Fulbright Features: German experience has life lessons for Penn State alumna

By Laura Dzwonczyk
February 03, 2015

Penn State students are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend master's degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Program, a highly sought-after nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This is the 10th story in a series of essays written by Penn State student Fulbright winners who have returned from or have just embarked on their trips.

While the official total won’t be released until February, at least 13 students have been offered the scholarship this year, according to Penn State’s University Fellowships Office. Last year, 11 Penn State students received the prestigious scholarship. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website. Click here to read more Fulbright Features.


I think I understood perhaps 25 percent of what was said to me the first day I stepped inside the Integrierte Gesamtschule Ernst Bloch school. The key, I learned, is to smile and nod, looking for context clues all the while. Not too big, not too enthusiastically, or they’ll be on to you. I’d studied German for several years, taken a year abroad in Berlin and received glowing recommendations from my professors. What I wasn’t counting on was the three-year gap — and the huge difference in accent — between Berlin and Mainz, a small city near Frankfurt that is currently my home. So: smile and nod, listen for the upswing in speech that means a question, and add the occasional, “Oh, sure,” or, “Definitely,” to prove you’re listening. You are listening, even if you don’t understand everything that’s being said.

It took me a few months to adjust to the rhythm of my school, the customs of my city and the heavy Pfälzer accent that permeates the language here. (To tell the truth, I still can’t fully make out what the geography teacher in my office is saying half the time.) Fulbright is enriching, but it’s quite different from study abroad. You’re not racing to see how many countries you can get to before the semester’s over or swimming through basic classes in language and culture. You’re here to work, and to experience everyday life — buying groceries, visiting the doctor, going to yoga classes. You’re here to learn more about the culture through the eyes of your students. It was a bit of a shock for me at first. Most of us go through the “is this real life?” crisis when we transition from college to the working world; I had to do so while navigating a new country. My to-do lists looked something like: laundry, make dinner, go to the immigration office to pick up your residence permit so you’re not kicked out of Europe in two weeks. Simple things could become overwhelming very quickly.

The Fulbright program was a great help in sorting things out. Fulbright staff told us to get in contact with their office in Berlin if we had any issues or if we were just feeling uncomfortable in general. I contacted them a lot, and each time they were happy to help out to the best of their ability. There’s no hand holding, you’re independent, but they’ll be by your side if you need them.

My other saving grace here has been my fellow teachers. When you go abroad, the kindest of strangers really do open their doors for you. They give me coffee and chat with me every day, gently correcting my German (teachers here have big group offices, so they’re inclined to be more social). I’m helping one instructor out with his application to teach in America, another invited me to join her family for Christmas Eve and my favorite teacher had my parents and sister over for raclette and fireworks on New Year’s Eve. When my parents thanked her, she shrugged it off. “That’s what you do when you have someone from another country,” she said. May we all learn something from her.

These days, I wake up around 5 a.m., drink my coffee and take the hour-long train to school. I teach part-time, sometimes working with small groups of students, sometimes teaching an entire class. I instruct everyone from 11 to 19 years old. In other words, I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades, but the students are insightful and often funny, and they’re the reason I wake up at 5 a.m. in the first place.

I’m more comfortable with the older teens — I taught several English 15 classes at Penn State —but the younger students are a delight as well. There’s no self-esteem boost quite like walking into a classroom and hearing, “Miss Laura!” like you’re the local celebrity. (They even make me jewelry.) The German school system is a bit complex, and there are more differences between schools here and in the U.S. than one would first think. Like almost any cultural dissimilarity, some aspects are better in the U.S., and some are better here.

And then there are some things that are just uncanny. I walked into my group office midmorning one day to the scent of vanilla candles and the sight of champagne glasses, orange juice cartons and a half-eaten cake. “It was the boss’s birthday today,” said a teacher, handing me a glass. “Mimosa?”

“You know what, I’m good,” I said after a pause. I find mimosas delicious, but not when I’m about to teach 25 fifth-graders “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”

When people ask me how my life is here, I don’t quite know how to answer. My day-to-day is like that of any other twenty-something, except that it’s completely different. It’ll test you in every sense, whether you’re in Germany or Ghana, and in return, it’ll reward you in the most unexpected and gratifying ways. Earlier today, I went to the farmer’s market, and at the butcher stand, I asked for the difference between two different kinds of smoked meat. The woman hesitated, recognizing my accent. “Do you want me to switch into English?” she asked.

“I’m good,” I said, surprising myself. And I smiled and nodded, and I understood.

  • Penn State alumna Laura Dzwonczyk is serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Germany.

    Penn State alumna Laura Dzwonczyk is serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Germany.

    IMAGE: Laura Dzwonczyk
Last Updated February 05, 2015