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Social work

Marlin Baer about her semester abroad in the USA

New perspective: Wide view of the mountains in the US state of Colorado

Marlin Baer is a student on the Bachelor's degree program in Social Work(Opens in a new tab)  at the Faculty of Applied Social Studies(Opens in a new tab) . She is spending the winter semester 2023/24 in Denver, where she is on a semester abroad at Metropolitan State University Denver(Opens in a new tab)  (MSU).

In a detailed interview, Marlin describes her motivation for the stay in Denver, her experiences during the preparation and on site and gives helpful tips for all those who are also thinking about a semester abroad. She conducted the interview with research assistant and lecturer Michel Boße(Opens in a new tab) .

Michel Boße: Hello Marlin and thank you for taking the time for this interview and sharing your experiences with our readers. Please introduce yourself in a few sentences.

Marlin Baer: I am 29 years old and am in my 6th and final semester of my Bachelor's degree in Social Work here in Denver. I have decided to extend my studies by one semester so that I can use my time here wisely but also enjoy it and will then write my Bachelor's thesis in Germany. Funnily enough, I found a topic for my thesis during a seminar here in Denver. I come from a non-academic family, but I'm the second person in my family to go to university. I financed everything myself through my previous job as an educator, where I continue to work alongside my studies.

I flew to Denver in mid-August 2023 and will stay here until January 2024 because I decided that I wanted to experience the holidays in the USA. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't starting to get homesick, but the experience is definitely worth it.

Marlin (1st from left) with friends at a fall market in Colorado

Denver's landscape is much more expansive than I'm used to back home. The cars, roads, everything seems much bigger. And it probably is. The "stereotypical" pick-up trucks, the highways, everything was, in a positive sense, as I had expected.

Marlin Baer

Michel Boße: How would you describe your first impressions in the USA?

Marlin Baer: Apart from the dry heat, I was greeted by incredible hospitality. Together with two other students from Dortmund, I was picked up at the airport by Hannah, a student from Denver, and taken to our apartment. We already knew each other because Hannah took part in a summer school with us in Dortmund in the summer. Afterwards, we all went out for a meal together. The people were incredibly accommodating and lenient with us. Despite the long day and the ten-hour time difference, it took me a long time to get to sleep because all the impressions were so overwhelming.

Denver's landscape is much more expansive than I'm used to at home. The cars, roads, everything seems much bigger. And it probably is. The "stereotypical" pick-up trucks, the highways, everything was, in a positive sense, as I had expected. I was particularly struck by the difference in "activity" at night between Denver and my home in Germany.

Although I have to differentiate again, as I don't live in Denver, but in Aurora, a "suburb" of Denver. The apartment blocks look exactly like the ones in the classic movies and I must have said "this is so American" about twenty times as I drove through Denver. The country and the culture are exactly as I imagined them to be: Big, bustling, but at the same time incredibly welcoming and friendly. But there was one thing I always had in the back of my mind: that gun violence is a lot more likely here than in Germany. I had already heard a few stories in the first few days about my assumption, which really bothered me.

The typical pick-up trucks characterize the streetscape of Denver and the surrounding area

Michel Boße: What international perspectives did you come into contact with during your studies? What motivated you to spend a semester abroad?

Marlin Baer: My international perspectives during my studies were mainly related to international contacts between fellow students. The different stories and origins of my fellow students always interested me a lot, broadened my horizons and gave me different perspectives.

In the summer semester of 2023, I took part in the "Summer School". This is a project in module K11 of the Bachelor of Social Work. The summer school took place in Brussels, where we worked on the topic of "Transnational Families" together with international students from Dortmund, Denver and Brussels, among other places. Not only the experience of being in Brussels, but above all the contacts that were made there were incredibly enriching for me.

Apart from that, I have always been enthusiastic about gaining experience abroad. During my time at school, I took every opportunity to spend time abroad and have been to England, France and Italy. During my training as an educator, I then had the chance to do an internship abroad in Spain and I also took advantage of this opportunity. As I also like to travel in my free time, a semester abroad was always in the back of my mind. However, it was not very concrete and somewhat vague. I was also tied to Germany, mainly for financial reasons. When I found out that the cooperation between MSU Denver and Fachhochschule Dortmund had been extended to the extent that the credit points earned during a stay at MSU could be recognized at Fachhochschule Dortmund, it was somehow an impetus for me to take this step. I then made the preparations in conjunction with Prof. Dr. Jochem Kotthaus(Opens in a new tab) , who, among other things, organizes the "Summer School" and is networked with MSU, and the International Office of the UAS. As I came into the process at quite short notice and was the first student from the Faculty of Applied Social Studies who wanted to go to Denver, the preparations involved a few hurdles. I had no way of saving money and was therefore completely dependent on external financial aid. The first problem was that most of the application procedures were already over or in the final stages. I still had the chance to apply for three scholarships. The application processes themselves were also difficult, as the required documents could not be obtained so quickly. Among other things, proof of language proficiency was required.

