The Renewing Power of a Sabbatical
How uprooting my family, leaving behind my job, and spending a year in Europe made me a better educator.
By David A. Sabatini

From the October 1999 AAHE Bulletin


Taking a sabbatical leave away from the home university raises a number of questions. How will the leave impact your research program? Will the benefits outweigh the disruption to work and family life? What additional complications can you expect from taking your leave overseas as opposed to in the United States?

My experience as a senior Fulbright scholar in the geology department at the Universitaet Tuebingen (University of Tuebingen), Germany, are offered to provide some guidance and encouragement to educators considering their first overseas sabbatical.

Sabbatical Basics

The concept of a sabbatical year dates back to the Old Testament, which instructs Jews that every seventh year their fields should be left untilled, debts forgiven, and so on. More recently, an academic sabbatical is generally defined as a year of study or travel, usually every seventh year. In both cases, the sabbatical year is intended to be a time of renewal and rejuvenation. Proper planning, flexibility, and a bit of luck are keys to success.

Practices differ by university, but generally the sabbatical can be taken for one semester with full pay or two semesters with half pay. Faculty are typically encouraged to take a sabbatical at a remote site. A variety of settings are possible, including industry, a government research laboratory, or a university here or abroad. Some faculty do remain at their home university during their leave, opting instead to schedule numerous trips.

A two-semester sabbatical typically requires external funding for half of the sabbatical salary. This funding can come from a number of sources, including the host university (which may require you to teach a course or provide some other service), the government or industrial sponsor, or a sabbatical program such as the Fulbright Scholar Program. Sabbatical activities can focus on developing a new teaching or research focus, learning new expertise or using unique equipment available at the host location, conducting personal research or targeted reading, developing proposals, and so on.

Should You Go?

When considering a sabbatical leave, a number of pros and cons may need to be considered. In terms of positives, a sabbatical leave is an opportunity to refocus and pursue new initiatives, which can be a very rejuvenating exercise. It also provides an opportunity to benefit from unique expertise and/or equipment at the host university.

Personally, an international sabbatical can be a real time of bonding, as a family experiences the trials and triumphs of such an opportunity. However, a sabbatical leave is not without challenges and concerns. Such a leave can be a serious discontinuity in an active research program, as the program scales down before and up after the sabbatical, or if the professor tries to manage the research program long distance (which can somewhat defeat the value of the sabbatical).

Other challenges include renting out the family home and finding housing in the host community, which can be both traumatic and costly; preparing children for a new school where they may not speak the language; locating funding to supplement your half-salary; the cost of living abroad; and the transition back into U.S. culture and the workforce.

My family wrestled with all of these issues but in the end we determined that the benefits for everyone outweighed the costs.

Making the Transition

Seeing to the basic necessities is essential to putting you at ease with the transition. Try to research things such as airplane tickets and housing in advance, and don’t be afraid to ask your host institution for advice and assistance.

Preparation. If your sabbatical sponsor or host institution offers orientation or preparation programs, by all means take advantage of them. The Fulbright Program had an orientation meeting in Bonn in the fall, and a "progress report" meeting in Berlin in the spring. The orientation meeting was especially helpful as it eased our transition. It was also very rewarding and interesting to meet and share experiences with Fulbright colleagues in other disciplines and other universities throughout Germany. The Fulbright Program provided an orientation booklet that documented important points from previous awardees — for a first-timer this information was very useful.

And the orientations aren’t just for the scholar. My wife enjoyed meeting other spouses to discuss various issues relative to their familial, social, and cultural adjustments, and my children were encouraged by playing with other American children and sharing their different experiences. These are major advantages of going oversees with a program rather than on one’s own.

Transportation. It was somewhat shocking to learn that extended-stay international tickets cost up to twice as much as short-stay tickets. Budget accordingly. Once there, how will you get around? We bought a used car because it was cheaper on trips (with a family of four) and made it easier to see things along the way. However, I still prefer train travel in Europe, which is quick, reliable, and much less stressful than driving.

Housing. Our German host university found us campus housing for visiting professors, which proved to be ideal for us because it was furnished and convenient to campus and shopping. While the apartment was only about one-third the size of our own home and the rent was twice what we would have paid back in the States, it was still less than what we would have paid on the open market.

Language. If you are not fluent in the language of your host country, I strongly recommend you hire a tutor/ translator to help you with the numerous arrangements and to provide you with some cultural understanding. It was also particularly helpful to our children to have the private confirmation of the tutor and the access to ask specific questions relating to understanding and social context in the school setting.

Schooling. We planned all along to put our children (ages 6 and 8) in German schools. Although the schools were most cooperative and helpful, it was still a major challenge. Two things that helped us were hiring a German tutor and getting to know other German children and parents in the children’s classes. Initially our daughter was in first grade, but the language and the instruction style (and possibly the teacher) made this a poor fit. We subsequently put her in kindergarten, which worked out very well. We have since learned through German teachers and friends that many German parents wait a year before putting their kids in first grade. Thus, "downgrading" children in international schools may be a wise choice.

