Finding Health and Home in Cologne After CBYX

Growing up in the U.S., I felt detached from the rest of the world despite a strong desire to explore it. Living abroad was a far-fetched dream, an abstract concept. It was further complicated by the fact that I had neither a specific place in mind nor any notion of how I would even begin the process of moving somewhere new. If you’re someone who feels this way now, I am here to tell you that your dream of going abroad is possible. It is not a question of whether you can do it, but rather a question of when and where.

Five years ago, I would never have thought that I would be living in Germany and applying to a German-language medical school, but today, I am doing exactly that!

Many people feel most at home where they grew up but I found mine abroad thanks to CBYX. Above is a view of the two spires of the Cologne Cathedral. For me and many other Cologne residents, these spires are a symbol of home.

Singing Opera in Pennsylvania Deutsch

Throughout my childhood in northeast Pennsylvania (shout out to the 570), I was the shy, bookish type, but also enjoyed singing and theater from a very young age. My introduction to foreign languages came from studying opera. I would sing in French, Italian, Latin, as well as German—which was my personal favorite.

Germans and non-Germans alike may find my lifetime appreciation of German difficult to believe because common stereotypes portray the language as harsh and even grating, but I never found this to be true at all. I always hoped to truly master the language one day, however impossible this seemed at the time.

Performing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia—my alma mater.

Though I took two semesters of German language during my undergraduate degree, I probably would have had to put learning German on the back-burner for a long time without the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX), which I heard about from a friend during my senior year at university.

While applying for the CBYX program, I remember trying very hard not to let myself become too excited during the application process in fear of a huge letdown.

Fortunately, I was one of the young Americans selected to take part in the 32nd class of this prestigious program. Being accepted meant living abroad for a year, learning my favorite foreign language, and working professionally in a theater during the internship phase. At that time, this was truly all I could have ever asked for!

Remembering Mental Health while Living the Dream

Even after being accepted into the CBYX program, I was still unsure of how to proceed in my professional life. Theater had always been a hobby of mine, but I wasn’t certain that I wanted to pursue it full-time. My bachelor’s degree was in Environmental Science and Ancient Studies with a concentration in the Latin language. I simply felt pulled in many different directions and I wasn’t sure which impulse to follow.

The Cologne group of the 32nd class of CBYX.

Though going to Germany itself had been a dream come true, these feelings of uncertainty were particularly difficult to deal with while abroad.

Something you will often hear, but may not truly understand, is how mentally taxing it can be to live in another country. I say this not to deter anyone from going abroad, but rather to highlight the importance of taking care of yourself and having a strong network of people on whom to rely. While feelings of isolation and misunderstandings with others can occur anywhere, even in your own country, they’re very likely when living in a foreign place with a language barrier. Keeping in touch with friends and family is crucial in maintaining your mental health.

If you feel, as I have felt, that you cannot talk to your friends and family, there are other ways to reach out. Cultural Vistas offers Talkspace to many of its program participants—an app that allows you to message with a therapist and even send videos or have live chat sessions. Though the service is not yet free-of-charge for CBYX participants, I have personally used the app of late and can say that it makes a big difference to be able to fully confide in someone without feeling like you are bothering or annoying those around you with your personal problems.

Thanks to a partnership with Talkspace, many Cultural Vistas participants can access free and confidential online counseling throughout the duration of their programs.

Though universities in Cologne have counseling centers, sometimes you may need to wait a few weeks or months to get an appointment. During my CBYX year in Cologne, I saw a therapist who could understand English with whom I spoke in a mix of English and German during appointments regularly for about three months. She was immensely helpful for me in dealing with normal life stresses and personal relationships.

Though I would like to return to face-to-face therapy in the future, I currently use Talkspace because of my full schedule and I highly recommend it.

Home Is Where the “Dom” Is

After finishing the CBYX program, I was very certain, for the first time in my life, that I absolutely needed to find a way to return to Germany and study biology. As the program began winding down, I began applying for masters programs throughout Germany and was on edge for the next few months.

I had also applied to a university in the U.S. in the event that I was not accepted anywhere in Germany, but I was very sure of where I wanted to be by then. After asking for an extension on my enrollment at the U.S. university to wait for responses from German universities, I received my acceptance to the University of Cologne four days before the start of the semester in the U.S.— I was beyond elated that I was going back to Cologne where I felt more at home than anywhere else.

For me and many other Cologne residents, the Cologne Cathedral—i.e. the Kölner Dom—is a symbol of home. “Dom” means cathedral in German.

Since it already felt like home, transitioning to studying again was not very difficult. Beyond figuring out the logistics of living in Cologne outside of the CBYX program, the thing I really needed to focus on was putting myself out there to make new friends because, previously, most of my friends had been ERASMUS students on exchange in Germany from other EU countries.

Not only have I made new friends since then, but I still have the ones that have moved elsewhere. Unlike in the U.S., I never feel detached from the world in Germany and can visit friends in other countries often.

Today, I am working on my C1 language certificate in German and work part time as a laboratory assistant at the CECAD research institution while also in the process of applying for medical school. In my free time I either act with or provide technical assistance to the English-speaking theater group Port in Air based in Cologne.

I am involved with the English-language theater group Port in Air based in Cologne. Above, the group puts on a production of Fish in Styx, based on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, at the Studiobühne Köln.

Finding Your Own Cologne

Only a few years ago, my future life in Germany would have sounded as crazy to me as it perhaps does to you now. But there are many resources which can help you do this also.

Though my musical background and subsequent German classes have prepared me enough to attend medical school here, there are also quite a few programs available in Germany that are offered in English, as both undergraduate and graduate degrees. I recently completed an English-language Master of Science degree in Biology at the University of Cologne.

Of course, learning some German is helpful for getting around, but don’t be afraid that you’ll need to speak fluently before arriving here. Many international programs in areas such as business and management offer English-language bachelor degree programs. All of the graduate programs which I previously considered in the natural sciences were taught in English.

You can check out the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD) search page to find information on undergraduate and graduate programs in English, as well as scholarships to study abroad in Germany!

Just because most participants don’t move to Germany after CBYX doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy it! Above, the 32nd class of CBYX enjoys some fun in the sun and snow.

If I’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that things don’t always happen how and when you expect. In today’s fast-paced world, people often feel the need to grow up as quickly as possible. For many, this isn’t a choice.

It might seem a little crazy to jump from theater to Latin—to environmental science and biology—and arrive at medicine. I have certainly not taken a direct path by any means, but I have since learned that this is okay.

People need to work to live, but that doesn’t mean you need to give up on your aspirations altogether. I’ve learned that when one thing doesn’t go as planned, it often leads to something better further down the line. Even if you don’t know exactly what you want to be doing right now, if you persevere, you may very well find yourself exactly where you want to be a few years later.