For four months I will be staying in Atlanta. Experiencing the American culture up close, not only at the University but also at home. I have traveled to the States already a few times before to visit my family, as my dad is actually from there, but this time I will live there. In the next months I will get to know the differences between American and Austrian Universities, will be attending conferences and an American wedding, and celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family among others. But read for yourself what is possible in the land of opportunity.
Marshall scholarship: How it all began…
One of the reasons I went ahead with my PhD studies was that I wanted to travel. Going to conferences abroad for a week or do a short research and stay in a country that I‘ve never been to and be paid for it. So naturally when my supervisor suggested I should go to the USA for a research stay, I agreed immediately. A professor at the Georgia State University, a former colleague of him, had recently published a paper proposing a new test method that is not too unalike the method I was working on. So we decided that I should visit him in Atlanta to promote my research for the dissertation.
As the US is not the cheapest country to travel to, we turned towards the International Office for help on the financing. It didn’t take long and we got a reply. They proposed to apply for the Marshall Plan Scholarship which financially supports students from Austria and the USA to travel to the other country for at least three months. That was a little bit longer than I originally had intended. Nevertheless, I decided to apply, it’s not like one is offered such an opportunity often in life. Getting the paperwork itself done was not a problem, but as I’m the first to apply from our University the International Office quite often got to call the Organization to verify a few things and to settle problems with the online system. We all were very happy when we finally got my application submitted.
We knew that my chances of getting the scholarship were quite good but the waiting put a damper on it. After roughly six weeks I got to the point where I really couldn’t await the decision anymore – I’m not always a patient person. Quite bluntly I asked what’s going on and finally got an email stating ‘Contract sent to student’. Only two days later I was in Vienna holding the certificate for my scholarship and knew for sure that I was going to fly to the States.
Getting prepared for the big trip: flights & accommodation
With the finances settled there was still a lot to get done before I could actually fly. Flights needed to be booked, a travel insurance that covers the US for more than 90 days had to be found, and getting the confirmation of the GSU that I will be considered a visiting grad student. But that is not what made any problems. What was really problematic was finding a place to live. As I’m not technically enrolled at the University in Atlanta, neither the University Housing nor the International Student Service felt responsible for me and I couldn’t expect support from either of them. From the mathematics department I got a few suggestions of websites which I could check. Most of them don’t offer short term lease so I started doing my own research and contacted a few dorms that aren’t run by the university themselves. Many didn’t even bother answering my questions but simply sent me an application form. Almost all only do one-year leases or come unfurnished, neither of which is an option for me. One of the few that actually answered suggested that I could do a short term lease in a furnished one-room apartment but I would have to start paying rent beginning with August 1st. Considering the fact that flight is on October 2nd and the monthly rent is at $1,200 I declined.
In the meantime my colleagues started making jokes about me sleeping under a bridge during my stay, as Atlanta is known for its high number of homeless people and many bridges. While they were joking I was already sure that I wouldn’t find anything and would actually sleep in some kind of cheap motel. In the end I asked one of the other scholars how he handled that problem. He said that his university in the USA wasn’t helping either and he ended up booking something via Airbnb. Having never used Airbnb for such a long time period I was very skeptical about it but it seemed like my only option.
Checking the reviews of other visitors carefully, I finally decided to contact a woman who lives with her dog near the university. She replied on the same day asking for a little bit of time to think about it, she was not too sure about having a visitor for such a long time. However, in the end she agreed and I was relieved to finally have settled that big issue. With that topic off my mind I could get the rest settled, cleaned out my apartment and packed my suitcase.
Flight day: delay and Weißwurstfrühstück
Waking up to ten new mails from your airline is not the best way to start the day. The plane was delayed and each time the delay was updated I received a new notification. Even though the estimated departure time was switched from 10:25am to 1:45pm they asked us to do the check-in and luggage drop-off at the original scheduled departure.
When we got to Munich airport, the section of my airline was a complete mess. While my flight was delayed the other flight to the USA that morning was on time – unlike some of the passengers. Even though I got my check-in done the evening before and only had to drop off my luggage, I was put in a general waiting line with everyone else. The Passengers of the other flight got called up ahead to get them off to the security check. In the end it took me 45 minutes to get to the front. I gladly left the clerk with my checked luggage and headed back towards my boyfriend. Saying goodbye I think was the first time I realized that it was really happening: I am going to the States for almost four months, leaving behind everyone I love and everything I am used to. Of course, nowadays you can pick up your mobile phone whenever you want and simply call or video chat but that is not the same.