Basically, I can summarize that all bureaucratic things are feasible. However, it sometimes takes a lot of time, costs a lot and there are numerous hurdles to overcome.

Marlin Baer

Michel Boße: That's interesting for anyone who is also thinking about a semester abroad. Can you tell us in detail what the process was like? What hurdles did you have to overcome?

Marlin Baer: As already mentioned, accepting the semester abroad at short notice involved a few additional hurdles. I don't feel I can give a realistic assessment of the preparation, as my preparation time was very much characterized by financial and time-related problems. One of the biggest challenges was insurance abroad and reaching an agreement with MSU in this regard. I took out insurance for the USA in Germany, but this was not recognized by MSU Denver. The reason for this is that MSU only accepts American insurance companies or insurance companies with an American telephone number.

Due to the good network, which was mainly created through the regular "Summer School" and "Fall School", I was very lucky to be able to quickly make contact with students in Denver. This is how I came into contact with the aforementioned Hannah. Hannah is studying for a Master's degree program at MSU and immediately offered to ask her parents if I could spend some time at their house. After less than a week, everything was discussed and I had accommodation and a host family. However, I have to say that I was very privileged in this situation. My host parents only wanted a monthly allowance towards the cost of living and I didn't have to pay any rent in that sense. The situation was very different for the other two students at the UAS. They both pay around $1,000 a month rent for a room, in addition to food etc.. One of them was even cheated and lost €1,500 without even having a place to stay. Fortunately, he was able to stay with my host family until he found an apartment. As you can see: It's not easy to find affordable accommodation here and, above all, there's always the risk of being scammed due to the distance and lack of personal contact. You should also bear this in mind when planning a stay abroad. It can also go wrong.

Basically, I can summarize that all the bureaucratic things are doable. However, it sometimes takes a lot of time, costs a lot and there are numerous hurdles to overcome.

Michel Boße: You've already touched on the subject of money. How do you finance the whole thing now?

Marlin Baer : Fortunately, the fact that I can live with Hannah and her family significantly reduces my monthly costs. The original plan was for me to work here on the side in order to be able to finance my living expenses in the USA as well as the running costs in Germany (accommodation, health insurance, etc.). However, working in the USA with a visa is not as easy as I had hoped. There are clear rules about what and how you are allowed to work. For example, I am only allowed to work on campus and in an area that corresponds to my study program (i.e. social work). I am also only allowed to take on a half-time job (max. 20 hours per week). Income is also formally relevant: before I could even get my visa, I had to prove that I had $9,500 at my disposal to finance my stay here. Fortunately, I have a family "sponsor" who could provide me with this money if the worst comes to the worst. But I don't want to fall back on it, as I would have to pay it back anyway. I had therefore hoped to find a job here and thus become more financially independent. However, the job situation on campus is not the best for me. Many jobs require certain requirements (e.g. a Bachelor's degree), are full-time and recruitment takes around four weeks. You also have to apply for a social security number, which again takes time. Despite my best efforts and good contacts, I have not yet been able to find a job on campus and I am financing myself from my savings, which I saved thanks to my job in Germany before the semester abroad. However, I'm also really lucky that my "rent" is very low here, as described, and I can therefore regulate my expenses well.

Marlin on the MSU campus

One thing that is very different from most courses in Germany is the personal level between students and teachers. Generally speaking, there is no "you" at first, and most professors also offer to be called by their first name. Nevertheless, all the students I have met so far are super respectful and see the professors as people to be respected.

Marlin Baer

Michel Boße: How were you received at MSU? How are your studies there?

Marlin Baer: I was already in contact with the MSU International Office before I arrived and was personally welcomed by the staff member within the first week. I have been in regular contact with this very nice and competent colleague ever since. The International Office also regularly organizes meetings and other events for international students. Among other things, I took part in a lunch where we were able to get to know not only other students but also other employees who are involved in the whole process of international students.

I took four seminars at the beginning: a basic course, as I wanted to compare the basic teaching here with that in Germany, a course on research methods, a course on the implementation of theoretical approaches in practice and a course dealing with methods that can achieve active change in society. However, I quickly realized that the workload was quite high (especially the reading of the material) and then - in consultation with the UAS - I left one course.

I received a really warm welcome in the courses. Many students already knew that I was coming as a German exchange student and were pleased that I was able to contribute another perspective. The professors in the courses are incredibly good, the work in class is relaxed, focused and challenging. The professors are friendly, approachable and helpful. Above all, I have the feeling that a lot of consideration is given to my situation. Despite some language barriers (in a professional context) or mistakes in assignments (e.g. lack of focus on a specific topic), the response was always friendly and lenient. However, I didn't get the feeling that this was out of pity, but because the professors are genuinely interested in me being able to follow the lessons.

