March, 2019 | Reciprocal Exchanges Blog

Bonjour à tous!

It’s hard for me to believe that almost two months of my exchange semester has gone by – time has flown and I have enjoyed every second of my time abroad! I’ve adjusted to the change in scenery quite well as I have wanted to study abroad for most of my childhood. This experience has been long-awaited and I am beyond happy that it has finally come.

By studying in Strasbourg, France, I am able to experience a culture within another culture. While France has its own culture unique to Europe, Strasbourg is a city nestled on the French-German border and thus, a part of the Alsatian cultural sphere. The way that I’ve described it to many is that the people are French but the place is German. By this, I mean that the common language here is French and the style is French while in terms of architecture and street names, Strasbourg very much can seem a bit German at times.

I believe France to be a beautiful country in every way: with its fashion, cuisine, architecture, land, people, and more. I’ve come to admire its beauty on a daily basis – whether it is by grabbing a chocolate pastry from a nearby “Patisserie” on my way to class in the morning or a baguette on my way back from a “boulangerie”, visiting the local market and supporting farm fresh produce, going to various cathedrals and museums where I can learn more about the history of the area, or having a picnic with some friends at a local park when the sun decides to pop out. As you have probably guessed, the French love bread. We also love presentation in terms of many things – fashion especially! It is important to always look presentable and to have a sense of style when dressing. An all-black outfit is an easy go-to here!

Classes here are quite different from those at Mays. The French system, or at least what I have been able to observe from EM Strasbourg, differs in that most examinations are done at the end of the course – and that most of your grade is determined by that exam. Homework or small assignments don’t exist here, in the sense that the professors expect you to keep up with their course / material however you choose to do so! I like this approach as it allows students to be self-motivated. Lectures are also less common and classes are very participative. On the other hand, I do wish that EM Strasbourg combined exchange students with domestic students in courses, like Mays does, but it tends to be a rarity here. However, I was able to take one of my courses in French which was great in order to expand my French language skills and meet locals.

Something that seemed just crazy to me was the ability to go for a casual morning run to GERMANY ! If I wanted to run 10-15 kilometers (roughly 6-9 miles), I could start in Strasbourg, run to the nearby city of Kehl (cross by bridge with no border control or anything of that sort), run along the river, then continue my run back to Strasbourg with ease. Many students in Strasbourg also do their grocery shopping in Kehl since it is cheaper and a 15-minute tram ride away.

As Strasbourg houses the European Parliament and is deemed by many to be the “heart/capital/center” of Europe, it is the place to be. I visited the European Parliament, where I sat in on a plenary session. My dream job is to be a diplomat (Foreign Service Officer), ambassador, or to work for an international organization (or embassy) so this was quite a valuable experience for me. Even with the representatives of the different European countries talking about the topic of taxes and how the present laws affect the country and people that they are delegates of, I was interested in every second of it!

Most of Europe is under the “Schengen Area”. This refers to a compilation of 26 European states that have mutually undefined borders – in the sense that the Schengen Area has a common visa policy which generates the ease of international travel. I love this concept! The ability to be just kilometers (metric system rules out the customary system here 😉 or hours away from a whole other culture (and language) continues to baffle me! When I traveled to Budapest, Hungary, I bussed back (which is fairly common in Europe, especially for young travelers) so ideally, I had breakfast in Hungary, stopped for lunch in Austria, had a quick dinner in Germany, then arrived back in France in the evening to sleep – passing through four countries in one day! In Texas, if you drive for seven hours, you are likely… you guessed it – still in Texas!

Furthermore, I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to travel often during my time here. Typically, my weeks are spent in Strasbourg while 2-3 out of 4 weekends per month are elsewhere. So far, I have visited cities in Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and of course, France. I was also able to spend New Year’s Eve in Paris with an old friend before classes had started (a previous exchange student who I met during my Freshman year at Texas A&M) which was just amazing. I also have plans to visit Milan and Barcelona in the near future, then we will see from there!

And for that, I thank IBA (the International Business Association) for the opportunities it has encouraged me to pursue. I have already visited / been visited by / met up with 15+ previous IBA students (of which were exchange students at one of our 15 partner universities and studied abroad at Texas A&M within the past 3 years). It was really amazing to have been able to switch roles with them – when these past exchange students were in Texas, I was their tour guide and took trips with them, showed them around, engulfed them with the traditions of both Texas A&M and the US, etc. but with me being in Europe, it was now their time to play the role of the tour guide and show me their land & its ways! IBA has allowed me to meet so many different people that I undoubtedly would not have had a chance to meet otherwise. For several years now, I have helped out the exchange students and been a part of our buddy program, where I have been able to meet over 150+ exchange students at Mays at Texas A&M. Upon my return to Texas, I look forward to having gained a newfound appreciation (that is now firsthand, not secondary) of Europe and an international education which I believe will allow me to continue to better connect with others.

