My Friend, Kathrin
Seven twenty-five. I checked my watch again, stretching my legs to avoid the uncomfortable stares of students and pedestrians watching me loiter outside the IBC in the early morning. They would be here soon. We had formed our informal running quartet over the course of the fall semester, meeting weekly to jog a few miles, but mostly to recount how we had managed to survive another week in college. Now we were nearing the end of the fall semester, and realizing the unfortunate reality that Kathrin, a German exchange student, would be going home. Even with oceans and countries between our respective lives, we often found more similarities than differences as we explored the city together on foot. Before she returned to Germany, I sat down with Kathrin to reflect upon her time at Temple as an international student.
Currently in her final semester, Kathrin will be graduating in May with a degree in psychology from the University of Tübingen, situated in southern Germany. The community around Tübingen is small, most of the inhabitants of the town being students. Though larger cities such as Munich are close by, she has spent most of her time in smaller, tight-knit communities. Philadelphia was a change of pace.
“I’ve never used the subway this often before…even the university is really crowded so in the beginning I had to get used to the big city. [Tübingen], where I live right now, is a really old city and there are a lot of trees and parks and a river. The thing that I like about it is if you go there you begin to feel like it’s your home and everyone is welcoming. We sometimes call it a “little village” even though it is bigger than a village. It just feels so cozy. At the beginning it was hard to call [Philadelphia] my home because everything was so different but right now I would say Temple’s campus especially is a kind of home I’m happy to come back to. Where I live [in Philadelphia] has become my happy place.”
I can attest that even as a domestic student, Philadelphia requires a lot of adjustment. Even growing up in Pennsylvania, navigating the city and lifestyle of a large city can be overwhelming. For Kathrin, the language barrier was an additional challenge.
“When you are actually talking to people you have to get used to things you don’t learn in school like how people react and interact. At the beginning you kind of struggle to not fall out of the standard. It was even like this when I was paying at the supermarket. I was nervous about it because I didn’t really understand when they were asking for the Fresh Grocer card. At first, everything kind of freaked me out. It was kind of hard to know what people want and know what they mean and not misunderstand everything.”
It is not enough to simply understand English though. Cultural context and conventions play an important part in the way in which we communicate. Behaviors that Americans find perfectly normal are considered strange or even rude to other cultures.
“[Germans] know that Americans are more open-minded… but still, when people start talking to you that you don’t know, it was kind of irritating because I was like, “What do they want?” It took some time to realize that’s just the way they are and it’s not about you doing anything wrong or them being weird. [Americans] are more friendly. I was happy to experience that actually. There are also small differences that I didn’t know about before I came, like policies and taxes between states that you have to watch out for. I’ve always thought about the government as just the White House.”
Overall, Kathrin will remember her time in the memories and experiences she had while abroad. Reflecting over five months, I asked her to share her favorite moments.
“When I arrived here, my two housemates were already waiting for me and they had tea prepared and I was really exhausted from the trip after traveling twenty hours or something. They were just welcoming and showed me around campus. I didn’t really see anything. I was just too tired; but still, it felt really nice and that night I went to bed and was like OK, I think it’s over it’s going to be alright.”
“One memory that I’ve made in the last few weeks was when I had to do a final presentation about a topic I wasn’t really secure about. I did all this reading and preparing for the presentation and it really helped that my classmates gave good feedback. They said, “You don’t need to worry about what you’re saying. Most of the time it’s right. It was such a relief as I had put so much pressure on being perfect.”
For my final question, I asked Kathrin what advice she would give to other international students.
“I think they should really get involved because when you really want to make friends it’s not always the best option just to go to courses and go home. For me it was great to live off campus. I have a lot of friends that are from Europe that had to live in on-campus housing. They put all the Germans right in the same apartment and all Dutch guys in the same apartment. That’s kind of sad because you will talk in your native language. Really try to find a place where you can live with Americans and not with other international students. You can still meet them in the evening but the during the day try keep in contact with the [domestic] students.”
This piece of advice is something I hope to follow when I am abroad this summer. Thinking back over her time here, I am inspired by her willingness to learn about Philadelphia and American culture while retaining her own international identity. She seamlessly adjusted to a new environment and always chose to embrace new opportunities in the city and on campus. Her cheerfulness and optimistic perspective truly brightened my day and made running in the city exciting again. Though our running group will never be the same without her, we are thankful for the many miles and conversations we shared together. In the words of Goethe, a famous German writer, “”Alles, was uns begegnet, läßt Spuren zurück. Alles trägt unmerklich zu unserer Bildung bei.” Everything we encounter leaves traces behind. Everything contributes imperceptibly to our education.