Engineers Go Abroad

May 4, 2010

Normally when Duke students think of Study Abroad, Pratt is not the first thought that comes to mind. Finishing all of those engineering credits and studying a semester in a different country? As difficult as it may seem, Sabrina Liao, a junior undergraduate electrical engineering major from Pasadena, California, as well as several other Pratt students did just that. They spent seven months in Berlin, Germany, taking engineering and humanities courses, totally immersing themselves in German culture, and substantially advancing her knowledge of the German language.

Sabrina wanted to spend some time outside of the United States. She had two options – studying abroad in either Turkey or Germany. “There wasn't a language requirement in Turkey. Only Germany had the language requirement, and since I wanted a real study abroad experience where I could learn a new language, I chose Germany,” said Sabrina. It was also her first time going to Europe, though she was not alone. Four other Duke undergraduates came with her and many students from Davidson College joined her as well, as the program was a joint collaboration between Duke and Davidson. Of those four, both Rebecca Harbuck, a senior, and Justine Tiu, a junior, mention the language experience as a major factor in their choosing to go abroad. Sabrina Liao
As classes comprised a core part of the experience, Sabrina described their curricula in more detail: “For the first month we studied intermediate German. Then for the next two months we studied advanced German and the literature and culture of Berlin. Then we took regular courses for the next four months. For me it was an engineering class, a statistics class, a political science class, and a class on the literature and culture of Berlin,” said Sabrina.

Although she was worried that she would have a hard time being able to cope in Germany given her lack of fluency in the German language, she was able to understand German quite well. “I expected to come out of the program with fluent German, but my German was about average when I was done. It was our own fault, since in humanities courses we would speak German but when we did our engineering homework we would use English. I also felt like I was more aware about what was going on in the world, since Germany is surrounded by so many countries,” Sabrina noted. Rebecca had similarly eye-opening experience learning German. According to her, their language courses consisted of reading “plays, operas, and various productions,” and then watching them “in some of the most beautiful and historic theaters and opera houses in the world.”

The experience also allowed students to meet a host of unfamiliar people including their host families – for Justine, living with her host family “taught [her] to be a lot more patient” with the language in order to better communicate. Sabrina spent most of her time with the Duke students she was with, since she already knew them from before; but that did not stop her from making many new friends. This study abroad program was part of a larger exchange program, in which the fall semester students from Germany would be studying abroad at Duke and Davidson. “I met many of these students that would be studying at Duke and Davidson. I also made friends at an international church that I went to in Germany. The church services were in English. I also met many people randomly while staying in hostels or traveling on the train,” she said.

The main highlight of the program was learning more about Berlin and Germany but the students did not stop there. They visited several other countries such as Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, not to mention many places all over Germany itself. Sabrina loved the large presence of lakes and parks all over Germany and Berlin as a major cultural center. “There were cultural carnivals and design festivals and things going on in Berlin all the time,” said Sabrina. Their resident director also got them tickets for various operas and plays, as well as opportunities for extensive amounts of traveling. Because Rebecca spent the semester learning about the European Union in her political science class, she greatly enjoyed the class’s trip to “Brussels to spend a week visiting the European Parliament and NATO.”

Sabrina cites the Brussels trip as her most memorable as well. “This experience wasn't just open to us. Students from the Free University (FU) from many different countries, including Uzbekistan, Poland, Turkey, Russia, Belarus, Romania, came with us. We spent a whole week together in Brussels, learning all sorts of things about different cultures,”she claimed. She loved Berlin as well, praising its multicultural qualities. For all three of them, much of the experience was a unforgettable diversion from what Justine (and many other students on campus) describe as the “Duke bubble.”

By Emtiaz Hassan, ECE

Editor's Note: the following story is reprinted from DukEngineer, the annual magazine written entirely by Pratt undergraduates.