But not every moment has been high-fly and easy – when I visited in Brussels, I actually got my purse stolen by a group of three in broad daylight (which, since we were moving to a different place of accommodation and I wasn’t the brightest, had all my identification cards, credit & debit card, a little cash, and the most important… my PASSPORT!). I had to file a police report – all in French of course. I was then escorted to the embassy by the police since the embassy was only open for another hour that day and I had a flight the next morning / would need an emergency passport to be able to leave Belgium. With the emergency passport, travel is possible throughout Europe except for the fact that France does not recognize the emergency passport – but I was lucky to have flown into Switzerland and travel to France back by bus, so there was no issue there. I am still working out the last minute kinks with sending in my emergency passport for a full-validity one as well as getting my visa stamped back into my passport – but all should be well soon, fingers crossed. Rather than allowing the situation to cause stress, I looked at the bright side and realized that 1) I learned a lesson 2) It was a great opportunity to be able to practice my French speaking skills / broaden my vocabulary with terms that I don’t use on a daily basis in Strasbourg 3) Stuff happens and you just have to laugh it off sometimes.

Until next time (À la prochaine),
Sophia Rahimeh

Categories: 2019, Reciprocal Exchange

I have settled in nicely to life down under. There have been a few drastic changes. First, school is very different in Australia. It is more isolated. Without school sponsored housing, uni students live with their families at home throughout the duration of their studies. This presents a challenge to meet new people, as most students see university as we in America see high school; go to school than return home. Nevertheless, the university students I have had the chance to get to know have been welcoming, polite, and curious about life in America.

There is a school run bar on campus and it is open from 8am to 5pm. I think that is all that needs to be said about that.

My host family has been the highlight of the experience so far. Hosting 4 other international students plus two kids of their own, the house is busy but certainly feels like a home. Courtesy of the culinary inclined international student from Japan, Germany, and Taiwan, every night is a spectacular display of cuisine from around the world. American burgers and BBQ will always be king, but Asian style beef is a close second.

Weekend trips are big thing here. Everywhere from Sydney to Byron Bay to the Gold Coast are flooded with university students every weekend. Brisbane is a quieter city, but it knows its place and offers a nice balance between city life and fun.

 

Thanks and Gig ’em!

Categories: 2019, Australia, Reciprocal Exchange

Howdy!

Today is the official one month mark of my exchange semester here in Copenhagen, Denmark. After hours of flying and waiting in airports, getting to finally step off the last plane was both a blessing and a shock. Thankfully I had no problems at any of the three airports I passed through, managed to find my bags in a matter of minutes, and successfully wandered down the halls until, finally, I was greeted in Denmark by my CBS (Copenhagen Business School) Buddy, Karina. One metro and two bus rides later, I was in my new dorm room, unpacking, familiarizing myself with the new neighborhood and getting so excited to start my semester.

Speaking of the dorms, there are about 35 other exchange students living in Norrebro (a region in Copenhagen) with me which is about 10-15 minutes from CBS by bike. In this short amount of time, isolated together, we have grown extremely close and I absolutely love the family we have become. Upon meeting everyone, we formed a dorm-wide Facebook chat which we use daily to talk, plan outings, form travel groups and in the case of an emergency, contact each other for help. It amazes me how studying abroad has pulled us from all over the world (United States, Canada, New Zealand, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, China and Taiwan) into one place where we have bonded over a single commonality: we are not Danish. Below are some of the fun moments from Copenhagen which, let me make clear, is very cold!

If I do not spend a paragraph here talking about bikes, I will not have done Denmark justice. Biking is a huge part of Danish culture and I am absolutely in love with it. Because of an insanely large VAT tax, most people, especially college students, do not own cars but everyone, and I truly mean everyone, owns a bike. Children can be seen biking behind their parents, mothers and fathers are pulling carts of groceries or children (even pets), businesses send employees to make deliveries using bike baskets and students carry their bags to and from school, on bikes, every day. Now I am not saying biking is the only means of transportation. Denmark does have an excellent bus and metro system but bikes defiantly have a huge impact as they are cheap and practical, not to mention a great way to get some exercise in. All streets have bike lanes that fit about two bikes side by side (you always bike on the right and pass on the left), however, when you get into the city center, the bike lanes grow to fit about 5 bikes side by side and are nearly twice as large are the car/ bus lanes. In conclusion, bikes are everything here and as nearly every other exchange student has done, I have rented a bike for the next 4 months from a company called Swapfiets and this bike has become my lifeline.

