Charlie Xu


Stanford in Berlin, Spring 2017-18
Major: Management Science and Engineering
Minor: Computer Science
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: Me in front of the dome on top of the Reichstag building, which houses the German Bundestag (Federal Parliament)


Why did you choose to study abroad in Berlin?

I chose to study abroad in Berlin because I’m interested in a wide variety of subjects: engineering, politics, music, art, and history, each of which is magnificently interwoven into the culture of Berlin. In addition, the Berlin program provided me the opportunity to live with a host family, which offered me the perfect opportunity to truly experience what it would be like to live in another country.

What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Berlin?

Having never even travelled to Europe (much less Germany) prior to my study abroad experience, I had naturally had some pre-conceived notions on what Berlin would be like. I expected that most people would not know how to speak English, and that they would be rather cold and unfriendly. In addition, I expected that I would have to adapt to a very meat-heavy cuisine.

However, after my arrival in Berlin, these expectations were quickly challenged. Berlin is an extremely cosmopolitan city, and almost everyone I met spoke English (that was far better than my German at the time). Despite the stereotype about Germans, I found Berliners to be very friendly, warm and helpful. Lastly, I learned that, while traditional German food is a bit on the heavy side, Berlin offers a wide plethora of cuisines, from Vietnamese to Turkish to Sudanese.

What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Berlin?

One main academic benefit of studying abroad in Berlin was that through my full immersion in the subjects that I was studying in the program, my learning proceeded at a staggering rate. While my German definitely improved due to my German class, being able to hear, read, and speak German, while ordering food at a restaurant, travelling on the U-Bahn, or interacting with my host family, provided me with a deeper understanding of the German language that I would never have been able to get in the U.S. Instead of just reading about European perspectives on the refugee crisis or the Eurozone in my EU in Crisis class, I was able to attend events with prominent speakers, such as Angela Merkel, enabling me to directly connect what I was learning in class with my real-life experiences and accelerating my learning and understanding of European issues.

Moreover, the structure of the overall program values exploring Berlin and learning out of the classroom just as much as it values in-classroom learning. The program structure helped me improve my time management skills. The desire to see more of Berlin motivated me to plan out my days and be efficient in my work so that I can do well in my classes and explore the city throughout my entire experience.

What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?

I learned that it’s possible to see a lot more and do a lot more than I expect if I plan things well. Given the diversity of things to do in Berlin and in Europe, I knew that I wanted to extract the most out of my time in Berlin. Thoughtful planning and time management enabled me to visit more places and have more cool experiences than I had ever anticipated or experienced before. Indeed, even with a full course load, I was able to visit Munich, Vienna, multiple cities in Switzerland, and of course, a multitude of places in Berlin.

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?

The most challenging experience for me was my weekend trip alone to Munich. I had always gone on trips to places with friends and family. This Munich trip was my first time planning out and going on a full trip by myself from start to finish. Having to travel in a country where I wasn’t completely fluent in the language only further added to my apprehension. However, the trip ended up going well, and I had a great time wandering the streets and museums of Munich all while noshing on traditional Bavarian cuisine. 

This trip taught me how truly important stepping out of my comfort zone is to my personal growth. Despite being literally alone in a foreign environment, I was able to find my way around the city and handle unexpected situations (e.g. getting lost on the way to my hotel) with relative grace and ease. I also learned the virtue of taking time to explore beyond the regular touristy spots (You’ll find some very charming churches in unexpected places in Munich)!

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?

The biggest cultural adjustment for me was definitely the smaller portion sizes in Germany (and in Europe in general), which were most noticeable during dinnertime. In stark contrast to hearty American dinners, traditional German dinners are often very small, usually comprising of bread, butter, cheese, and cold cuts. Although it was at first quite a challenge adjusting my stomach and appetite to fit the situation, I soon learned that it was indeed possible to survive on such portions!

What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Berlin?

Being able to get freshly baked pastries from a bakery every morning and being able to ride Berlin’s fantastic public transportation system! Bakeries are widespread in Berlin, and grabbing a freshly baked chocolate croissant or spinach strudel was a great way to start the morning. In addition, Berlin’s widespread, efficient public transportation system allowed me to explore every nook and cranny of Berlin, be it the heart of the city or the surrounding forests, easily and quickly.

What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Berlin?

My most memorable experience in Berlin was auditing the Contemporary Theater in Berlin class. Each week, we would visit different areas of the city to see plays in German (and, thankfully, with English subtitles). We watched a wide diversity of plays, with some being filled with slapstick comedy and laugh-out-loud humor and others being crushingly serious and dark. Each play enabled me to gain not only a better understanding of German theater, but also German culture as a whole. Moreover, the thought-provoking discussions that we had amongst ourselves after each play also helped deepen my understanding of German contemporary theater and helped make each “play” experience so memorable.

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?

Exploration, U-Bahn, learning, diverse, geil (German slang for “cool”)

Fun Questions:

What was your favorite food you had in Berlin?

Döner kebab (a Turkish-German sandwich invention filled with meat, salad, and a variety of sauces) and Mohnstrudel (a strudel filled with poppy seed paste)

What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?

My Lowa (a top-notch German brand!) hiking boots. These hiking boots were essential in both keeping me moving and keeping me comfortable as I hiked up mountains, trekked through forests, and wandered throughout the city.

What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Berlin?

Das ist Berlin by Endlich August, which captures the essence of what it’s like to be a Berliner. I first heard it at a professional handball game in Berlin, and it’s stuck with me ever since.