his knowledge and experiences in social media marketing, project and event management and public relations. Arjun often provides consultation on social media strategy, creative possibilities and web marketing on up-to-date information for professionals or organizations to improve their online presence. In addition he has studied in Berlin, Germany and travelled across Europe, Southeast Asia and North America. His plans are to travel all of South Asia and Latin America. He can be reached at arjun@vacay.ca.

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