‘I benefited a lot from my time in Germany’

Biology student Shelby Smith
Biology student Shelby Smith from Kentucky came to Germany for four months at the end of 2023. © private

Gilman-DAAD Germany Scholarships enable US American students from low-income families to undertake short stays in Germany. Biology student Shelby Smith from Kentucky paid a visit to the University of Regensburg from September to December 2023. She gave an interview in which she speaks about the challenges over the first few weeks, German people’s preparedness to help and her newly aroused passion for intercultural exchange. 

'The flight to Germany was the first time I’d ever been in a plane. I’d also never travelled by train, bus or taxi.’ 

Shelby Smith 

Ms Smith, you had a difficult upbringing. Even early on, you had to care for your parents who were unemployed and ill. Were you generally able to attend normal school? 

I was only able to receive regular tuition up to high school (editor’s note; up to the age of 14). After that I had a full-time job from 8 in the morning until 6 in the evening – a total of 40 hours a week. The only time I ever had for learning was always after work. So school in my case meant home schooling, which was really tough. But it also meant I gained valuable experience. Good time management is vital in this kind of situation. And that’s only possible if you can learn how to be self-motivated. I believe back then that I was forced to grow up more quickly than many of my peers. 

At 15 you then started working in an eye clinic.  

Yeah, that was a very poignant experience for me because I soon realised how much I liked the work – and could well imagine going to college at some point so that I could become an ophthalmologist. I therefore applied to Murray State College, which is around two and a half hours from where I lived. I was the first member of my family to go to college. So it was a completely new experience for me. 

When was the first time that you heard about the Gilman Programme operated by the DAAD? 

That was in college. Murray State has an exchange programme with the University of Regensburg and I pretty quickly realised that it was also something that could suit me. I have to say, I was by no means able to afford it on my own. So I took a close look at the various scholarships and finally came across the DAAD's Gilman Programme. I soon felt that this programme is made for people like me: first-generation students without financial resources. I then spoke with my university mentors and worked really hard on my application. I was a bit sceptical at first as to whether I’d actually be accepted. As I was filling out the form, though, I started to believe that my chances weren’t all that bad. Many of the admission requirements it mentioned were applicable to me. That motivated me. 

It worked out, and in your final year you were able to study in Regensburg for four months. What were your initial impressions? 

It was really exciting. The flight to Germany was the first time I’d ever been in a plane. And I’d never travelled by train, bus or taxi either. It was all totally new to me. It took me a week to even get used to how supermarkets function in Germany. I can still remember how nervous I was the first time I was in a German supermarket. 

Did you receive sufficient support? 

I felt I had excellent local support, the University of Regensburg is really well organised. I have a chronic illness that has to be medically monitored and treated with medicine. My mentors gave me brilliant support, I’d never have managed it on my own in the first few weeks. Although I’d have appreciated a little more help beforehand. We were certainly sent some info about what roughly to expect. But with hindsight it would have been useful to have had more details – about the political situation, the culture and the lifestyle in Germany, for example. 
What were your biggest challenges? 

One of the greatest challenges I faced was learning how to ask for help. I’m a very independent person and generally find that hard. And in the USA it’s often very difficult to actually get help, even when you really need it. It’s quite different in Germany. When you ask someone there for help, it’s highly likely that they’ll actually provide it. Yet I still found it hard at first, for instance asking at the bus stop whether the bus was going in my direction. 

Did you learn German? 

Yes, I completed a crash course. My German was rudimentary at first, but by the end of the four months I could at least go shopping and ask for directions. I’m also planning to continue learning German. I’ve been in touch with exchange students from Regensburg who’re studying here at Murray State to help me do that. 

What's particularly imprinted in your memory from the time you spent in Germany? 

That was definitely the travelling. Everywhere in Europe is so easy to reach. You just need to travel by train for a few hours and you’re in a different country. I went to Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, England, Scotland, Austria and the Czech Republic. I saw the Colosseum and went hiking in the Alps. There was even the opportunity to do some sightseeing in Germany. The programme included a week in Berlin, for example. Travelling was something that I’d firmly set my sights on doing while I was in Germany. And I’m glad that everything went so well. 

Are there any other aspects that you had planned to achieve during your stay?  

One of my most important objectives was to derive new impetus from a different perspective and to give myself some respite. I’d often asked myself lately whether I really wanted to continue my studies, or whether I wouldn’t be better off in a job. I had hoped that my stay in Regensburg would awaken a renewed passion for learning. And that is most certainly the case. 

Did the range of courses at the University of Regensburg help with that? 

Definitely! My major subject is of course biology, but in Regensburg I was also exposed to literature studies, philosophy and world history. I don’t like to admit it, but the teaching of history isn’t that great in the USA when it comes to looking beyond our national boundaries. History is communicated much more from a global perspective in Germany. That inspired me a lot and opened my eyes to the fact that the world has so much more to offer than I ever knew before. And I’m looking forward to seeing even more of it. 

What are your plans for the future? Would you like to return to Germany?  

I’d love to do that. The exchange programme has relieved my anxiety about international travel. I actually sat down with my fiancé as soon as I got back to the USA and we considered when the time might be right for the next trip. 

What advice would you give to students from a similar background who’d like to apply for a study stay abroad and are perhaps hesitant because they’re worried their application would be unsuccessful, or are concerned about what to expect? 

Go for it anyway. It’s a programme that’s tailor made for your situation. You’re the first in your family to study? Never been abroad? You can be the first, just like me. And your own experience is in turn an example for others to follow: for your fellow students or your parents. I can only advise you to keep motivated, and not to succumb to negativity! 

Interview: Klaus Lüber (6 February 2024) 


This article was originally published in the

We strive to use gender-sensitive language. External texts may not conform with our formulation conventions. 

Further links 


* mandatory field