After a fast-paced finish to my internship and a week of traveling through southern Germany and Austria, I’m finally in the airport on my way home and now reflecting on the past 93 days. (Side note: I accidentally overstayed my tourist VISA but thankfully I went out of Germany for a few days so everything worked out!) I definitely know I’m a very different person from who I was on May 9, 2018. For this post, I want to highlight some of the ways I’ve grown by working as a psychology research assistant in a foreign country.
I decided to do this internship because of the experience I’d get in the field of psychology research. I was blown away by the magnitude of my tasks, the flexibility, and the ability to closely work with my supervisor, Dr. Nanna Notthoff. Not only did I learn about the mechanisms behind research, I learned these lessons in the context of a different culture. I could have done research at Michigan this summer, but this unique opportunity challenged me in very different ways – far beyond the classroom and the comfort of Ann Arbor. Here are a few tangible skills I gained:
- I learned the writing skills needed for an academic paper. My paper will be submitted to a journal within the next few days, which feels absolutely surreal for me! I would have never imagined I’d be published at 19 years old. I feel such a sense of accomplishment and motivation to continue this work.
- In order to write a paper, I learned everything that goes into the process. I learned how to use the SPSS computer program to interpret the data through various analyses, which I really enjoyed. I used literature searches to create solid, persuasive introduction and discussion sections by backing up my claims with previous research. In addition, there are so many details about formatting, writing styles, references, tables, and more to include in the writing.
- I learned about systematic reviews, risk of bias ratings, data extraction, and more. Basically, I realized that there’s a LOT of work that goes into producing unbiased, bulletproof research.
- I figured out how to navigate interactions in the work setting. For a little while, I felt stuck in a rut but found a way to talk to my supervisor about ways to improve my experience. For example, I volunteered to create an internship manual for future interns at the university. And, I asked if I could sometimes have a change of location when I needed a change of pace. When I found the courage to ask about these ideas, my experience improved so much, and I feel confident that I can take similar steps in future opportunities.
- I also completed an informational interview with my supervisor and received excellent advice about the field, steps to take, and how to create work-life balance. This was definitely a highlight of the internship and I highly recommend future interns to do the same.
Simply living in a foreign country gave me extraordinary experiences. I found that embracing the culture instead of resisting it was the best way for me to benefit from the culture change. To be honest, I didn’t think that Germany was all that different from the United States outside of healthier food and punctuality; and I was so wrong. I learned so much about how history has influenced valued traits, habits, and attitudes of much of the population. I’d say that I picked up many German ideals and I’m incredibly grateful. Here are some of the ways I’m different now due to “living like a German” for three months:
- I highly value transparency, directness, and honesty, especially when it’s difficult. I can’t stand white lies or passive aggressiveness anymore. Regimes in German history have been riddled with secrecy and manipulation, and knowing this historical context gives so much more meaning to this. I’ve observed how transparency and respect are such an integral part of the culture today and I will try to always take that with me.
- Similarly, I now very much prefer genuine and sincere interactions. I had conversations with many locals about their lives, and realized how open everyone was right away. A man spoke to me in Starbucks within a minute of our conversation about the psychology of interacting with refugees in the country. On my plane ride from Frankfurt, the man sitting next to me shared his experiences with mental health issues in his family and therapy, as well as living on the streets of Italy. The dozens of people I met were so sincere and eager to share their story as well as listen to mine. I’ve never had such open conversations in my life, except for my past Michigan Alternative Spring Break trip.
- I’m much more eco-friendly. I cringe at the thought of using plastic silverware, paper napkins, and plastic bags at a grocery store. From now on, I will use less water and air conditioning, only use cloth napkins, bring a canvas bag or two to the grocery store, and aim to be as waste-free as possible.
- I try to be more present and live in the moment. On much of the public transportation, I noticed a lack of cell phone use. I realized that people would go to coffee shops on their own simply to read a book and enjoy some quiet time. Germans are much more active and like to be in nature as much as possible, which is something I think I picked up. During meals, they take their time and savor every bite and moment. I’ve significantly limited my cell phone use and feel so much more present.
- Finally, I don’t take things so personally. My host described that all of her American guests are so polite and cautious because they’re afraid of offending others. I noticed that when I stopped thinking about others’ opinions of me, I felt so free and less stressed. And, I’d say I’m a lot more assertive and self-assured after trying to not take things so personally.
I’ve noticed such a big difference in my personal growth and confidence after this trip:
- If I can manage to not only survive, but thrive during a 12-week internship in a foreign country and solo travel on weekends, I feel like I can do anything. I won’t back down or doubt myself (well, at least not as much as I have in the past) because I know what I’m capable of.
- Also, my German language skills have grown by leaps and bounds. I can now comfortably have a conversation with native speakers and connect on topics including current events, politics, and social justice. I even had a government appointment completely in German while registering my residence (which actually turned out to be unnecessary…).
- I learned that I have such a passion for travel. Not just being a tourist, but truly living in a culture for an extended period of time. Sightseeing is very different from the experience of surrounding yourself with locals, asking questions about history and perspectives, and embracing new approaches to life.
- During my time in Leipzig, I felt the happiest I’ve ever felt in my life. I feel so much more assure of myself, my goals, and the life I want to lead. I plan to prioritize my relationships and hobbies outside of academics, because I know that a balance of these time commitments is what makes me happy.
- I plan to visit Germany as much as possible in the future, and especially spend time with my host. She taught me how to live a life of happiness, less stress, self-assurance, health, and connection. Our conversations flipped my world view upside down, especially those about politics, economic systems, globalization, history, and cultural differences. She might actually now be my favorite person in the world, and I’m so fortunate I had such a great experience with my living situation during my internship.
I keep asking myself, what’s next? And to be honest, I have no clue. I’m still interested in research and statistics, but I’m hoping to get involved in psychology research relating to activism. I might even try to get connected with a non-profit organization doing research! If I don’t end up in that field, I might head down the path of sociology or gender and sexuality studies. I also made a last-minute decision to switch my housing so I will now live in the Max Kade German residence program, since I loved my time abroad so much. I love the intersection between history, culture, and psychology. I don’t know where this will take me, but I’m open to the possibilities!
Thank you for keeping up with my journey here! Auf Wiedersehen!