As I stated earlier, it has been a month since I have started my semester and now that I have well established myself in Denmark, I have begun traveling and planning trips to other European countries. So far I have taken a bus to Malmo, Sweden and Hamburg, Germany. Next weekend is Oslo, Norway and beyond that, who knows. I am so excited for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel! Below are a few photos from both Sweden (first 2 photos) and Germany (last 2 photos).

Until next time, thanks & gig’em!

Categories: 2019, Denmark, Reciprocal Exchange

The culture of Barcelona is unlike anything I am accustomed to, the people are very relaxed and laid back. The timing and schedule of everything is flexible and normally later than anything in America. For example, most restaurants don’t open until at least 9am, and the bars don’t open until midnight to about 2am. People in Barcelona are very reserved in their style and are quite polite.

On a lighter note, the weather here is absolutely stunning. In my total of about 40 days here, it has only rained one day, something that I didn’t think was possible being from Houston/College Station. It’s about 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day with very low humidity, so I take every opportunity I get to enjoy the outdoors.

 

The biggest difference I noticed on my arrival is that everybody smokes cigarettes here. Out in the streets, the beach, even in university. It’s very interesting because smoking has such a negative connotation in the States that it’s very rare to see people smoking in this amount. In addition, beer is very cheap here costing about .55-1 euro for a six-pack. They even sell beer at the university cafeteria, which was a huge surprise to me.

 

A very notable difference from living here for a month is the public transit system is light years better than anything in Texas. There are 4 main modes of public transit, the metro/subway, Tram, Bus, and bike, which can all be accessed easily. It is relatively cheap for me it is about a euro a day to have unlimited access to everything but bicing (the public bike sharing system used in Barcelona).

The ties to Catholicism are very strong in Barcelona still, most stores are closed on Sunday and it is usually a very relaxed day for everybody. People are very reserved and polite. They wear well-fitting clothes, unlike most Americans. Almost nobody wears shorts of any kind which was weird to see because it’s a majority in the States. The food here is great, Spanish Omelets and Patatas Bravas are hard to beat, but I have been craving  some good Tex-Mex.

 

 

Categories: 2017

My first few weeks in the beautiful, historic city of Vienna, Austria has not only been eventful, but has also been an experience that is both insightful and eye-opening — allowing me to appreciate the beauty within the disparities between a world familiar to me, and one utterly foreign.

I arrived in Vienna much earlier than the beginning of the Spring semester (‘summer’ semester as they call it here) allowing me to partake in a two-week long cultural program. This particular program was organized to familiarize the incoming exchange students with the city, its history, and become a way for us to engage with locals and other international students. In this period, I learned to navigate my way through the intricate public transportation system of Vienna, stumbled upon several cultural barriers, and truly understood the importance of learning about other cultures around the world. It’s nearly impossible to capture my “first impressions” within a few short sentences — but I will try.

First, the language barrier is REAL. Currently, I am living in a dorm-style living community and my roommate speaks 1% English, 90% Russian, and 9% German (let us not question the math). To keep us from relying on Google Translate to communicate the smallest of messages, I have started to make active efforts to pick up on some key Russian phrases to develop some sort of relationship. As for the general population, I severely underestimated the number of people who are able to speak fluent English. From the cleaning lady at my dorm facility to the man who gave me my semester train pass, I have run into language barriers at every corner. To bypass this, I recently decided to engage in conversation with people in Deutsch, even though I know very little. I will post a proper update on my next post regarding this.

Second, traveling is harder than you think. Since I have been here I have already visited Slovakia, United Kingdom, France, and other smaller cities neighboring Vienna in Austria. Among the various benefits and joys of seeing the world, there are some key components I overlooked. For one, it’s expensive. My first week in Vienna was worrisome as it forced me to reevaluate my spending habits, and whether it would be sustainable for the remaining five months I am here. Add traveling on top of that, and things were not looking good. I have started to build a budget that I hope to abide by while I am here. Additionally, being in and out of airports can be exhausting — to the point that it takes away from the trip itself. I have learned that it’s important to travel at your own pace, even if that means opting out of some trips your friends may be taking.

Lastly, people are different everywhere you go. I know, this seems pretty obvious. Every country I have encountered so far has different customs and traditions, and it gets a little overwhelming (not to mention, confusing) to make sure that I am always conscious and respectful of the culture. This means knowing what the tipping culture is, how to greet people, and so much more. It is also important to note that service as a whole is quite different from what I am used to experiencing back home. Southern hospitality is an American concept. One, that I miss.

