“Ich möchte grüne Bohnen und Salat.”
Even if you don’t speak the language, you can pretty much understand the statement above.
It’s a simple phrase for ordering a salad in a German-speaking restaurant. For Sandra Decius, however, it was more than that. This very first sentence that she learned in seventh grade fatefully sent her into a life-long love affair with Germany.
“In school, it felt like German was a code language that no one else understood,” said Decius. “I loved it! And it was so easy. You just needed to learn a couple of words, and all of a sudden I could put sentences together.”
As a 13-year-old growing up in Napa, California, Sandra’s infatuation with German grew within minutes of her first class and continued throughout her teenage years. She founded and was the president of her high school German Club. Together with friends, she did all she could to immerse herself in all things German – culture, food, movies, stickers with “Ich spreche Deutsch!”, you name it.
When she was 16, she spent a month living with a nice family deep in the German state of Bavaria on a high school exchange program. Although she didn’t understand much of the dialect in those four weeks, they deepened her adoration for Germany. Her eyes focused on Freiburg due to its reputation for being so beautiful, and she aspired to attend university there one day.
While positive, the jet-setter in Sandra was very much humbled by the experience of living abroad. “It was, of course, a wonderful time in life,” said Decius. “But when I returned home, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t ready for such a big step. I think I’d understood a total of four words while I was away – even though I’d taken German for several years at that point. I was very homesick and missed my parents.”
Scrapping the idea of attending university overseas, Sandra opted to stay stateside and finish her schooling. But her dream to become fluent in German persisted – which she knew could only become true by living and working in the country.
It was the exchange program, International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience, commonly referred to as IAESTE (pronounced I-ess-tay), that helped Sandra turn her dream into reality. And the timing of her acceptance to the program turned out to be perfect.
As a newly-minted UC Santa Barbara graduate in 1985, armed with degrees in Chemical Engineering and German Studies, Sandra was determined to see her ambitions through.
“My one and only goal was to learn fluent German,” said Decius. “I wasn’t concerned about my degree or earning money. It was not a decision I made consciously to advance my career or simply to see new countries. It was purely due to my love for the language – that was it.”
This, however, was a time when it was not nearly as easy to establish one’s footprint in Europe. She contemplated pursuing work at a large multinational, where if she advanced through the ranks, she might one day be able to find her way across the Atlantic. But no job was in sight and Sandra wasn’t about to wait until she got sent to Europe.
Fortunately for Sandra, IAESTE entered the equation. She’s not sure how she originally heard about it – whether through a professor or one of the many events she coordinated as president of UCSB’s Society of Women Engineers.
What she did know was that IAESTE, which has matched technical students with paid internships around the world since the 1940s, offered exactly the opportunity she needed and wanted more than anything else.
She applied to the program in her junior year, ticking off only the boxes “Austria”, “Germany”, and “Switzerland” on the list of countries she wanted to go to – any German-speaking country would do – but to no avail. She applied again, this time as a senior, and got accepted! Sandra was offered an internship with the Philips Lighting Company in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and within days of graduating with honors, she boarded a plane and never looked back.
“It went quickly. A few days after graduating, I was on a plane for Holland,” said Decius. “I wanted to go so badly that I pushed back any fear or hesitation I had. I was now eight years older than on my first flight to Europe, and I was ready this time.”
Well, it wasn’t Germany, but it was close enough. Sandra knew she’d reach her goal in the end.
Arriving in Eindhoven as an engineer “on paper”, eager to cut her teeth and explore Europe, Sandra was immediately welcomed into a community of Dutch students who organized trips to neighboring cities and countries each weekend. She remembers her time in Holland as the greatest experience in her life and still remains in contact with fellow IAESTE interns.
“It was wonderful,” said Decius. “The students organized everything and really made us feel at home. One night a week, we met at a certain restaurant to trade stories and discuss upcoming trips and celebrations (like Carnaval).”
At Philips, her boss asked Sandra if she would extend her three-month internship to a full year. She remembers calling home to break the news to Mom and Dad, then she continued learning Dutch in evening courses – contemplating to stay longer, but knowing her heart remained set on Germany.
As you can imagine, finding work without much experience or a command of the native language was no simple endeavor. She applied to any and every chemical engineering job she could find and, eventually, good fortune broke her way. She was offered a job in Hanover where she would develop compact discs (CDs) at Philips and DuPont Optical.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Decius. “I remember my interview was a mess because I kept switching between English and Dutch while actually trying to speak German. But there I was on a train headed for Hanover, where they speak the highest German, and it couldn’t have been better for me. I was thrilled.”
In time and with great persistence, her German skills came around and people stopped speaking English with the native American. Years later, she figured out that an executive in Eindhoven had probably encouraged her supervisor-to-be to give her a chance. “I couldn’t imagine any other reason why he would have hired me,” said Decius.
As they say, with great risk comes great reward. IAESTE created an opportunity and Sandra seized it. “It was my dream and goal to learn fluent German and without this exchange program, it would have been a long, difficult path. IAESTE made it easy, quick, and linear. It was literally a diving board for me. And I’m still swimming!” said Decius.
Sandra went on to work as an engineer throughout Germany for eight years before finding a new interest and breaking into the field of marketing. She attended the Bavarian Academy of Advertising (BAW) for two years in Munich, where she finally put down her roots: she fell in love with a German, founded a family, and is now forging a successful career as a marketing communications expert in the telecommunications branch.
PAYING IT FORWARD
One of the most rewarding aspects of our work is learning about the life-changing impact our exchange programs yield. At Cultural Vistas, the umbrella organization that administers the U.S. affiliate of IAESTE, we spend a lot of time extolling the value and importance of a globally-aware and competent citizenry.
Often, that message is best told through the passion our alumni carry out into the world – through their successes and services as advocates for exchange.
“There is no better decision than to get out and see the world and learn a new language,” said Decius. “There is just nothing like it. Experiencing different cultures and seeing things from a new perspective is so important, especially for Americans.”
“Regardless of what is going on in the world, America is a leader – and every country follows what it does. The challenges we face today are increasingly global and to be a critical thinker and leader, you have to get out from your own bubble.”
The IAESTE exchange program put Sandra in a position to learn new languages, develop her career, and most importantly, fulfill her dreams. Now, she is paying it forward.
We are excited to share that, earlier this year, Sandra became the very first donor to our newly-established European office in Berlin.
Thanks to her generous contribution, Cultural Vistas will award three additional scholarships totaling 5,000 Euros to American students in their pursuit of internships in Europe this summer. For each of the scholarship recipients, this will mark their first time traveling abroad.
You have heard Sandra’s story. One day down the road, we fully expect to have lots to share from these students’ formative experiences overseas as well.
— Sandra Decius (@SandraDecius) June 5, 2014