Two steps ahead and rubbing shoulders with the best

Ten students from the University of Alabama completed some parts of their engineering studies in Germany as part of the “Two Steps Ahead” program – including internships at Daimler’s Sindelfingen plant.

We are ten students at the University of Alabama who rose to the challenge of completing part of our studies abroad while also working there. Our year abroad in Germany under the auspices of the “Two Steps Ahead” program of the University of Alabama (UA) was the highlight of our studies for an engineering degree.

We had previously studied German for two years — and during our studies at the Esslingen University of Applied Sciences and our internships at the Daimler plant in Sindelfingen we were able to show how much German we still remembered from the course. It was a great start for our careers in the auto industry!

A leap into the unknown

We registered for the “Two Steps Ahead” program even before we had attended our first official courses at the University of Alabama, and even before we had left the comfort of our parents’ homes. Even at first glance, this was a daring step. It meant we would gain a very good grasp of German in only two years, then attend courses taught in German and do an internship at Daimler AG, one of the world’s biggest automakers.

On top of that, we would be the first participants of this program. There were no predecessors to show us how to successfully implement this plan. But we didn’t let that discourage us. The University of Alabama selected a handful of talented American students who wanted to take up this challenge — and we were in that group. All of us had different backgrounds and were majoring in different fields.

Die "Two Steps Ahead"-Gruppe mit den Dekanen des Fachbereichs Ingenieurwissenschaften an der UA

The “Two Steps Ahead” group with the Deans of the Engineering Department at the UA

We spent most of our first two years managing a combination of intense German language training and a heavy workload of engineering courses. And of course we also had to deal with the usual problems and challenges that face all freshmen who are standing on their own two feet for the very first time. In other words, we had to deal with the full program, ranging from the task of designing a five-speed automatic transmission to memorizing the endings of German adjectives, dealing with new housemates, and paying our own bills.

In August 2017, our group of ten students flew to Germany.

Students from the UA at an introductory event of the Esslingen University at Esslingen Castle

Students from the UA at an introductory event of the Esslingen University at Esslingen Castle

Esslingen University

In the first half of our year abroad in Germany, we studied for one semester at the Esslingen University of Applied Sciences in the medieval town of Esslingen, which lies in a picturesque setting between vineyards along the Neckar River. There we sat side by side with our German-speaking fellow students, listening to lectures delivered exclusively in German. In contrast to many professors at our home university, all of our professors in Esslingen had industry experience. Some of them were even co-authors of the textbooks we used in our courses.

At Daimler, I worked together with electric-drive experts to develop prototypes of inverters. Incidentally, my professor for electric motors at the Esslingen University of Applied Sciences, which is a participant of the ‘Two Steps Ahead’ program, has been a member of this team for a long time. I was thrilled to be assigned to this group.

Carter Boyle, Two Steps Ahead member

The German concept of education required us to be strongly committed to designing our own learning experience outside the lectures and taking responsibility for it.  Unlike the requirements at the University of Alabama, no term papers are required during the semester, and the grade for a course depends on a single final exam. That meant quite a lot of pressure for American students, because in my experience they often tend to procrastinate!

In addition to our studies, many of us took advantage of our semester break to get to know Europe better. By contrast to the USA, local public transportation in the EU is extremely fast, inexpensive, and efficient. That makes it possible to visit several countries in one trip without any problems.

It might sound like a cliché, but we were astonished by the fact that the countries of Europe, which lie just as close together as the states in the USA, have such different languages and cultures.  We toured palaces and fortresses that were centuries old, visited historic buildings, and sampled the local cuisine in major cities and in the countryside.

Die Studierenden der UA bei Daimler genießen ihre tägliche Portion Eis

Students from the UA at Daimler enjoying their daily ration of ice cream

The Daimler experience

In the second (and sunnier) half of our year in Germany, we did internships at the Daimler plant in the town of Sindelfingen near Stuttgart. In cooperation with the various departments, the Human Resources team assigned us to units that corresponded to our individual abilities and interests. All of us were able to work with ultramodern prototype technologies in our respective areas of specialization.

J.P. Smith (links) und Max Schrader (rechts) genießen die deutsche Tradition des "Kaffeetrinkens"

J.P. Smith (left) and Max Schrader (right) enjoying the German tradition of “Kaffee und Kuchen”

Some of us even had the opportunity to take “a look at the future” of Mercedes-Benz Cars. We were given special access to the prototype plant, which is part of the development unit where Daimler builds the latest products and prototypes long before they go into series production.

We also gained an insight into the Group-wide initiative “Leadership 2020,” which is driving the transformation of Daimler’s corporate culture. And during a “fireside chat” we also listened to specialists from the Research and Development unit talk about their experiences.

The Human Resources unit at Daimler organized many more informative events for us. For example, some of us received the opportunity to work alongside Daimler managers. Last but not least, we formed contacts with developers who are working on future projects that will be implemented at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa in the years ahead.

[The program] is similar to climbing Mount Everest: When you’re lying on your sofa at home, warm and comfortable, it seems easy, but when you start to climb and feel the effects of the cold and the tremendous effort, most people give up.

– Prof. Bharat Balasubramanian, former Vice President Group Research and Advance Development at Daimler and the current director of the “Two Steps Abroad” program.


I’ve concluded that the “Two Steps Ahead” program was certainly a challenge — the engineering courses in themselves, combined with learning the German language, required a lot of hard work. In addition, there was the integration into a foreign culture, far from our friends and families. It meant that each one of us had to leave our comfort zone.

But ultimately all of this effort was definitely worthwhile.  Our participation in the “Two Steps Ahead” program gave us experiences and insights that were valuable and formative for us as students, engineers, and above all as human beings.  We found out at first hand how language and culture influence the way we study and the way we solve problems. We also found out how products and new technologies are developed in an international company and how to interact with friends and neighbors from other cultures.

Vor dem Kundencenter Sindelfingen

In front of the Customer Center Sindelfingen

Information about the program “Two Steps Ahead”

The former Vice President Group Research and Advance Development at Daimler, Prof. Bharat Balasubramanian, Executive Director of the Center for Advanced Vehicle Technology at the University of Alabama, is the current director of the “Two Steps Ahead” program.  This program was developed in order to further strengthen the connections between education and industry by means of university courses. You can find further information at:

John Paul (JP) Smith is a 21-year-old student at the University of Alabama (UA) and an ambassador of the international student exchange program “Two Steps Ahead.” Together with nine other students, he spent the past year in Germany, where he studied at the Esslingen University of Applied Sciences, completed an internship at Daimler AG, and dealt with the challenges of a multicultural lifestyle in a German-speaking environment.