Smiles from strangers on sidewalks. Doors held open for others. A sense that faculty, students and staff genuinely care about one another. These are some of the hallmarks that make Central Michigan University's campus feel like home for so many students.
More than 4,000 miles from campus, CMU graduate students Jordan Evans, Tyler Shields and Ethan Veenhuis are trying to re-create that culture at their new university home in Germany.
"We're all thousands of miles from home, we didn't speak the language, and we didn't know anyone," Veenhuis said. "We have definitely tried to carry that CMU culture with us to Germany.
"Embracing that friendly, welcoming attitude here has made for a much easier transition for all of us. It makes the new people we're meeting feel far more comfortable interacting, and it really helps build that support system that is crucial when you're living so far away from anything familiar."
Forging a path for others to follow
Veenhuis, Evans and Shields attend Ruhr-Universitat Bochum in Germany as part of the Erasmus program, which funds student and faculty exchanges to foster relationships among American and European universities.
The three CMU students are the first group to go, said Kathy Donohue, a faculty member in the History Department.
"In many ways, they are the mapmakers for this enterprise," she said. "When they encounter difficulties or have questions, we are able to identify potential issues and fix them, thereby smoothing the path for future students."
The trailblazers also are learning about campus life at a German university.
"There are some big differences here that would probably surprise CMU students. For instance, there are no athletic teams on campus. There also is no Greek life here. The sharpest difference for me, though, has been the food," Veenhuis said of the absence of authentic Mexican food.
Navigating a new language
None of the three CMU students had studied German previously, so their first few weeks abroad were spent in intensive language courses.
"At this point I've learned that it is impossible to learn a new language without going beyond classwork and class attendance. The greatest hurdle is accepting that it's going to take incremental steps to learn and that you can't expect to excel right away," Shields said.
Students they met in their language classes come from all over the world, including Kenya, Turkey, Syria and Vietnam, and many do not speak English, Shields said. They make it a point to get together to practice their German language skills, meeting in beautiful parks or in local clubs to hear live music.
"We see each other basically every day. We find time to do things together like going out to eat and traveling. Last weekend, we all went to York together."
Building a local support net
For Veenhuis, "The most challenging part about living abroad so far has been being away from my family and my dogs. My family is very small, so we are a very close-knit bunch. It's hard not spending time with them for seven months," he said.
Instead, the CMU classmates have made it a point to build their own community of friends through the college.
"We've made friends from Syria, Palestine, Iran, Kenya, Cameroon, Vietnam, England, Germany, Spain, Holland, Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Brazil and, incredibly, one from Grand Rapids, Michigan. The support that everyone has for each other is incredible. We study together, travel together, share meals, and celebrate birthdays together," Veenhuis said.
Evans said he started using the study of history as a way to escape from some of the hardship of his high school and early college years.
"I love history because I can imagine myself in places far away, in times that are different and lose myself in those stories. Now I am living the experience that in my wildest dreams I would never have imagined. As a historian, it is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life."
He said that his ability to interact with people from countries like Kenya and Cameroon have made him more appreciative of things he takes for granted at home.
"The most rewarding part of this experience for me is meeting people from every corner of the world," he said. "Different places that I only knew as names on a map or the location where some event occurred now have a human face. It has only been two months, but my outlook on life and the world at large have already been influenced by my time here."
No place like home, or CMU
While all three are taking full advantage of the experience, they also are excited to return to Mount Pleasant.
"I've come to really appreciate my privilege coming from the United States and a university like CMU. Having the full support of the university has been invaluable. Many of our friends are completely on their own here, some even seeking refuge from war. It makes you incredibly grateful for the life we have waiting for us at home," Veenhuis said.