What is it like to attend Georgia Tech

A review of my year at the Georgia Institute of Technology

11 minute read

My name is Julian Straub, I am a student in electrical engineering and information technology at the Technical University of Munich. As part of the double degree program at the Technical University of Munich, I was able to study at the Georgia Institute of Technology Electrical and Computer Engineering from August 2010 to May 2011. The experiences of this semester abroad have enriched me both personally and have brought me a great deal further in my academic development. In the following I give a summary of these experiences and their effects on me in roughly chronological order before I conclude with a short summary.

It all began with my decision in September 2009 to apply for a study abroad via the TU Munich. This goal made it necessary for me to spend the entire winter semester little with my studies, but mainly with writing several applications for scholarships and study places. Dealing with the preparation of applications already presented the first challenges for me, as I had not written any large applications before that point.

On March 25, 2010, my application at Georgia Tech was accepted and I was very relieved to finally have certainty and to be able to take care of the further organization of the stay abroad. Almost at the same time I was accepted into the travel grant of the German Fulbright Commission, which covered travel and visa costs. So the question of financing the actual stay came to the fore. At this point I am very grateful for the excellent support from Professor Steinbach, who made me aware of the possibility of funding from the Heinrich and Lotte Mühlfenzl Foundation. In response to my application for livelihood support from the Mühlfenzl Foundation, I received the acceptance at the beginning of June 2010. With the generous allocation of the scholarship, she cleared up the last great unknown and I was able to finish the summer semester 2010 in anticipation of studying abroad.

A week before my departure to Atlanta, I finished my undergraduate studies at the Technical University of Munich with the presentation of my bachelor thesis. So I had a good week to say goodbye to my friends and family in peace and to pack my bags for America.

On August 14, 2010, I flew to Atlanta, Georgia. When I was in Germany, I had already taken over a room from another German student at the Technical University of Munich. So I was able to concentrate on getting to know the university and the campus right from the start. In the first week, there were plenty of information events to do this. Already in the second week the choice of courses started. This was difficult and frustrating for me as it was hardly possible to find information about the course without going to a lecture on the course. After a very busy week, four courses emerged: Random Processes, Pattern Recognition, Multi-Robot Systems and Autonomous Control of Robotic Systems. I am very satisfied with the choice of these courses, as I would not have been able to listen to the last two courses in this form at the Technical University of Munich. They contained very interesting content that exactly went into my academic specialization in robotics.

The first few weeks were particularly exciting because I got to know so many new people and so many new things flowed into me every day. On the third weekend I took part in an excursion by the World Student Fund Exchange Club to the Atlantic coast. On this trip I got to know the majority of all the people I would meet during the two semesters. We went for a swim in the waves of the Atlantic, to eat crabs and clams and to see Savannah, a very old southern city by American standards. At the end of the trip, I was elected officer in the World Student Fund Exchange Club (WSFEC). The WSF has long supported the exchange between German universities and Georgia Tech. In a team of four officers, we organized events for the members during the two semesters, such as BBQs, climbing in the high ropes course at Georgia Tech and attending a very nice Christmas concert. Our goal was to make the club more international in order to promote the exchange between cultures. I enjoyed doing charitable work in the team.

On the weekends I used the free time to get to know Atlanta. So I went on a bike tour with friends through the city and visited the attractions of Atlanta like the World of Coca Cola and the Georgia Aquarium. Sometimes it was just small activities such as cooking hunter schnitzel with Tom, a college friend from Texas, or a visit to an amusement park that was only open to Georgia Tech students that brought a change from the hard study.

Tom invited me to his family over Thanksgiving in Austin, Texas. I was welcomed very warmly and was able to spend a few stress-free days in very nice company. In addition to the traditional turkey for Thanksgiving with the whole family, I was invited to an original Texas BBQ, which is smoked for 8 hours. On the family trip from Dallas to Austin, I got a good view of the flat Texas landscape. Nowhere else have I had the feeling that the earth is sinking slightly curved in all directions and that I have so much sky above me. The nights were also an experience for me, as it got so dark that I could no longer distinguish between heaven and earth.

In addition to these leisure activities, the first semester was shaped by adapting to the American way of studying. Especially the lectures in robotics were much fresher and closer to the state of research than anything I had heard about them at the Technical University of Munich up to now. In addition, the lecture style with an extremely high level of personal participation encourages you to deal more intensively with the matter. In each of the four lectures, I usually had detailed homework once a week, some of which consisted of arithmetic and some of programming. In Autonomous Control of Robotic Systems, an accompanying project with self-selected content was carried out in small groups. The teamwork in this project was a unique experience, as my team members were also highly motivated and enthusiastic. We programmed a robot that could independently find “Easter eggs” in a simulated environment and bring them to a base while creating a map of the environment so as not to return to places that had already been explored. Overall, I have the feeling that the very high workload has paid off in full, as I have the feeling that I understand the content more deeply and can use it better.

