A few months ago, a list published by former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims started making the rounds on social media. In it, she expounds on her list of the basic skills everyone should have by age 18. Reading it, I realized that it wasn’t until I started studying in Germany that I gained the skills on the list.
- Be able to talk to strangers. This one was the most difficult for me growing up. But in Germany, you have no choice. Most students who come here to study don’t know anyone initially, and have to learn to talk to strangers just to get around. This is probably the single most valuable skill I’ve gained in my time here.
- Find their way around town, campuses, etc. Navigation isn’t an important skill for most of us today, thanks to the rise of smartphones. But the over-reliance on Google Maps can lead to disaster when studying abroad if you haven’t learned the basics of getting around on your own.
- Manage assignments, workloads, and deadlines. When I came to Germany the first time as a 19-year-old exchange student, I was shocked to find out how much students were expected to do on their own here. Looking back, I don’t know why I thought it was so strange. College students are adults, and adults should be expected to manage their responsibilities.
- Contribute to the running of a household. For me, this was something I learned when I moved into my first shared flat in Germany. Living in the dorms and with my friends during my undergraduate studies in the States, I was never expected to do much more than the bare minimum to keep the roaches at bay. In Germany, my flatmates posted a weekly cleaning schedule, and we were all expected to pitch in. And if any of us didn’t, there were real consequences.
- Handle interpersonal problems. Of course, living in a shared environment means dealing with interpretation. I knew what I was doing, and had an idea of what others were doing, but could never be quite sure. Dealing with the problems that result has been incredibly valuable to me, even in my post-roommate life, as I now know being right isn’t nearly as important as being happy and getting along with the people around you.
- Cope with ups and downs. When you read about study abroad, most of what you hear is the ups. Very few people mention the downs. But there are many. And learning to cope with these is essential if you are going to make it.
- Be able to earn and manage money. All students in Germany are allowed to work, but the amount of time you can work is limited, and most of us have to hustle to get by. For me, this has meant taking jobs as a proofreader, editor, teacher, bartender, tour guide, and picking up extra money by renting out an extra room in my apartment. I’ve always said that everyone should work in the service industry at some point in their lives, but I think the same rule should go for the type of on-the-fringes work most American students do in Germany. Having to hustle to pay your bills during the course of your studies definitely teaches you the value of your money and the importance of your studies.
- Be able to take risks. The biggest risk I’ve ever taken was also the easiest. When I was 24, I bought a one-way ticket to Germany. At the time, a lot of people in my life thought it was crazy, but that single decision has led to all of the good that has come since. Looking back, I remember how easy it was to buy the ticket, and how immediate the sense of dread filled me afterward. But these are the types of risks we need to take to move forward in our lives.