Robert Plascencia is a junior in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, studying Electrical and Computer Engineering and minoring in Business and Entrepreneurship. In order to gain cross-cultural experience, and heighten his German language skills, Robert studied abroad in Berlin, Germany through AHA at the Freie Universität Berlin during Summer 2013.
I’ve wanted to travel the world ever since high school, but I never really got the chance. I also wanted to become an engineer, but I didn’t know if those two things could be merged.
During my sophomore year of college, I realized that engineers sometimes travel as a part of their jobs if they already have experience living abroad: employers look for individuals that are familiar with cultural assimilation. Even though my mind was set on wanting to go learn about the world, I still had to face the problem of funding. While I had a little bit of money saved up, I applied for some scholarships to cover the rest of my costs. Right when it seemed like I wouldn’t be able to go, I was awarded the Gilman Scholarship at the last possible moment — which was more dramatic than I’d have liked. I would get the chance to learn how cultures vary and what it was like to be a part of the minority.
I traveled to Berlin for a month and lived with a homestay family. Having never traveled so far before, I needed to find a balance between my desire to acquire an intercultural perspective and my first-time exposure to living in another country. I found that a short-term summer program was a good compromise: I learned without overwhelming myself. I had a great host family that had been to the United States several times and had hosted American students before, but was still eager to learn about life in the States and was more than happy to share about Germany. Interestingly, they were hosting an exchange student from Italy at the same time, so I learned about Italy and the larger European Union as well.
In addition to learning through my interactions with my host family, I took German courses at the Freie Universität Berlin (The Free University of Berlin, lovingly called FUBiS) and was in a classroom with mostly other American students who had never been to Germany before. Being around so many other Americans let me see how other people handle the change, the culture shock, and how they grow to become self-reliant. Seeing this, combined with my own personal growth, I learned that different people can be the same as us.
While I didn’t study engineering in Germany and instead focused on German language, this time abroad still applies to my greater career aspirations. I was afraid to study engineering because I felt my German wasn’t nearly good enough to appreciate the concepts I would’ve been learning. I became more fluent with German. Of course, I still have much to learn – I have a clear American accent, my vocabulary is poor, I speak slowly, and I need to think carefully about how to say every sentence. Nonetheless, through the language, I learned about the German way of life, and gained that experience employers look for when considering whom to send abroad: they know I won’t succumb to culture shock, that I have dealt with the challenges of being away before, and that I am open to change. My next step in this journey is to apply this experience to an internship or to an actual career.
Even though most people set out to experience a different culture or to get away from home, careful planning allows travel to help with career aspirations as well. With new challenges always come new opportunities, and engineering is a field always looking for those driven to learn.