Home. It’s also important to keep in touch with the family back home. Our families were supportive, albeit with reservations, about our year abroad, and prearranging telephone time together helped ease their concerns and our homesickness. We quickly learned that it is significantly cheaper for the calls to originate from the United States. Frequent email communications and periodic letters also helped diminish any feelings of isolation.

Professional Activities

I taught one semester-long course and one intensive two-day course during my sabbatical; both in English. For the semester-long course I gave my host university several options to choose from and my geology department colleagues selected Physicochemical Processes for Water Treatment because it was not available on their campus. They saw my course as an opportunity for their students to expand their training and to experience a U.S. course without having to move to the United States.

My 15 students ranged from pre-diplome (junior/ senior) to postdoctorates. I found them to be bright, talented, and very hardworking. They were eager to learn about not only the subject matter but also life in the United States. They were also very open to discussing education and life in Germany. While there were social differences, I found the German students to be quite similar to my U.S. students.

My intensive short course, Surfactant Enhanced Soil Remediation, focused on a technology we are developing at my home university.

My host’s educational and laboratory facilities were excellent and the department was very generous in supporting my activities. Getting back into the laboratory was both rewarding and rejuvenating. It helped me better relate to my research students and allowed me to pursue several areas of interest. I interacted closely with several of the German graduate students and postdocs and was able to contribute to their research. As a result of these collective activities, these students and I are in the process of coauthoring at least two joint research papers and are preparing several joint research proposals. I am confident that new environmental technologies will result from this ongoing collaboration that will benefit both the United States and Germany. My interactions with researchers, practitioners, and governmental agents helped me better understand the European research and business climate and to see the unique opportunity American educators have to participate in the exciting changes occurring in Europe.

Personal Growth

A sabbatical should also be about personal growth, and, in my case, I also wanted my family to grow closer as we experienced the joys and heartaches of moving to another country. We gained a deeper understanding of another culture as we developed relationships with people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds in Germany. Our experience did cause us to grow closer as a family.

I also wanted my children to experience another culture at an early and impressionable age. They were old enough to remember the experience but not so old that transition into a German school was overwhelming. They were both immediately engulfed in German language, as their teachers and the other students did not speak English with them. It took our children about three months to become fluent and several more months to be confident in their conversational skills. Both of them made several good friends. It was fun to watch them play with other children even though initially they were unable to communicate through language. It seems like we adults could learn from their example.

I also wanted to develop our language skills in a foreign setting, to enjoy the natural beauty of Germany and its neighboring countries, and to broaden our perspective on cultural differences. I made significant progress in each of these key areas, although I did not have the time to accomplish everything I had hoped to. Living in Germany greatly expanded our international awareness. Initially, when confronted with differences, we said, "Why do they do it that way?" Now we ask, "Why do we do it that way?" Through interactions and extended discussions with my colleagues, parents of our children’s classmates, and friends from church, we certainly grew in our international awareness and understanding.

My experience at the university was very rewarding. I thoroughly enjoyed interacting both professionally and personally with the professors there. The class I taught was a pleasure, because it fostered student interaction and allowed me to try some of my innovative teaching ideas in another culture. My research activities were especially enjoyable. At my home institution I was basically supervising a group of research students. During my sabbatical I was able to get into the laboratory, do my own research, and work alongside one of my Ph.D. students who was also in Germany. I had time to read and discuss new research areas and topics. The exposure to the geology department helped broaden and deepen my engineering background.

Coming Home

Returning to the United States after almost a year abroad was a culture shock, yes, but the re-entry into the office environment was almost as difficult. Readjusting to the more constant influx of requests and time demands was challenging. As one colleague stated, "You find yourself thinking, how long until the next sabbatical?" Having been forewarned, I’d anticipated this adjustment, although I am not sure it made professional re-entry any easier.

It is wonderful to look back at all we saw and learned together about geography, history, art, and culture. This aspect of education combined with our children’s German fluency also made the year of great educational benefit to them. Both children have been able to re-enter the U.S. public school system at their appropriate grade level without any disadvantage. We all returned to American society with a deeper sense of appreciation of the differences between the United States and Germany. We periodically lapse into the German language, but more frequently miss our friends and the beautiful, more relaxed pace of living we enjoyed there.

We had many and varied hopes and aspirations for our time in Germany, both professional and personal. Most were fulfilled and many even exceeded. While it was not always easy, or fun, it was very, very good.

And I think we will continue to see the fruit from the seeds that were planted. Would we do it again — in a heartbeat!


David A. Sabatini is a professor of civil engineering and environmental science at the University of Oklahoma. He can be reached at sabatini@ou.edu.

Sabatini received his B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1981 and a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Iowa State University in 1989. He was a senior Fulbright scholar at the University of Tuebingen, Germany, during the 1997-98 academic year. 



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