When I was past security, I walked around the terminal which wasn’t that big. My original plan of buying three big coffees from the compensation money, which I received for the delay, was ruined by the fact that I can use it only once. I don’t believe in coincidences, so when I realize that the Weißwurstfrühstück is exactly the price of the compensation I go ahead and buy it.
Apparently the airline thought that having sent us ten mails in the morning is enough information and they won’t keep us informed on what’s actually going on. Half an hour after the already delayed boarding time we finally got onto the shuttle to the plane. After more than ten hours on the plane I am convinced that the planes have gotten smaller and that personal space is way overrated. Getting off I am greeted by 26°C at shortly after 6pm. I get rid of my pullover and head to customs. Pulling out my American passport I hear the words ‘welcome home’. Even though I know they always say it, I can’t help myself but smile. After several vacation trips to the States this is the first time I am really going to be home here.
In addition to the almost four hour delay upon arrival in Atlanta I get pulled out for a random luggage check. So instead of stopping by the University, I head directly to my accommodation. Relieved I get myself settled in my room and fall asleep. It’s almost 4am back at home.
Arrived in Atlanta: it’s about settling in now
The first two weeks actually go by in a blur. The department is not prepared for my arrival so the first few days are only about getting my keys and my ID card. My local supervisor is not around a lot, so my office roommate helps me get everything in order. My research I continue just like back at home. We already discussed the subject of my project during my stay before I even got to Atlanta, so I can get started with it. The beginning is always reading through existing papers to check for other methods. Especially to get an understanding of how proofs of similar methods work to get some inspiration on how one could get one’s own method proved. So I’m not worried about not seeing my supervisor for almost a whole week after our first personal meeting.
Next to university I find myself fast in a daily routine: going to the recreation center, to my office, grabbing lunch on my own, strolling through downtown, doing some grocery shopping at Walmart. It feels like I have been living here much longer than just the two weeks. I start to recognize the strangers on the streets that have their own daily routine. One thing that always irritates me is the amount of small talk on the street. I’m used to the nodding or saying hello back at home. But here it goes more like ‘how are you’-’good, how are you’ and then just walking on without even awaiting an answer. Around the University it is not that common but in the neighborhood I live in you can’t even get a hundred meters without saying it. In general people seem to be friendlier on the first meeting.
Other than that my landlady helps me with anything I need and goes out of her way to make sure I’m well. My German VISA card works almost everywhere but as soon as one is required to enter the ZIP code it will fail. The systems are not designed to handle foreign credit cards. In the end my landlady buys the tickets for the Homecoming Football Game for me after my card gets refused. Next to her regular 9 to 5 job she works for a small local brewery. As they have a small beer garden close to her house she takes me there in the first week. Contrary to the believe that Americans don’t have any good beer their craft beer is excellent.
At the end of my third week here I give a talk about my research. Unlike previous talks at conferences this talk is with 50 minutes the longest I have given so far. Normally PhD students only get a 20 to 30 minute slot at conferences and are usually not invited by other universities. When my local supervisor asked if I would like to give the talk, I said yes. I’m not too fond of giving talks, especially when I’m expecting the crowd to be small, but in the end it does look good on the CV. As there is a talk just before mine most people don’t stick around for mine. To get people to actually attend the talks the department passes out credits for attending all talks that are scheduled before the start of the semester. As mine is on a short notice the students don’t have to go. In the end it’s only the statistic grad students and my local supervisor. The relief after a total of two hours of talks can be seen in the faces of the students.
After I’m finished I have my first thorough discussion with my supervisor. The rest just quietly sit in the back not too interested in the discussion, reminding me very much of how things are in Salzburg. What is different is the custom that the study group meets with our supervisor on Friday afternoon after the talks to discuss the progress everyone has gotten on their research.
Back in my office my roommate and I start chatting again. What I realize is that American PhD students are not used to giving talks at all. Conferences are usually way bigger than those in Europe such that there are not enough slots for students to give talks. So instead they design posters about their research. Unlike the conference I know where the number of posters was around 30 max, conferences here supposedly even have up to hundred posters on exhibition at times. And it’s considered an honor if someone lets you into their session.
