What was your experience focusing on physics

"It's a bit like Harry Potter"

| interview

Cornelius Römer began studying physics in Cambridge three years ago and also completed an internship in the USA. In an interview, he reports how the decision to go to England came about, which challenges he had to master in the first time and what influence the experiences in England and the USA had on him.

Expat News: You are studying natural science and mathematics with a focus on physics at Cambridge and plan to do your master's there as well. Why did you choose England??

Romans: First and foremost, I did not choose England, but rather Cambridge and Trinity College, where Newton, Maxwell and Rutherford have already worked. Because - and that is also the main decisive point - I wanted to study at an excellent university. As I was aiming for an academic career in physics, Cambridge was the best way to study in Europe. Cambridge has a good international reputation in this area. However, besides Cambridge, I was also accepted at other universities in Europe and America.

Expat News: So was it mainly about studying at an excellent university that has a good reputation around the world?

Romans: There are a few other reasons that moved me to go abroad. One of them was that I had my first positive experiences in school when I spent three months in Scotland at the age of 16. During this time I noticed that I enjoy learning languages. Before that, it was rather boring for me, especially learning all the vocabulary. On the other hand, I found learning a language in practice to be interesting because it represents a holistic challenge. Since that time in Scotland I have started reading a lot of English literature. Perhaps that is why the orientation towards England and America came a little. In addition, there was certainly the thought that I would perfect my English if I went to an English university.

Another reason for my decision to go abroad was that it has been reported for many years how valuable experience abroad is. Many students in Germany go abroad for a semester with the Erasmus university program. I thought to myself: If that is useful, why not spend the entire course of study abroad? So you have a holistic experience and really get to know the country and the culture.

Expat News:Why did you ultimately choose Cambridge? You might as well have gone to a university in America.

Romans: Cambridge has a few special advantages, such as the 31 colleges. These form a microcosm and represent the center of life and not, as I could imagine in Germany, the specialist group in the university. It's a bit like Harry Potter: one is in the Hufflepuff house and the other is in the Gryffindor house at Hogwarts. The individual students identify with their college, which creates very interesting group effects. The college is the focal point, because here you live with other students who study all kinds of subjects and cafeterias, libraries and much more are provided. In addition, the colleges take on part of the technical support. The lectures and exams take place on a large scale, for which the university is directly responsible. Exercises are, however, worked out in small groups. These usually consist of two students and a so-called supervisor, who can either be a PhD student, or - if you're lucky - even a professor. The advantage is that you get very close contact with researchers, who you can ask everything you want to know, and at the same time ask individual questions for which there would be no time in larger tutorials.

The internationality of the students in Cambridge is also great. In my college, three out of 17 physics students in my class are from Great Britain. The rest are students who come from all over the world. It's very exciting because it gives you a good feeling for other cultures.

Expat News: How did those around you react when you decided to study in England?

Romans: My parents have always supported me and my sister. If we wanted to orientate ourselves and try something new, they didn't put any obstacles in our way, they actively encouraged us. In addition, the idea of ​​studying in England did not come up suddenly. It has developed over a long period of time. I come from a relatively rural area, about 30 kilometers from Stuttgart. When I was in the fifth or sixth grade and thought about universities, even Heidelberg seemed far away. My stay in Scotland made the world a little smaller for me and I thought on a larger scale. So it was really only a matter of time before I asked myself: Why shouldn't I try to apply to one of the best universities in the world? So it was no surprise to my parents.

The same goes for my friends and classmates. I went to a state boarding school in Germany, the state high school for gifted students in Schwäbisch Gmünd, and many of the graduates have already been to England, Switzerland or France. It wasn't an uncommon thing about the boarding school for students to apply abroad.

Expat News: How did you prepare for your stay abroad?

Romans: The application process for English universities is a little longer than in this country. The application deadline for Oxford and Cambridge is October 15th for the coming year. An interview with the university takes place in December, and a so-called offer is received in January. This contains the requirements that must be met in order to get a place at university - for example, the required high school diploma or good grades in math and physics. I have already been able to use this long application period to prepare. It was helpful that I received some brochures from college that described university life a bit, so that I could imagine what to take and what not to take or how big the room would be. In the end, however, there is not much difference to Germany in these points - it is similar whether I go to England or to a university in Germany. The only difference is that England is a little further away and that makes it a little more difficult to transport personal and necessary items. But then I also found a solution. I found out that parcels - even entire moving boxes - can be sent relatively cheaply to England. Shipping for a package up to 35 kilograms only costs around 30 euros. I didn't know that beforehand because I never needed it. Organizing how all my luggage gets to England was perhaps the greatest preparation I have made.

Expat News: Have you prepared yourself interculturally for this stay? Or was that not decisive for you, since you already knew the country and its people?

Romans: In principle, I'm relatively carefree there. Of course, it was clear to me that the language and culture were different and that it would also be much more international than anything I had experienced before. But in principle it is difficult to prepare specifically for it. I just thought I'd go there and then deal directly with the situation as it comes. I don't remember doing much in advance about this. The only thing was that - as I said before - I read a lot in English, with the idea that it would improve my reading and language comprehension.

Expat News: What were the greatest challenges that you had to master when settling in your new home?

Romans: I think the biggest problem was that basic language understanding and language ability are not the same. Having an understanding of language does not necessarily enable one to fully participate in discussions. Of course, I was already aware of that in principle. However, it created a certain potential for stress because I couldn't formulate my ideas and bring them into discussions as quickly as I am used to. Humor is very important in England, in all possible situations, and in order to be able to keep up, you naturally need an almost perfect understanding of the language and a lot of experience, especially if you come from a country that is known for its seriousness.

Expat News:Has this language barrier affected friendships?