Something that is very different from most courses in Germany is the personal level between students and teachers. Basically, there is no "you" in terms of language, and most professors also offer to be called by their first names. Nevertheless, all the students I have met so far are super respectful and see the professors as persons of respect. In Germany, I often have the feeling that there is a greater hierarchy between lecturers and students. This is also due to the fact that the language itself creates this hierarchy. I find the professional and friendly relationship between lecturers and students at MSU Denver much more pleasant. It creates a relaxed but respectful working atmosphere and a positive error culture on both sides.

My time here alongside my studies is a great mix of "sightseeing", big excursions, lots of impressions and a relaxed time with friends.

Marlin Baer

Michel Boße: Can you already draw a first conclusion about your semester abroad?

Marlin Baer: I 've already been here for four months and I can only say that time has gone by incredibly quickly. Not only am I quite busy with my studies, I've also experienced a lot in my free time. We've been to various national parks, camping in the mountains, swimming in a river with rubber tires, a pumpkin festival and a car race. We also celebrated Halloween in the typical way and Thanksgiving with my host family. I try to participate as much as possible and my friends here help me to do so. I will be spending Christmas with another friend in particular. In addition, a friend from Germany has already visited and stayed with my two friends for two weeks. Of course I'm looking forward to all these highlights, the holidays and seeing what Denver will look like. But I'm also looking forward to skiing, hot springs, game nights and everything else that's to come.

So far, my time here alongside my studies has been a great mix of sightseeing, big excursions, lots of impressions and a relaxed time with friends. My friends here are actually mainly the people I met during the summer school in Brussels.

Michel Boße: Finally, please tell us from your perspective what could be important for other students who are also thinking about a semester abroad.

Marlin Baer: I can really advise everyone to consider such an experience. Yes, it is a big step. You are challenged financially, you have to plan a lot and you are far away from home. It's also a long time, which can be emotionally demanding. But the experience of all the exciting new things and spending time with friends makes up for it. You should be prepared for the fact that studying here is structured differently and that you have to hand in tasks throughout the semester that are quite time-consuming. This means that you need to be well organized or at least have a good network. And speaking of networks: build one! Talk to fellow students, go out, make friends. My time here is so much more valuable because I have my social network. Not only does it give me the opportunity to experience things "truly American" (yes, every water bottle here has to have a sticker on it, that's Denver style!), but also to spend time with friends.

Michel Boße: Marlin, thank you very much for your time and the personal and exciting insights into your semester abroad. Enjoy the rest of the semester and the Christmas holidays!

Nature in Colorado

Final tips and impressions

  • Denver is dry! I can't say that often enough. The first few days were horrible because I was only drinking water and still always had a dry mouth, dry lips and thirst. The difference in altitude also made itself felt in the first few days. I was more short of breath and it took me a few days to get used to it.
  • Denver is much cleaner than I would have expected from an American city. You don't see any graffiti, hardly any garbage. But almost all the cars are broken. Speaking of cars: the driving style here in Colorado is much more aggressive than in Germany (at least in my opinion). When I'm driving, I'm super alert because people just change lanes without announcing it and pull in extremely late. I've seen quite a few accidents in my time here. People just drive around with broken windshields, for example.
  • You definitely see more homeless people and drug addicts on the streets! Social inequality is massive here. That's a really unusual and harsh impression for me, as I'm not used to it on such a massive scale in Germany.
  • The university has absolutely no dress code. People ride around on skateboards like in the movies and the campus has several cafés or restaurants run by well-known catering companies. And yes, eating in class is allowed. No, I haven't seen anyone barbecuing yet!
  • Some words mean something different in the German context than they do in the American context OR you've learned the British word that isn't used here. This can lead to (funny) misunderstandings.
  • Air conditioners! They are everywhere and always on. For me, this means: always take a sweater with you.
  • The metric system is non-existent here. No one knows how much 5 meters is and I still don't know how much 60° F is in Celsius.
  • Knowing full well that I'm in the "social work bubble", the people I'm dealing with are incredibly nice. I've only had positive experiences so far, I've been very accommodating and met open-minded people.
  • The nature is incredibly beautiful: the mountains above the vast forests, the forests in autumn when the leaves change color or Garden of Gods, a huge park/garden with beautiful rock formations.
  • The wildlife here is very interesting. I saw a hummingbird for the first time, as well as prairie dogs, bison, chipmunks and a rattlesnake.
  • If you want to drive here, it is advisable to get an international driver's license beforehand, as this is required for insurance purposes. However, buying a car here is very expensive due to the taxes. I am lucky enough to be able to use one of my host family's cars.

Notes and references

Photo credits

  • Marlin Baer | Marlin Baer
  • Marlin Baer | Marlin Baer
  • Marlin Baer
  • Marlin Baer | Marlin Baer
  • Marlin Baer

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