In November 2010, on a cold wintry morning, I was standing on an anchorage on the Magellan Strait in Punta Arenas about to board a German research vessel. There was nervous excitement in the air as I walked towards the ship. The heavy gusts of wind, the overcast sky, the smell of the briny strait and the stench of decaying seaweed brought about an uneasy calm in me, much like before a storm. Among all the thoughts running through my head of what the next three months will bring forth, I was most excited of the icebergs that my colleagues and I will encounter on my way to Antarctica passing through the stormy Southern Ocean on the R/V Polarstern.

I had felt the same nervous excitement, in August 2004, waiting to board my Lufthansa flight from Delhi that will take to study abroad in for Germany at the Jacobs University Bremen. The anxious tinge on my face and the edgy beating of my heart was not because this would be my first time traveling abroad, but rather I was traveling alone without my family members accompanying me. All the communications with the university was through email. My host family, who I have never had a word before or even know their name or what they look like, would have received me at the airport in Bremen. All the arrangements seem very un-Indian and yet I was excited to experience something new.

As soon as I got my visa and passport checked, passed the airport security protocols of an international traveler, I sat on the airplane wishing myself to sleep to be fresh for all the things to come. I landed in Frankfurt and at once, I noticed the alien weather, odd language, tall, fair and big people, somber food, pink money, green and yellow direction signs and funky electronic billboard advertisements. I decided to explore the airport as I had a few hours before my next flight and got on the sky train. I noticed very soon that the flight gate numbers reached triple figures and it was getting difficult to find my way around. To put it plainly, I got lost.

Fast forward to a frantic run at pace and illegible spurts of huffs of broken German asking for directions, I did manage to board my connecting flight to Bremen, much to the chagrin and amusement of the Lufthansa flight host. As I sat on my seat and broke in to a sigh of relief, little did I know that it was the start of multiple such assays, prepared to test the core of the international student characteristics in me!

I landed at the airport in Bremen, but there was no sign or presence of my host family.

The bag handle broke somewhere midair, I presume for forcefully stuffing 30 kilos of my belongings. The orientation emails from the university were very organized and told me how to reach the university from the airport in such a situation, but being in a foreign land and in that jiffy I was unsure of how to read the metro and train maps to reach Jacobs University Bremen. I made some enquiries but it was too complicated, which I later found out it indeed was! It required me to take 2 metros, a 20-minute train ride, a bus trot and short 10 minute walk.

Instead, I started profiling prospective international students who might have landed at Bremen airport to study at Jacobs, and therefore maybe find a way to hitch a ride with their host family. On my third conversation with strangers, much to my relief, I did find one student from Ghana in Africa, who was heading the same way.

I landed on a Sunday when university officials were mostly away and offices were closed, except for a few student volunteers and the university guards. I was given my room key and the guards showed the direction towards my accommodation. My transponder key read D-211 at the Mercator Building, which I later discovered was recently erected, and was the root cause of further stress for the day. Even with the help of the student volunteer, I could not find Block D in the building. After searching for about an hour in the stinging rain, and coming up trumps with Block A, B, and C the umpteenth time, we decided to go back to the main gate to complain about its inexistence. Luckily, a Masters’ student from China showed us that Block-D is very much an integral part of Mercator; and is the connecting blocks of A, B, and C, (duh!!) and are usually reserved for the Master’s students. I had no complaints, as the room was bigger than the rooms given to Bachelors’ students and was single occupancy.

The next day, during the academic orientation with my academic advisor, I discovered that I was registered for the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Major and not my preferred Earth and Space Sciences. It did not however take long to change my Major and my international student journey was finally underway. Or so it seemed! Whether good or bad, ups or downs, I have never had an uninteresting day in my time as a student globetrotter.

From my orientation week at the Jacobs University until the day in 2010 on the anchorage, it had been a learning experience like never before. I was able to travel to 30+ countries, interact with people from 150+ nationalities, learn a new language, try multiple different cuisines, research about Earth’s past and its climate, explore the cold ocean in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and achieve a UG degree.

Most importantly, I failed multiple times at things that I tried and classes that I took, but I passed even more times.

I also learnt to teach English as TESL / TEFL and learnt how to mix drinks professionally, to earn my pocket money.

I also lied in my CV that I know programming to get that summer job at the university to make ends meet, and crammed learning programming late into the night while I was impersonating an expert programmer during the day at the job.

I took classes in Renaissance Art and Architecture, Victorian Poetry, studied about Biochemical Engineering, Drugs and Naturopathy, Astrobiology, as well as Psychology of our Senses and Perceptions and Decision-Making, along with my core courses in Earth and Space Sciences.

I learnt how to drive a boat, use a crane on a liner and swim with Jellyfishes and Seals without incurring their wrath.

I learnt that during long sea expeditions, you could get fresh food for only about 2 weeks, and live the rest on meat, pasta and cold cuts.

Through my friends from the humanities majors and social outreach work with the UNICEF, I also learnt how the United Nation works and how countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian countries plan their budgeting and investment in education research programs, which the whole world is trying to emulate.

I heard lectures and talks from Nobel Laureates and other famous people and I watched the Champions League and World Cup football games live.

I was also penniless many a times and sometimes survived on eating just rice, onions and tomato puree for whole weeks on end.

I learnt the value of banking and financial security, as much as, the pitfalls of spending too much money through credit cards.

I learnt about student loans and about how to pay them back, slowly but securely.

I learnt that it is important to keep up and find time with your hobbies and passions, whether it is chess, theater or cricket.

I learnt that good research is gold and written communication is diamond.

Even more so, speaking articulately and networking is platinum.

I learnt that human emotions are fickle and true friends are hard to find.

I learnt about various religions and about atheism through the perspective of friends and acquaintances who follow them.

I played cricket with my other South Asian friends, from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

I learnt that living away from home for a long period would make you question your own families’ beliefs and culture.

But no matter, how far you are, I also learnt that your family will always remain your biggest and most important support.

I learnt that honesty is strength.

I also achieved an MS degree from the public University of Bremen in Germany, where education was free of cost.

Earlier in 2012, again and for the third time, I was feeling the same nervous excitement, as I stood at the Guwahati airport, having returned from Germany to India for an indefinite period. I was unhappy because the PhD program that I wanted to embark on, did not work out for political reasons, and I sought time in the security of home. The warm and humid breeze, the thundering sky, the smell of the wet earth and the stench of spices and cow-dung brought about an apprehension of whether I will succeed, having come back to Assam after 12 years away. Among all the thoughts running through my head of what the next few months’ sabbatical will bring forth, I was encouraged and comforted by the thought that among all the skills I have learnt in my time away from India, adaptability and flexibility has been the foundation of them all. I was thus prepared to face all challenges head-on through an international perspective.

Eight years have passed since my study abroad in Germany experience, and I have only stopped to reflect on what I should be doing to find solutions to my challenges at hand rather than rummage deeper on my problems. This philosophy has helped me stabilize my journey in exploring my pedigree in education and counseling. In my time as an international student, I have always learnt that today I should be a better version of myself from yesterday. Therefore, one must always think big and create a dream big enough that your community can thank you for it. My dream is to bring such worldly awareness of opportunities through education and counseling to not just the North-East of India but the entire South-Asian region. This steadfast philosophy has catapulted me straight from being a teacher, to a counselor, and now to an Entrepreneur of sorts. I can only thank my international student experience that gave me the belief and foundational support.

Should I have studied abroad in Germany? Unapologetically, a definite Yes!

– @Abhinav B Gogoi

Vice President – Eastern India | Inspirus Education

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