I want to see what the world has to offer

Maria Jones had always been in Lexington, but then she discovered travel and everything changed. Her study-abroad semester opened up a new world and gave her a practical insight into the global world of digital communication.

Female student sitting in library

Maria Jones exchange student

Twenty-one-year-old Maria Jones is in her junior year of information communication technology at the University of Kentucky and has spent most of her life in Lexington, where the university is located. But last year everything changed. 'I recently gained an interest in world travel,' she says, laughing. 'First of all I did a four-week summer programme in Paris on photography and cultural tourism. It was short but it gave me enough time to be out of the country. And while I was in France I was already planning my semester in Hamburg.'

Maria had heard about the new exchange programme between the University of Kentucky's School of Information Science and the HAW Hamburg. She was intrigued by the opportunity of being able to study in English in Germany and ambitious to be one of the first students to participate. 'I saw that the classes would give me hands-on experience in information technology and that it would be a very different experience to my classes at UK,' she says. Maria signed up for six classes*, which transfer back for credit to her ICT programme at the University of Kentucky. 'I was glad I could do a study-abroad programme that didn’t delay graduation. For me the classes are a great way of grounding myself in my major and finalising my Bachelor’s degree.'

Digital information and media culture

Maria’s favourite module was International Communication Systems with Professor Swoboda. 'I really enjoyed this class. We looked at the concept of free media in Germany and in our home countries. There were lots of international students, so we had some great discussions. Coming from the US I began to see differences I didn’t know we had,' she reflects. Professor Swoboda introduced them not only to the theory of communication systems, but also took them to media companies and on an excursion to Berlin to see inside Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster. They visited the different anchor rooms and saw how news was produced in different languages around the world. 'It was really exciting to see how they produce reliable news for everyone; not just from the perspective of the US or Europe.'

Her excursion to Deutsche Welle also introduced her to an international three-day conference on global inequalities, which she joined on her own initiative. Attended by professional journalists and photographers, the conference looked at topics such as Generation Z, the evolution of technology and unbiased reporting. 'It was amazing. All these professionals and me, just a student! The discussions really benefited me and it was a great opportunity to network,' she says, beaming.

In Social Media and Innovation Maria looked at the world of influencers and how it has become a new form of marketing. Her class looked at trends and was asked to put together a presentation for an influencer company. 'It was really nerve-racking to be talking about our ideas to experts, but it was great to get their input and they were impressed with what we had come up with.' She adds: 'We don’t visit companies at UK, so we don’t get this kind of exposure at home. Now I have a better idea of what work will be like when I graduate.'

Living and studying in Hamburg

The practical approach in Hamburg is one way she has discovered studying can be different. Another way is how class time is structured and professor-student expectations. 'There is a greater sense of independence in Hamburg. The professors support you, but there isn’t so much “hand-holding” like at UK. The classes are more engaging but you have to bring it together yourself.' With classes taking place only once a week she found that time management and self-motivation are important skills to have.

Like many exchange students Maria works part-time during her studies at home, so one thing she learned was to appreciate the free time she had between classes in Germany. 'Hamburg is a lovely city. There isn’t a week where there isn’t something going on. You can’t be bored here!' Maria says, smiling. 'I really enjoy the scenery, especially the lake. I wish we had more of that at home. Hamburg is a big city, but it’s not overwhelming and it feels really safe to be here.' Hamburg’s favourite topic is the weather and Maria felt right at home: 'Hamburg is like Kentucky. The only predictable thing about the weather is that it is unpredictable!'

Maria is a very bubbly person, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she makes friends easily. Her German buddy, Magda, helped her settle in at the beginning, and she made the most of the orientation programme. 'The welcome week really helped me to meet other exchange students and I made a great group of friends from different countries and different programmes. I have a roommate from Finland and she is always encouraging me to try new things, food from different countries and step out of my comfort zone.' Maria also used an app to learn some German before coming to Hamburg and practised a bit during the semester. 'I don’t know if I am any good or not. It depends who I am talking to,' she says laughing.

Hamburg is a lovely city. There isn’t a week where there isn’t something going on.

Maria Jones

A study-abroad resumé

When you go to university you grow with the challenges; when you study abroad, those challenges are different and let you grow in a different way. For Maria, living on her own was a new experience. 'In Hamburg I do lots of things that my mom would help me with at home: managing a budget, doing the laundry. I have a greater appreciation of what she does,' she admits. 'Most importantly I got more open about meeting people and I enjoyed the diversity of the different cultures. You also discover that your way of thinking is not the norm and that there are other ways of doing things. That was quite a shock,' she says, laughing.   

iw/July 2018

* Digital Culture and Critical Theory, International Communication Systems, Knowledge Organisation, Social Media and Innovation, Web Analytics (Dept. of Information) and Design Theory (Dept. of Design)