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Long distances and studying in America

Sitting cross-legged on a chair, sporting a gauzy patterned shirt of black, teal and fuchsia, and black leggings, Isabel Oßwald says she has more homework than she ever did back home in Germany, but what she'll remember most is the warmth of the people she's met in South Florida.

It is Thursday, early afternoon. The glare of the Floridian September sun motivates people to stay indoors. In the quiet College of Business at Florida Atlantic University, the blonde and petite Oßwald has finished her cream cheese-and-salmon sushi roll and is rolling the cap closed on a bottle of Aquafina water.

The green-eyed girl is surrounded by papers, and her laptop computer looks as if it's been on for a while. And she has two paper bags, filled with more papers. It's obvious that her hands are full, and not just with the Aquafina bottle.

"I was never as busy as I am here," said Oßwald.

Oßwald, 23, began her studies in the University of Erlangen in Nuremberg. She was working on becoming a high school teacher of Italian and English when the opportunity to study abroad presented itself. She chose three of the 20 universities that offer a study-abroad a program that accommodated her scholarship, and was sent to FAU, her first choice.

"My first option was FAU because of the beach and the sun. It's too hot, but I still like it," said Oßwald.

The original plan was to work for two semesters as a German-language teacher's assistant while studying linguistics. The experience would give her some transferable courses, which she could take back to Germany to finish her studies.

But Oßwald got an offer to stay at FAU, instruct an intensive Italian-language summer course, and attain an entire master's degree in linguistics before going back overseas.

That meant Oßwald had to balance Italian classes with writing her thesis on the subject of second-language acquisition.

"What kept me focused was the idea that I will have my master's degree in only a few months and that I will have a huge project finished that took such a great amount of time. The idea of calling such a study your own work and research makes you want to finish!" she said.

Oßwald has had time to think about student-professor dynamics in both countries. In the United States, there are fairly close, personal relationships between professors and students, she said. While she believes this attention has to do with paying tuition, Oßwald has found the academic support to be helpful.

"Talking to professors changed my opinion about my own academic abilities," she said while discussing the possibility of pursuing a doctorate.

In Germany, those relationships are impersonal, she said, and students fend for themselves without step-by-step attention from advisers and professors.

One of the more difficult aspects of student life in the United States is the amount of homework and extra work students must do. Still, her studies here aren't necessarily hard, she explained. The fact that she's got so much out-of-the-classroom work gives her more opportunities to get a good grade. "[I was] overwhelmed by the amount of work but not by the quality," she said.

The overworked hours concealed some of the homesickness for Oßwald, and if there's something she found in Florida to compensate for the lost company, it was a good entourage of valuable friends.

"I have to say I met a lot of Spanish [-speaking] people here. Together with Americans, they have been so open and welcoming," she said.

With those friendships came outings, and some cultural shocks, such as drunken driving.

"Everybody drinks and drives here," she said. In Germany, people go clubbing through public transportation, she said, which is much harder to find in most American cities.

Because of the lack of public transportation, driving has now become a habit for Oßwald. "Distance is not distance here," she said to explain how she's grown accustomed to long daily car drives.

As she packs her books to prepare for seven hours of intense thesis preparation, Oßwald says her future plans are uncertain.

Once she graduates, a degree would get her an 18-month work permit. Or she might continue studying and get a Ph.D. in applied linguistics. Or, she could return to Germany for her teaching degree.

"If you are a high school teacher in Germany, you will possibly stay at one school for more than 20 years. This idea of inflexibility scares me right now and makes me not want to go into this system, ruled by the government," Oßwald said.

Regardless of what happens, she's enjoyed studying at FAU and will cherish the memory. "Florida will remain a very special place. I love everybody here," she said.



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