As a whole, my time so far in Vienna has been all about adjustment. Change is not something I am very fond of, but this trip has been all about getting outside of my comfort zone, and in the meantime, learning a lot about myself. I am optimistic about these next four months and what they have to offer!

Categories: 2019, Austria, Reciprocal Exchange

It is finally starting to warm up here in Milan, Italy!

For the first couple weeks, the weather was so cold. Milan is only about 2 hours from Switzerland, so although it makes sense for the weather to be cold, I wasn’t ready for the low temperatures in my apartment. I am staying in a small apartment 2 minutes from my classes; I share a room with a fashion student from Kazakstan and a German girl lives in the other room of our flat. Although the location is ideal, the building itself is very old. They key to our apartment is longer than my hand, and the walls are very thin. I can hear loud conversations from the street from our third floor apartment.

I have mixed feelings about my experiences so far,  mostly because my health has been a problem since before arriving. I had what I think was the flu on the way over but there was no way to change my flight (I tried). After a 12 hour layover in JFK, I spent half of the flight asleep in the empty half of the plane (my flight attendant was so kind and let me switch to have a row for myself), and the other half coughing and nauseous. After Im landed, I was able to get to the apartment and check in, and I slept for two days. Needless to say, I scared my roommate who was already here. But when I was finally able to leave my apartment, I was so excited to be in such a great city for a whole semester. The underground subway has a stop at the Duomo, and the exit is 50 feet from the front of the Duomo. It’s a breathtaking sight.

Milan is ideal for a student who wants to travel. There are two major airports, a central train station, underground subways, above-ground metros, and major bus stops. Tickets from Milan to most places in Europe are very affordable, and my bus ticket to Zurich was about 20 euros.

My first trip was to Zurich, and I broke my finger skiing. We did some sightseeing the first day we were there, and the next day was ski day. We traveled an hour outside of Zurich to Mt. Brunni and arrived at around 8:30am. After renting the gear, paying for my day pass, and getting on the t-lift, I skied for about 30 seconds before falling down the mountain and hitting a girl’s skis on the way down. I spent the rest of the day at the local hospital. Although it was quite painful, the experience was actually quite pleasant. The EMTs who took me to the hospital made jokes the whole time, the hospital was spotless and looked brand new, and the doctors were very kind when they re-set my pinky. It has been over 2 weeks, and my finger is still crooked and quite swollen, but it has been difficult finding a doctor here to see and the Italian emergency room was packed so I wasn’t able to get seen.

Classes started on my birthday, February 4th, and I have enjoyed them all so much! I am in E-marketing and E-commerce, Psychology of Marketing, Management of Fashion Companies, and Personal Selling. I really think they will help me in my career. I signed for my internship yesterday to work for Levi’s in San Francisco this summer, and I think what I am learning this semester will be easy to carry over with me. Bocconi University is a well-known business school, and one of the best in Europe, and I feel so lucky to be here studying with bright students from all over the world. Some of my closest friends I have made in classes are from France, New York, California, Morocco, and Canada.

I am so excited for the rest of the semester. I want to make the most of my time here because I know it is going to go by so quickly. I am so thankful that I have the opportunity to make lifelong friends, see new things, grow in character, and learn as much as I can in a place so beautiful and rich with culture.

Categories: 2019, Italy, Reciprocal Exchange

It is incredible to think that I have lived in Venice, Italy for almost a month now. I have learned so many things already and I am eager to dive in deeper and learn even more throughout these upcoming months. Venice is already one of my favorite places in the world. I truly believe it is one of the most unique cities I could ever experience. The beautiful sights, helpful locals, and sweet atmosphere make it a happy place to call home. I am so thankful to be experiencing all that this semester has to offer alongside two incredible Aggie girls that are already my close friends.

The start of my trip included many surprises. For starters, the very first leg of my flight to Italy was canceled as I was standing in line to check in at the airport. I am so thankful my original plans for arriving in Venice included multiple days set aside to explore the city before I was required to be there because every extra day was used up due to flight complications. Long story short, it was an unexpected adventure that included one canceled flight, three flight delays, one missed connecting flight, an unexpected overnight stay in Istanbul, Turkey, and my baggage not arriving in Venice on time. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t want to change a thing. I got to start out my trip with adventures and stories to tell before I even arrived for my study abroad. I met incredible people along the way, grew in self-confidence for facing big challenges alone in foreign countries, and my ability to go with the flow and laugh things off was solidified.