Over the three weeks of the winter semester break, a friend from Germany visited me and we spent half of the time in Miami playing volleyball on the beach at Christmas and the second half in New York, where we celebrated New Year's Eve in Central Park. It was an interesting experience to spend a week on the beach in the middle of winter. While we were in Miami we rented a car one day to take a trip to Key West, the southernmost town on the American mainland. The drive there was peppered with wonderful sights, because the road to Key West leads over a chain of small islands that are connected by longer bridges that simply lead straight across the sea. After a week of summer in Florida, we flew to New York City, which had some snow at the time and was bitterly cold. On the first evening we drove to Times Square, where we just stood there for five minutes and marveled. New York City was an overwhelming experience and it has clearly turned my benchmark for size crazy. I had never seen so many tall skyscrapers in one place before. The hustle and bustle of the New Yorkers and the speed with which everything is happening were also remarkable. I only realized some of this when, back in Atlanta, I suddenly got a very strange feeling while jogging: I realized how much sky I saw above me and how quiet the street was in front of me.

The second semester was a little quieter than the first. The friendships had grown stronger and groups had formed. By consolidating the social environment and by getting used to studying at Georgia Tech, I was able to concentrate more on studying and establishing contacts with the robotics chairs.

So I arranged an exciting research project with Professor Dellaert, an excellent professor in my field of specialization. This gave me the opportunity to establish and consolidate contact with Frank Dellaert and the PhD students from his lab. It was important to me because I wanted to figure out whether a PhD at Georgia Tech or another American university would be an option for me.

In addition to the special problem, I attended the three lectures Optimal Control, Artificial Intelligence and Partial Differencial Equations in Image Processing and Computer Vision. These lectures were again very exciting and, just like in the first semester, very close to the current state of research.

Despite the stronger focus on studying in the second semester, it was important to me to get to know more of America. So I used a week of spring break to see Chicago with a good friend from Atlanta. We enjoyed several art museums and toured the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), the tallest building in America. At a height of 412m you could see down from a closed, fully glazed balcony, but also generally enjoy a wonderful view of the city and the surrounding area. I also really enjoyed visiting two different jazz and blues bars in Chicago. Of course, we also tried the original Chicago-style deep dish pizza. With its more cake-shaped appearance, it was significantly different from normal pizzas, but tasted just as good.

In April there was also the opportunity to get to know Philadelphia as part of a Fulbright seminar on the subject of “Greening the Planet”. This seminar included various lectures and teamwork. As a team, we were challenged to find and develop a business idea that would help to end environmental degradation. It was very exciting to discuss this topic with scholars from all over the world and to work out a business plan. In the end, our team prevailed against the other teams with an idea that I introduced and refined in the team. As part of the seminar program, for example, we also helped clear up the aftermath of a storm in a park. On the last day I still had time to see the city. I liked Philadelphia very much because it is a very green city with a city center that is very easy to visit on foot and that with its many small shops has a relatively European feel to it.

At the beginning of my studies abroad, I began to resume my long-neglected hobby of jogging and at the beginning of 2011 I set myself the goal of participating in the half-marathon in Atlanta on March 20th. I reached my target time thanks to intensive nine weeks of preparation. During that time, I ran almost every day, getting to know downtown Atlanta and its residential areas better. The half-marathon, in which thousands of runners took part, was a unique experience, not least thanks to the support of my friends, who cheered me on in the last few meters.

After an intensive exam at the end of April 2011, it was unfortunately time to say goodbye. I had taken two weeks to quietly finish my studies at Georgia Tech and say goodbye to my friends there. For example, I jogged 30km with one of my best friends to the Stonemountain, an attraction in Atlanta that I hadn't seen before. Stonemountain is a huge block of stone that protrudes 250m above the otherwise relatively flat landscape around Atlanta.

At the moment I'm doing an internship in Pasadena, California, at Evolution Robotics, a robotics company that has developed and sells a robot that can systematically mop the floor. I applied for this internship in early 2011 because I wanted to experience a small startup company that works in the field of robotics. Here I am continuing my work in computer vision, which I started with Frank Dellaert in the second semester at Georgia Tech.

All in all, the year abroad was incredible - I made so many new impressions and experiences, made new friends from all over the world, seen beautiful and completely different nature, and visited various American cities and experienced their people. As a result, my personal horizons have expanded significantly and I have grown internally to meet the challenges of studying abroad. Traveling a lot in America has given me a completely different sense of distance, which suddenly makes Europe seem small. Through the contact with people from different countries around the world, I got very personal insights into life there. That made my perspective more global and showed me more than once how good we are in Germany. Academically, working in the Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech has opened up new perspectives for me and I have familiarized myself with a new subject area in which I would also like to write my master’s thesis. I also made contacts that will certainly be helpful to me in the course of my further studies and beyond.

I feel honored to have had the chance of this semester abroad and I would like to share my experiences with as many people as possible in order to promote a better mutual understanding between the different cultures. For this purpose, for example, I set up a blog on my homepage at the beginning of my studies abroad, on which I post pictures and report on my experiences and impressions. I have also decided to get involved in looking after exchange students as soon as I get back to the Technical University of Munich.

I am very grateful for the support from the Lotte and Heinrich-Mühlfenzl Foundation, the TUMExchange program, the Fulbright program, the Max Weber program and the Atlantis program. I also extend my deep gratitude to the people who helped me along the way, be it by proofreading applications, writing letters of recommendation or simply by providing supportive words.

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