Romans: Because Cambridge is so international, that wasn't a major problem. Besides me, there were many other students from different countries who had identical initial difficulties - that is, their language skills were not on the level of a native speaker. Basically, it has resulted in the native speakers separating a little from the non-native speakers. But I didn't find it really bad. The worse thing was that I didn't feel in full possession of my intellectual abilities for a while. At the beginning, I couldn't really keep up in conversations with native speakers. But that didn't mean that you couldn't understand each other or make friends, as everyone is very open and friendly. After a year at most, however, all these problems have resolved, which can be seen, for example, from the fact that I have meanwhile been elected as President of the Student Council and am a student representative in the University Senate.

Expat News: You recently spent three months on an internship in the United States. Did you notice any particular differences between Germans, British and Americans there? Which were they?

Romans: It's difficult to generalize. In England, the cultural differences between the individual nations - England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland - are quite large from a British perspective. England is, so to speak, a subculture that cannot easily be compared with the Germans. One should rather compare the culture in Tübingen with Cambridge. In my opinion, however, what is important in English culture is that humor plays a very central role. Whatever the situation, the English always try to crack a joke or take it humorous. Understatement is also very important in England. If you want to learn more about English culture, I can especially recommend the book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox, she is much more professional in this area than I am.

There are also many subcultures in America. As a German, you tend to quickly ascribe certain stereotypes to Americans. But in reality America is about as diverse as all of Europe, the only difference being that they all speak the same language. But even that is not even true, because Spanish plays a big role. The regional differences in America are enormous. In Boston, for example, people often make fun of the so-called “rednecks” in the southern states. The people in Austin and Houston, on the other hand, are very liberal and the surrounding area - to put it casually - is the pampa, where people behave completely differently again. In America I learned how different cultures can be, even though you have the feeling that everyone is the same. America, as it is presented on film and television, is just a very special segment.

Expat News: In what way?

Romans: For example, it's a cliché that Americans only eat burgers and fries. Especially in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Harvard are located and where I did my internship, there are a lot more salads and healthy food than I've ever seen in Germany. Of course, it depends very much on the location. But I've seen the best salad fast food restaurants in America. There I also got to know quinoa, for example, which I didn't know from Germany. Americans like to try new things. You have a very special urge to discover. The reason for this is certainly that the majority of the American population is descended from people who at some point made a conscious decision to emigrate. That is still anchored in the mindset and in the culture. So if you are looking for what all Americans have in common, then perhaps it is that new beginnings and changes are viewed very positively.

Expat News: Have the stays abroad had an impact on your personal development so far? If so, to what extent?

Romans: It is difficult to pinpoint the influence of the stays abroad on personal development, because I have developed further in general. I cannot imagine how I would have developed if I had stayed in Germany. But in principle I believe that the great thing about staying abroad is that you get the opportunity to observe certain new perspectives and practices and approaches. You can then choose whether you want to adopt this cultural peculiarity or approach or not - according to the principle of “pick and choose”. For example, I am aware that the English always try to be very polite and therefore always ask about their well-being before addressing the actual topic. And although I am aware of this, my time is sometimes too valuable to me. We Germans are a bit more direct and I just think that the English might have to accept it that way. I was happy to take on other things. I really appreciate the English language, for example, because it gives you the opportunity to communicate very efficiently - even in formal communication. For example, you can write very short, concise e-mails with abbreviations that still convey all the information. Whenever I have to write a German email, it annoys me that there are no recognized abbreviations in German. When I write a German email and don't want to formulate it so formally, it always sounds wrong somehow.

But stays abroad also broaden your horizons in other respects, because only other cultures allow you to become aware of how many opportunities there are to see certain things. In Germany you are sometimes a bit conservative, like “if it has always worked that way, why should you change it”. In America, on the other hand, people are much more open to new ideas. My perspective has changed because in many situations I can add new perspectives through my experience abroad.

Expat News: What advice do you have for other students who decide to study in England or abroad?

Romans: It wasn't until I had a bad experience sending money that I realized how helpful TransferWise was. This is an international platform for money transfers. The first time my parents sent me money to England, they did it as a classic international transfer through the bank. When the money arrived in my English account, we found that the bank had taken about four to five percent of the commission and exchange rate difference. We weren't aware of that before. Based on this experience, I asked my classmates and friends and came across TransferWise. I've been using it for all currencies ever since. On the one hand, it is very practical and faster than the classic international transfer and, on the other, it is up to six times cheaper than with the bank. TransferWise now also accepts debit cards (at no additional charge) and credit cards (with a slightly higher fee), which simplifies and speeds up the transfer process (from five working days to around two) - with a fee of only 0.5 percent and at the current exchange rate.

Expat News: How easy or how complicated is it to use TransferWise?

Romans: So basically everything can be done online. Registration is very quick. In order to transfer the money, you only have to enter the recipient data, i.e. account number, name and also the amount to be transferred and of course the customer account. Then you transfer the euro amount specified by TransferWise as a normal (SEPA) transfer to a TransferWise euro account. Alternatively, you can make the transfer using the debit card. Credit card works too. It costs a little extra though. But many have a debit card, and then it works like an online order. It's very quick, within two minutes you are done. The money is usually with the recipient within a few working days.

Expat News: What other tips can you give us?

Romans: When it comes to language acquisition, I recommend speaking simply, even if you are afraid of making mistakes. Because communication with errors is better than no communication at all. So just start babbling.The more you speak, the more confidently you will speak the language.

Another important point is to take a passport with you, even if you come through the border controls with an identity card. The identity card is not accepted in shops for age control. I especially recommend this to 18 to 23 year olds. As a rule, one is no longer checked over this.

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Photo: © Sam Spiro - Fotolia.com

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