The fourth week in Atlanta starts good. Around lunch time on Monday the guy from the next door office stops by and asks if I fancy grabbing lunch with him and one of the other grad students. They introduce me to the Edgewood Marketsquare which consists of many little food stands from all around the world. We end up at the Venezuelan place and get to know each other. They talk about their trips to Europe. One of them even was in Salzburg once, for one meal, don’t ask. But these kind of talks are what I really missed in the first weeks, even if it’s only to get the mind off of mathematics for a short break. So the next day I pick him up and head to the students center. In the sense of Homecoming week there is to be some kind of spirit event with free food. When we get there, there’s not really a lot going on. A few people, loud music and the free food turns out to be popcorn. So we turn back and head into a little Argentinian place for lunch.
So what is Homecoming week?
Basically it’s the one week where everyone supposedly gets crazy about their university and former students “come home” to see their university again. During the week they have a lot of small events, like the spirit event or talent competition, that don’t really attract that many people, but getting to the end of the week the events get bigger, usually there is a ‘Royal Ball’ and a ‘Homecoming Party’. But the real highlight is Saturday. Starting with a golf cart parade, the marching bands, cheerleaders, different sports groups, officials and Royal Court candidates march along the city to the stadium where a big party goes down in the parking lot before everyone gets inside the big stadium for the Homecoming Football Game during which the universities royals are crowned.
To be honest, I know that it should be like a big thing and from what I have heard there are universities at which Homecoming is really a big deal. But at the GSU I can’t get past the feeling that actually no one really cares about it. It is confirmed by one of the other grad students that the small events don’t gather a lot of students and the big events on Saturday are not that spectacular as the football team of the GSU is not among the best.
The Friday of the homecoming week I find myself in Athens with the other statistic students. It is a rather small city and definitely not a too well-known city outside of Georgia. We are here for a conference, well that might not be the fitting word. It’s a one day conference with only a handful of talks and many posters. What surprises me most about the conference is that unlike other conferences I am used to food and drinks are completely covered by the organizers. And the conference fee is reimbursed by them as well. Students here even expect this, the others were disappointed that dinner wasn’t included even though the conference went until 6pm. One of the big pros of the conference is that I finally get to know my colleagues here a little bit better. More than two hours in the same car offered lots of time for discussions.
Before the Homecoming Football Game starts there is a Golf Cart Parade from the University to the Stadium. I am slightly late and it has already started. Along the road are only a handful of spectators cheering the people of the parade on. Most students that are part of the parade just sit there and seem like they couldn’t care less. A few hand out candies and little giveaways. I follow the parade to the stadium where a small crowd and the Universities Marching Band await the golf carts. Even though tailgating isn’t supposed to start for another half an hour people have already put up their pavilions and fired up the grills.
Walking around I realize that, unlike other sports event I’ve been to in the States, here people don’t tailgate out of the backs of their cars, it’s not a couple of friends sitting on some chairs enjoying a few drinks. Here the fraternities have their parties, people will hang out at the fraternities they are part of or know the best. There is no “neutral” pavilion where an outsider could blend in. So after two tries of befriending with some of the fraternities I stroll around waiting for the game to start. After a while I notice someone else who seems to be here on his own and introduce myself to him. He knows a few people and introduces me to them. Apparently I was naive about how the Homecoming Game works as all of them tell me that no one actually goes to the game but instead everyone only comes for the tailgating.
I decide to go anyway. The stadium is more than half empty and it’s cold and windy. The fact that after only a few minutes of the game the Panthers, the team of the GSU, are trailing 0-17 doesn’t help the atmosphere. In the end they manage to get the game tight but loose anyway due to a field goal shortly before the end of the game. After eight hours in the cold I just want to get back home and get some sleep.
To be honest I’m disappointed, not only by the game and its atmosphere, but about the whole Homecoming Week. I was expecting way more of it. That people would open up more, that I would enjoy every second of the week. But that’s life. Just because you’re abroad doesn’t mean that everything will be all perfect and goes just as you’d always imagined. Things go wrong and it’s part of the abroad experience, no point in hiding it. I mean that is what makes semesters abroad so unique and special, not just all the amazing moments but also the not so great moments. And a lack of spirit by the GSU students for their own university certainly doesn’t dampen the marvelous time I am having!
In the next part you will find out what I experience during my upcoming road trips and how my first real American Thanksgiving turns out to be!
FOTO CREDIT Titelbild: Hans Christian Gruber S