“I really profited from my time in Germany”

Shelby Smith, a biology student from Kentucky, came to Germany for four months in late 2023.

Gilman-DAAD Germany Scholarships give US students from low-income families the opportunity to spend short stays in Germany. Shelby Smith, a biology student from Kentucky, studied at the University of Regensburg from September to December 2023. In our interview she talks about the challenges of the first few weeks, the kindness of Germans and her newly discovered passion for intercultural exchange. 

Ms Smith, you had a difficult adolescence. From an early age you had to take care of your sick and unemployed parents. Were you in fact able to attend a normal school at all? 

I could only attend regular classes until high school, after which I had a full-time job – from 8 am to 6 pm, a total of 40 hours per week. By then the only time I had to study was after work, so for me school is synonymous with home schooling, which was really tough. That said, it also gave me some valuable experiences. In that kind of situation good time management is everything. And the only way to achieve that is if you know how to motivate yourself. I think I also grew up much more quickly than many of my peers during that time. 

At the age of 15 you then started work at an eye clinic.  

Yes, that was a very formative experience for me because I quickly realised how much I enjoyed the work and that I could easily imagine working as an optician one day, which would involve going to college. So I applied to Murray State College, roughly two and a half hours from home. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so that was an entirely new experience for me. 

When did you first hear about the DAAD’s Gilman programme? 

That was at college. Murray State has an exchange programme with the University of Regensburg and I pretty quickly decided that I would enjoy doing something like that. There was no way I could afford it though, so I started hunting seriously for scholarships and finally stumbled across the DAAD’s Gilman programme. I quickly got the impression that the programme was tailored to people just like me: first-generation students with no financial means. So I talked to my advisors here at uni and worked really hard on my application. At first I was sceptical about whether I would be accepted, but as I filled out the forms it quickly became clear to me that I actually did have a reasonable chance. After all, I met many of the eligibility criteria that were listed there, so that motivated me. 

It then worked out and you were able to spend four months studying in Regensburg last year. How was it for you there at first? 

Very exciting. The flight to Germany was the first time I’d ever been on a plane. I’d never travelled by train, bus or taxi before, either. Everything was completely new to me. In the first week I had to get used to the way grocery stores work in Germany. I still remember just how nervous I was when I went to a German supermarket for the first time. 

Did you have enough support? 

I felt very well looked after in Germany as the University of Regensburg is really well organised. I have a chronic medical condition that needs to be monitored by a doctor and for which I require medication. My supervisors in Germany really provided me with great support with that – I wouldn’t have managed it on my own during the first few weeks. I would have liked a bit more help in advance, however. We were sent some information about roughly what to expect, but looking back more details would have been useful, like about the political situation, culture and lifestyle in Germany. 

What were the biggest challenges? 

One of the biggest challenges for me was learning to ask for help. I am a very independent person so that doesn’t come easy to me. What is more, it is in fact very difficult in many cases to get the help you need in the US. It’s quite different in Germany: if you ask someone for help there, it is very likely that they will actually help you. All the same, I found it difficult at first to ask for example at the bus stop whether the bus was going in my direction. 

“The flight to Germany was the first time I’d ever been on a plane. I’d never travelled by train, bus or taxi before, either.” 
Shelby Smith

Did you learn German? 

Yes, I took a crash course. At first my level was pretty low but by the end of the four months I was at least able to buy groceries and ask for directions. I also plan to carry on learning German here in the US. With this in mind, I’ve reached out to exchange students from Regensburg who are here at Murray State. 

What do you remember especially about your time in Germany? 

Definitely the travelling. Everything is so easy to reach in Europe. After just a few hours in a train you are in another country. I went to Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, England, Scotland, Austria and the Czech Republic. I saw the Colosseum and went hiking in the Alps. I was also able to see quite a bit of Germany. One of the things on the programme was a week in Berlin, for instance. Travelling was something I was determined to do while in Germany, so I’m happy that everything worked out so well. 

Are there any other things you had definitely wanted to do during your stay?  

One of my most important goals was to get some fresh stimulus and ideas and to give myself a break. Recently I have often been wondering whether to carry on studying at all or whether it would be better just to look for a job. I had hoped that my time in Regensburg would awaken my passion for learning – and that certainly happened. 

Did the courses on offer at the University of Regensburg help? 

Absolutely! I major in biology, but in Regensburg I also took classes in literary studies, philosophy and world history. I don’t like to admit it, but history teaching in the US is not all that good, especially when it comes to looking beyond our own borders. In Germany, history is taught from a much more global perspective. That really inspired me and opened my eyes to how much more the world has to offer than I had previously realised. And I look forward to seeing more of it. 

What plans do you have for the future? Would you like to return to Germany?  

I’d like that very much. The exchange programme took away my fear of going abroad. In fact, as soon as I got back to the US I sat down with my fiancé to think about when the right time for the next trip would be. 

What advice would you give to students from similar backgrounds who want to apply for a scholarship to go abroad but are perhaps hesitant because they are afraid of not being accepted and of what to expect if it does work out? 

Give it a try anyway. It is a programme that is tailored precisely to your situation. You’re the first in your family to go to college? You’ve never been abroad before? So you can be the first, just like I was. And your experiences will in turn serve as motivation for others – for your fellow students or your parents. I can only advise you to stay motivated and not to let anyone discourage you! 

Interview: Klaus Lüber (6. Februar 2024)


Related Topics

DAAD - Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst - German Academic Exchange Service