Less than a year ago, the world was struck by a pandemic that would proceed to change our everyday lives for the long term. Coronavirus has thrown everything off course; from cancelled international exchange programs to hiring freezes, not to mention the devastation to global health and security. This has had the effect of casting widespread uncertainty, especially for the younger generations just getting their footing in the professional world.
I decided to write this article after meeting some of the participants of the 36th class of the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange fellowship (CBYX) while serving as a mentor at Cultural Vistas’ Future of Work #DayofMentorship Virtual Event. The event was aimed at participants who were recently displaced during their time abroad or had their opportunities to go abroad postponed as a result of the pandemic. Though their circumstance was unique, it resonated with the feelings of uncertainty I had experienced upon returning to the United States in 2018 after my year in Breman, Germany.
Anxiety about the expectations of friends and family, knowledge that the post undergrad journey was incomplete and feelings of general uncertainty about the future, all sounded too familiar. I immediately felt compelled to discuss some of the lessons I learned during my time abroad which helped me to navigate through that period of uncertainty following my time overseas and forge my path toward being a professional engineer.
One of the first lessons I learned during my exchange year was to take advantage of my downtime and the opportunities around me. During my time in Germany, there were a number of opportunities to explore Europe. Despite this, I found that the most fun memories I held on to were of the time spent with my peers, both CBYX participants and classmates from the Hochschule, exploring nearby cities and attending local events. From a music themed Flohmarkt (flea market) to Wattwanderung (mudflat hiking), there was so much going on in Bremen alone that I could never have done it all. Similarly, in times like these, where travel may be restricted, I find it rewarding to explore my own city; whether it be the local national parks or driving a little further to expand take-out options for dinner.
Take Advantage of Downtime
I also used a lot of my down time in Germany to plan the next steps on my career path and develop skills needed to achieve my goals. Now during quarantine, I find myself using my down time to build teams with friends to tackle new ideas and projects. Even using resources such as LinkedIn and Zoom, I’ve met a number of new people with similar interests who I can interact with to learn and even just network.
More than anything, COVID-19 has given us a lot of downtime by cutting out our commutes and removing us from stressful work and school environments which can hinder creativity and introspective thought. Use this time to learn and develop your ideas and network as best as you can using social and professional resources.
This brings me to another important lesson, networking. One of the main benefits of participating in an international exchange program is expanding one’s network. While in Bremen, I made it a point to connect with classmates, coworkers and people I met at various events. Though we had the obvious commonality of all being aerospace engineers, the lasting relationships I made often came from unlikely connections. Extracurricular interests such as playing the guitar, a love of nature and exploration and an overall enjoyment of sci-fi movies and TV shows all played a part in developing the friendships I still hold dearly to this day.
In fact, upon hearing of Chadwick Boseman’s passing, one of my friends from Germany texted me to reminisce about the time we went to see Black Panther in theaters. The ability to find common ground with new people will allow you to make connections, professionally and personally, even during this time when all we have is the internet.
Finally, the biggest lesson that anyone should take from this is; be resilient. Resilience is key in any phase of life. Life happens, plans change and people grow, but disruptions don’t have to stop you from being the best version of yourself. When I left Germany at the end of my fellowship, I didn’t have a school to go back to and I was too independent to stay long term with my parents.
The next two years were a rollercoaster of travel across the United States, job hunting, working in a state I’d never even visited and finally starting a grad school program on the other side of the country. Despite all this, I couldn’t allow myself to dwell on inconsistency for too long or I’d miss out on good opportunities and even greater memories.
So, if you find yourself discouraged during this time, unsure what tomorrow will bring or just frustrated with how things are going for you right now, that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with being scared or uncertain about the future but never let that cripple you. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Take a step back, catch your breath, assess the situation and in the words of Walt Disney, “keep moving forward.”
About the Author
Kaylon J. Paterson is an Alumni of both the 2016 cohort of STEM LAUNCH study tour and the 34th Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX) fellowship program. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics from Morehouse College and a Master of Engineering Degree from Stevens Institute of Technology. He currently works as an Engineer at the United States Department of Defense. He has previously contributed the article, To the Discouraged: Studying Abroad Will Change Your Life to the Cultural Vistas Blog.