Getting Ready

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In early 2002 I had been on the phone with Niels, a GSB Class of 2003 student and fellow German. Niels had grown up the next street from where I had grown up and he had been in the same class at school with my sister. When we talked about getting ready for school and moving to the U.S. he erupted, declaring "it was a desaster!!" Apparently, few things worked well or easily, but somehow I didn't really get why it had been so difficult. In the end I assumed I was in a different situation anyway: Well-versed in American customs from two years of living in Boston I thought I would be able to navigate around problems easily.

Not so. It turned out the major problems were that few things were under my control or could be influenced by clever thinking. I've written up some of the problems below. While I use a dry humorous style, trust me, I was non-plussed at the time I had to suffer through them.

Getting my Student Visa

End of June I sent in my student visa application. On the website and on the hotline they told me it might take up to 6 weeks to receive the visa. Realistically, it would be more like 2-3 weeks, they said.

By mid August I was getting nervous, because I hadn't received any notification whatsoever. Maybe a dog had eaten my application? I had no way of knowing.

I called the hotline three times, each time triggering the same behavior: "Oh my god, you haven't heard from us yet? We'll investigate immediately!" After this they took my data and promised to get back to me within one day, which never happened.

The fourth time I called, dangerously close to having to change my travel plans, I was told that if I hadn't heard from them yet, my application was in Washington, and was being put through careful screening. It would be at least another month until I might receive a visa. This meant that I would miss all of the school's orientation as well as the beginning of the quarter. Since MBA studies are really fast-paced, playing a catch-up game is not advisable.

Boy, was I frustrated. Before this call, I was ready to go, after this call, I was done.

The next day, the US embassy in Berlin called to invite me for an interview, two days before my scheduled flight to Boston and on to Stanford. I expected having to sign in blood that I will return to Germany after my studies (precondition for a student visa). However, nothing like this happened, they just had me fill in a form with data I had given them three times before and that was it. I got my visa 15min later. The small prints on the student visa says that I'm not allowed to go near any tall buildings, but fortunately this is not a problem in Stanford.

Now, the only thing I really would like to do is to talk to that hotline person from the fourth call again...

Ordering from Course.com

Course.com is a provider of text books. In this case GSB faculty recommended I get the book "New Perspectives on Excel, Brief" to get ready with Excel before school. After checking with amazon.com, I saw it would take them at least 2 weeks to get the book from the publisher, so I directly went to the course.com website.

  1. It took me at least half an hour to create a new user. First, the site didn't like my username, then it didn't like my password, then it insisted on a US state where I was trying to enter a German address, and so on. I finally got my user data accepted. However, when I tried to use the account, I couldn't login. The password I supplied supposedly did not match the password I had entered previously. So I went through the whole procedure again, creating a new user.
  2. I put the book into my shopping basket. The checkout mechanism multiplied the number of books I wanted by five, but I could correct this. When confirming the purchase, I tried to enter a shipping address different from the billing address. This was a German address, and somewhat dumbfounded I had to learn that I couldn't enter Germany as a shipping destination. I gave up.
  3. I called up customer support, located in Boston (I was in Berlin). I was clever enough to point to the shipping address problem first and ask whether they could help me with it. I was told that they don't ship internationally but that they have a distributor in Germany, for which I could get the phone number. I thanked them and called the German number. They had already closed for the day. (This is Germany, what did you expect?)
  4. Next morning, I called the German distributor again, only to learn that they had long given up handling course.com books. All of this would now be handled by another distributor, located in Denmark. So I got their number and called them.
  5. The Danish distributor's sales person was friendly and told me that they could in fact deliver the book, at least in theory. It would be shipped from the U.K. but right now their machines are broken and it would be at least another two weeks until they would start stocking the pipeline again. I gave up.

The GSB's self-assessment quiz and Excel help are just fine, thank you.

Vacation is a Bumpy Road

I had left the U.S. in April 2002 for five fabulous months of travel and vacation. My apartment was in storage in Boston, and my whole equipment were two suitcases and a laptop. Here are the problems you'll have to face if you are in a similar situation:

  • The time difference between you and the U.S. people you are dealing with will significantly increase your turnaround time. Moreover, you'll be surprised by the differences opening hours around the globe.
  • You would be surprised about the problems of getting someone to fax something to you internationally. My Boston optician never figured out how to send my tarnished glasses' data to a Berlin optician.
  • Internet use will be painful if you are restricted to a laptop modem. Few Internet cafes are prepared to let you hook up your laptop. I usually made a trip to the local university to get around the bandwidth problem.
  • Amazingly enough, email has yet to make it into some institutions and companies.

Was I glad to get back to the U.S. eventually. Things were running so much smoother.

Bleeding Money Left and Right

For the five months of my vacation, the cheapest time was my Malaysian travels, and the most expensive time was staying in Berlin. However, the real killers in comparison with regular living expenses where phone and Internet costs.

  • I had to foot phone bills from Malaysian hotels and my Berlin apartment that were as high as (or higher than) the hotel or rent costs.
  • I really really hate Earthlink. They changed the conditions right after I had signed up, making me blead $80 a month for simple dialup. And all of this on top of abysmal service. (Three out of four connect attempts fail. When I asked them about this, they sent me a blurp from their service agreement where it says they don't guarantee anything anyway. Tough luck for me, apparently. Too bad for them I'll terminate my subscription as soon as I'm back in the U.S.)

There are a few things you can do:

  • In Berlin, I used a really cheap int'l phone service (01024). Because of Earthlink's outrageous costs, I ended up dialing into Boston for Internet dialup!
  • I used ISIConnect for reducing my international phone bills in the remote locations of Malaysia, but obviously this service wasn't cheap either.

So, watch out who and how you rely on for your services. And don't procrastinate like I did: It will get worse, and even if it is "just one more month" until it's over.

Copyright (©) 2007 Dirk Riehle. Some rights reserved. (Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA.) Original Web Location: http://www.riehle.org