Catching the Bug and Making it Work

The author with her bachelor cohort at Stuttgart Frühlingafest Source: Thomas Kane

The author with her bachelor cohort at Stuttgart Frühlingafest

Source: Thomas Kane

Melinda Stallings is an American Mechanical Engineering graduate student at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). She first arrived in Germany in August 2011 for an exchange year at the Technical University of Darmstadt and hasn’t left since.

When I started my Bachelor Degree in Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech (VT) I had always planned on incorporating a foreign language into my studies and eventually studying abroad (though at the time my language of choice was Spanish). During my sophomore year, I heard about a Dual Bachelor degree program between my university and a German University, Technische Universität Darmstadt (TUD).  Participants had the opportunity to spend their senior year at TUD, completing specific classes to obtain a bachelor’s degree from both schools. I was immediately interested. Within the next year, I dropped all my Spanish classes and took German classes up to level C1, while simultaneously staying on track with my Mechanical Engineering courses.  Those in the program were told that we would experience some sort of *click* within the first month and then BOOM we would be able to think and speak fluently in Germany. This was not the case.

Because the German university experience is VERY different than in the USA (more on that later), most of us in the program did not pass all of the courses necessary in order to finish either Bachelor program.

Of the 10 students in the program, only two successfully obtained the dual degree; a further two obtained their VT degree but the rest were still missing classes at the end of the exchange. Five of these students graduated after spending an additional semester at VT to graduate. I was the only one who chose to stay and take the additional courses at TUD. After earning my Bachelor degree 6 months later, I applied and was accepted for an internship in Ingolstadt, working for the automotive supplier, Continental AG. During my internship I applied for a master’s degree at a number of the TU9 schools. Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT) was among my favorites and the first school to send me an acceptance letter. I quickly jumped at the opportunity, for a number of reasons, but alsobecause my current visa had already expired. To officially begin, I needed to prove my German language skills by either taking the DSH Exam or TestDaF. I figured since Ialready spoke German every day at my internship, lived with a German (Bavarian) family and communicated easily socially, this test would be a piece of cake.  

REALITY CHECK: German is pretty difficult and I did not pass the first time. I changed my visa to a “learning German” visa (Sprachkursvisum) instead of a student visa and spent the following 4 months enrolled in full-time German classes at the Volkshochschule. After passing the Aufnahmetest (Admission for German) in March I began taking a prep course for the DHS Exam. I passed the Exam in June and after a full 9 months of hard work; I waseligible to begin my studies in October – FINALLY!

I am now in my second semester of my Masters in Maschinenbau (Mechanical Engineering) and I plan on taking 3 more semesters in order to finish. With a better understanding of the German education system, it is much easier to adapt to student life here, but the differences can still be challenging. There is no required/graded homework, rarely required attendance, and typically only one graded assignment per class (in most cases, the final exam). However, the academic independence is something I would never had experienced while studying in the states.

I often find myself having to answer the question, “why did you stay?” or “how is it you’ve been here so long?” or my least favorite “shouldn’t you have like 5 degrees by now?”The answer to the second question involves many little stories and a large dose of German bureaucracy (WHY SO MUCH PAPERWORK?!), which I don’t have time to delve into here. Suffice to say that living in three different cities, attending two universities, countless German classes and regular visa appointments at the Ausländerbehörde is quite time consuming. We can go through those on another blog post perhaps.

So why did I stay? Although my studies did not work out the way I planned, I am still happily living and studying in Germany. My decision to stay was mostly based on a feeling of incompleteness. I had unfinished business in this country. I knew that I would have passed my classes had I known more about the German education system, and wish I’d had better guidance before coming here. It is very ambitious to learn a language proficiently within a single year and go on to study in it. More so when the only place the language is being spoken is in German class, or at an occasional Stammtisch. The thought of going back to Virginia Tech to retake the classes I’d failed felt like giving up. The VT Chapter had been closed since I left for my exchange, and I wasn’t about to reopen it. I’d said my farewells and had no plans of coming back. When the *click* finally came and I could understand German (which took >1 year, not 1 month) the reality of a degree in Germany didn’t seem too far-fetched.