Study abroad and be a change-maker

Raquel Paz, a social work major, thought study abroad would be too expensive or too complicated and was worried about getting transfer credits for her classes back home. But then she heard about the Hamburg programme.

Female student smiling into the camera in front of a brightly painted container

Raquel Paz

Raquel Paz from California likes being a guinea pig. No, we don’t mean the little furry creatures that children keep as pets, but the courageous people who take risks and try new things. Twenty-two-year-old Raquel studies social work at California State University, Long Beach and was the first in her class to sign up for a semester abroad at HAW Hamburg. 'I had often thought about study abroad, but was discouraged because I thought it would be too expensive or it would be a problem getting credit for the classes. But one day we had a presentation about a new study-abroad opportunity for social work students. We could take classes in Hamburg that would fulfil credit requirements at Long Beach, and we would also get to do an internship. And I was sold!' she remembers, smiling. It also helped that she was able to apply for two scholarships: the ASI-CSULB Study Abroad Scholarship and one from HAW Hamburg*.

Raquel transferred to Long Beach as a sociology major, but realised she was actually looking for a major that was more hands-on. 'I want to work with different groups of people and understand the problems they are facing and support them as a change-maker,' she explains. So she switched her major to social work. 'Social work is definitely my calling and together with sociology and gerontology as minors I have multiple perspectives that give me a more diverse outlook.' In researching the study abroad option in Hamburg she realised that the classes offered would expand her horizons even more. After sharing this information with fellow students she was able to convince eight other social work students to join her on the adventure.

The classes are super hands-on, which I enjoyed. I love that it is an open dialogue, a conversation with students and professors.

Raquel Paz

Hands-on classes in Hamburg

Raquel signed up for six social work classes** in Hamburg and discovered that the style of teaching at the HAW Hamburg was just up her street. 'The classes are super hands-on, which I enjoyed. You work with classmates on projects or to do mini presentations. I love that it is an open dialogue, a conversation with students and professors.' Of all her classes she finds it difficult to pick a favourite one, but then decides on Research Methods. 'It is totally not what I expected,' she explains. 'I had brought my scientific calculator and my notes from my statistics class from home, but it is much more practical. Yes, it is maths-based, but I can relate to it more because it is a great format and the teacher is very approachable and doesn’t make it seem scary.'

The Work and Health class took the students on several field trips to companies such as Airbus and Siemens, where they could see first-hand the resources social workers have to offer support to the employees. In Children’s Books they had a video conference with a Russian partner university to discuss their analysis of a book and share their ideas. All the classes are very international, with exchange students from around the globe as well as German students participating. They learn to work in international teams and share different views, which Raquel thinks is 'pretty cool!'

Practical experience as an intern

As part of her programme at Long Beach, Raquel also has to complete an 80-hour internship, which is usually another barrier to study abroad. Through HAW Hamburg’s close contacts to local administration, institutions and projects she was provided with an internship as part of her semester in Hamburg. She worked two days a week for the Hamburg Agency for Work, Social Affairs, Family and Integration (BASFI) on the administration of sex workers. She was involved in case filing and special projects as well as being present at client/case worker meetings. Raquel also writes a journal about her internship as part of the credit required at Long Beach. 'I couldn’t have had that experience in the US. I met lots of very different individuals which was mind-blowing,' she says. 'The whole experience has definitely made me more open-minded.' Her fellow social work students were placed in projects with refugee families or with young teens.

Living in Germany and Europe

Before Raquel came to Germany she had grown up as part of a close-knit family in Sonoma Valley in California and had never been further than Mexico. When she told her parents that she was going to study abroad in Germany they were amazed and were sure nothing would come of it, because she is so family-oriented. But it was the excitement of studying and interning in a foreign country that kept Raquel on track. 'I was so excited! It didn’t hit me until the first night in my Hamburg dorm and it was snowing!' she remembers, laughing. She had downloaded an app to learn some German before leaving the US, but discovered that being in Germany was totally different. The welcome week introduced her to other exchange students and helped her realise 'we are all in this together.' They quickly became her new family and were there for each other. In her hall of residence she joined the student housing committee, where she would listen to people speaking German. 'It helped me understand the German culture better.'

In Hamburg Raquel loves that she can walk to so many places or take public transport. 'There is so much beauty in the city, so much nature. Hamburg has become my second home. I will be leaving half my heart here. And when I am back in the US and sitting in my car on the freeway, I will be wishing I was on the U-Bahn,' she adds, laughing. Raquel has also made the most of being in the centre of Europe. During her semester she has travelled to Amsterdam, England, Dublin, Santorini, Athens, Rome and Barcelona and will have a stopover in Iceland on her way home at the end of the semester. After her exams she plans to see a bit of Germany before she leaves. 'Time has gone by so quickly! One minute it is welcome week and now it’s almost goodbye week.'

Lessons learned

Studying abroad is about learning new things, and Raquel learned one important lesson right at the beginning. On day three of her semester in Hamburg she went with a friend to the main train station to do a bit of exploring. Their plan was to take local public transport and see the different districts of Hamburg. They ended up on the ICE fast train non-stop to Berlin! Fortunately, a kind woman talked the conductor into turning a blind eye when they realised their mistake and they spent a great day discovering Berlin, then took the bus back (this time with a ticket).

Looking back over the last few months, Raquel feels she has learned a lot about Germany, and also about herself. 'I have become a lot more independent. My social competency skills have developed and I have learned a lot about different cultural norms. Living and being part of European life has helped me build new relationships and become a global citizen.' When she goes back to Long Beach she will finish her senior year and then apply for a Master’s programme. 'I am really grateful to the staff at CSULB and HAW Hamburg for making this programme possible. My experience in Hamburg will definitely help me stand out when I apply for grad school. I never thought I would have done this. But if you put yourself out there, great things can happen!' Being a guinea pig has its advantages.

iw/June 2018