There have been multiple surprises to take in throughout the first few weeks in Venice. For one, the number of dogs on the island is a fun surprise that I did not expect. The amount of people who smoke cigarettes here is truly shocking. After our classes get out, students immediately group up outside of the classrooms and smoke together. Also, the lack of food offered in restaurants that is not pasta or pizza is very surprising. It has been quite difficult to find local restaurants that serve meats and veggies at affordable prices. We are learning to cook at home and growing in our cooking skills because of it! Our university here offers classes on three consecutive days a week, so only having classes on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday has been a blessing that I refuse to take for granted. I think we could all use more of a break – students and professionals alike. I understand that there would be less advancements if three day weekends were more common, however, I think our physical and mental health would be better off as a whole. Speaking of physical health, we walk an average of anywhere between 6 to 9 miles per day. This experience has confirmed my love for walking. It is even more enjoyable to walk in Venice because of all the beauty surrounding you as you stroll from place to place. The lack of cars is such a foreign, yet truly appreciated concept for me. It is such a stress eliminator. The whole city is less noisy and I do not have to deal with construction, traffic, or parking like I am used to dealing with at extreme levels every day in the states, especially in College Station. I am thankful and, truly, surprised by how safe I feel in Venice. I feel safe walking at numerous times throughout the day and the streets are beautiful and clean.

It is particularly easy to get lost in Venice. I am learning that what was once frustrating is now freeing. In this season of life, I finally have the time to get lost and dive into new adventures outside of my direct path. It is an incredible change of pace for me. I have learned that I need to do a better job of slowing down the pace of my life and simply look up and around more. I deeply love the organizations I am involved in at A&M. I feel honored to be a part of so many incredible groups. That said, just this one month of separation from my usual extracurricular activities has been so freeing and a taste of a more peaceful life that I have never before experienced.

I am beyond thankful for the generosity of the donors of these study abroad scholarships. Through both the hardships and good times so far, I am so confident that choosing to study abroad is one of the best decisions I will have made throughout my lifetime. It is only, I repeat, only, possible because of the helpful, generous, and equipping scholarships given from hearts of sacrifice, passion, and generosity. These scholarships not only help us students make ends meet when studying abroad, but enable us to maximize our experience through additional travel. My roommates and I have already taken advantage of our long weekends by traveling to Verona, Florence, and Milan. We have Rome, Paris, and Greece trips already booked as well. I could not be more thankful for this once in a lifetime opportunity. It is creating space for a slower lifestyle with wild and exciting adventure sprinkled in. I deeply enjoy learning about other cultures and discovering more about myself along the way. I am excited to see what the rest of this semester holds!

Categories: 2019, Italy, Reciprocal Exchange

The dust has finally settled after an exhilarating first three weeks in Prague. Following a broad range of experiences, good and bad, I now have a small collection of adventures to share. My arrival in the Czech Republic would certainly qualify as a negative one. Ungraciously, mother nature was the first to welcome me to the country with a massive snow storm to complicate the landing and luggage delivery. On top of being in an unfamiliar city with an unfamiliar language, I was additionally tasked in dealing with unfamiliar weather conditions. Learning to use the city’s public transport system was no piece of cake either at the time. Finally, I arrived at the dormitory, and was met with slight disappointment at the cramped and outdated 1970s interior.

The next morning, I awoke with a strong feeling of both jet lag and buyer’s remorse. “What had I gotten myself into?” I asked myself. The built up excitement over the last six months seemed in vain. Staring at my calendar, I feared that I had made a mistake with consequences lasting the next five months.

That morning’s feeling however, was a unique one that I have not felt since. Over the next week, my expectations quickly returned right-side up. I met new friends from every part of the world, and discussed potential trips all around Europe with them. Through others’ testimonies, I quickly realized that I was definitely not the only foreigner who had a poor initial experience. I felt quite silly for falling victim to “culture shock” after hearing how common it was. Those first twenty-four hours now seem like a lifetime ago.

Needless to say, things have changed. Although my Czech is still quite poor and the locals still seem to act somewhat cold toward me, I’ve picked up a few phrases and have a new understanding for the culture here. From my Czech friends, I’ve learned about the lasting affects of communism on the people of the former eastern bloc state. I’ve been fascinated in learning how the recent history of the country has shaped their current society.

As I’ve grown familiar with this beautiful town, things have gone much more smoothly. Each weekend I’ve had to assimilate myself into a new country’s culture. Rather than inflicting worry upon me, it’s now become more of a fun challenge. I am finally getting to enjoy doing what I came for. Eagerly, I await all the new cultures I will experience and the different kinds of people I will have the pleasure of meeting.

 

Categories: 2019, Czech Republic, Reciprocal Exchange