Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Auggie at a Glance - Shannon Backes

From the October 2, 2009 issue of the Echo:
You hear it all the time from Augsburg faculty: studying abroad is the coolest thing since sliced bread, and anyone who doesn’t go at some point during the typical four-year program is not only limiting his or her job prospects, but wasting a perfectly good opportunity for cheap travel. Still not convinced you should see the outside world? Then read on about Shannon Backes, a junior Auggie who spent last spring and summer studying in Germany.

Shannon, a Spring Lake Park High School alum, had never been outside the Western Hemisphere. Even as an International Business major with a German minor, she’d confined herself to the Caribbean and Mexico, where her language skills proved useless—that is, until last spring, when Shannon decided to drop everything and brave the unknown in Germany.

Shannon’s study abroad experience was somewhat unconventional. She enrolled in the Duale Hochschule Baden-Wuerrtemberg Mosbach, a university originally for employees of major German companies, which had since adopted a more typical higher-education model; and instead of taking four courses for the entirety of the semester, she took nine courses total, each lasting only a week or two. Half of Shannon’s classmates hailed from all corners of the globe, including Singapore, Russia, and France, and the other half were native German students, though all classes were taught in English.

After her semester of study, Shannon remained in Germany to help her university become more English-friendly. She was granted a paid internship with the university’s international office, creating English syllabi for courses offered to international students, and enhancing the university’s website to include more English-language pages.

And for those who would write off Shannon’s experience as somehow less stimulating than, say, a trip to South Africa, Shannon insists it’s the little things that challenge one’s preconceptions of how people are supposed live. For example, many of us wouldn’t think twice about leaving our heating or air conditioning on while we were out—we want to be comfortable the moment we step through the door, after all. But in Germany, Shannon explained, everyone always shuts off their heating systems if they step out, even if it’s unbearably hot or cold outside, for the lone, but noble cause of conserving energy. It’s something we may not normally think about, Shannon continued, but once the conditions change, it’s hard not to notice. And even though Shannon had gone abroad with considerable German-speaking skills already under her belt, she still felt slightly out of place with native Germans: “There were so many things I wanted to say, but in German, I don’t know if it will come out the same way…even telling a joke…is it an American thing?” Yet, she insists the best thing to do is talk anyway, even if others laugh, because students who take risks while learning a language ultimately learn more than those who don’t.

Shannon’s most poignant advice was for students who believe they don’t have to go abroad to learn a language, or a culture: “It’s almost like talking about somebody you’ve never met before.” It’s not until you go abroad and put a face to the name, she continued, that you learn what the culture is really like.

Though Shannon expects she won’t be able to go abroad again before she graduates this spring, she still serves as an excellent model of someone who took initiative, and left her comfort-zone, to experience something different. It would do us all well to follow her lead.

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