Stanford in Berlin, Winter 2016-17
Major: Mathematical and Computational Science
Minor: German Studies
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: Taking a water break on a mountain ridge near Lenggries, Bavaria.
Why did you choose to study abroad in Berlin?
I had visited Berlin more or less on a whim two years before and was amazed at the energy of the place. Culturally it felt like the most modern place I had ever seen. (Still does.) It seemed to me like a city ruled by its youth, totally accepting of and accessible to anyone willing to explore. I knew I had to spend more than a couple weeks there. So when I got back to Stanford I decided to shop a German class. I enjoyed it a lot and kept at it, and now I'm here trying to decide if I want to move to Germany!
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Berlin?
Because of my earlier visit I had a rough idea of what to expect from the city, but of course there was and is still much to learn. On the topic of language, I think I assumed that since I was going in with a couple quarters of German under my belt the city would just throw opportunities at me, which really isn't the case. The barriers only really went down when I pushed myself to speak the language and stopped worrying about screwing up, which I found a lot tougher than learning verb conjugations or adjective endings. Another thing was the financial side -- our cash allowance seemed like it would be more than enough at the beginning, but adding on travel and incidental expenses I found that I had to create and stick to a budget pretty quickly. I highly recommend cooking a few meals per week at the Center with friends!
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Berlin?
Since the course selection in Berlin is limited compared to the dizzying expanse of ExploreCourses, it's a great chance to dive into topics which may not otherwise dominate your schedule and to discuss them with classmates from a wide range of backgrounds. For me this meant taking a class in German film and another in EU politics, both of which I found really rewarding, and Berlin was an amazing classroom for both.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
Mostly good things. Probably the most important for me was seeing a whole bunch of examples of how I found myself in new scenarios and navigated them without too much trouble, which has helped me worry less about uncertainty. I learned a lot about the process of making friends. Eventually I was delivered a lesson in the importance of adequate sleep and healthy eating, mostly through negative example.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
Probably the morning of my flight to Budapest. After 1 or 2 hours of bad sleep I had hardly any time to pack and get myself to the faraway Schönefeld Airport (the worst airport in the world™!). Thanks to a missed train and mysterious delays at the airport I barely made it, and when I arrived in Budapest I was exhausted with 0 Forint and 0 plans. Of course I figured something out and it ended up being one of the best weekends of my quarter. This was one of the best reminders I got about how uncertainty can be fun and rewarding instead of just scary and stressful.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
Before junior year I had lived in one or two sorta-urban environments for a sorta-extended period of time, but nothing even approaching the concrete ocean of Berlin. Finding some sort of home in such a densely populated area was a new experience for me. Crowding into trains and buses all the time, living directly above a bar, and feeling that eyes were constantly on me on the street were all strange at first, but I got used to them. In a way the suburban-to-urban transition was more significant than the American-to-German transition -- Berlin is a super-international place anyway, and the only criterion for being a "real Berliner" is living there.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Berlin?
I came to really value my morning commute. I lived in Kreuzberg, a relatively central neighborhood far from the Stanford center, so I had a good 45 minutes to kill on the U-Bahn each morning. I would grab myself a croissant or something, read the American news, (try to) read the German news, and do the occasional crossword on my phone, all the while taking several breaks for people-watching (which is excellent on Berlin public transit). Walking from the train station to the center provided a nice meditative transition to the start of my day.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Berlin?
For some reason, probably a rainy Saturday I spent aimlessly wandering alone around my neighborhood. I poked around record shops and community centers, ate 3 or 4 Euros of Sudanese food while talking to the owner about his life in my then-kindergarten-level German, listened to a history of Berlin street punk from a British guy with face tattoos, wandered around Turkish food markets, and walked home with a bag of records and strange candy under my raincoat. If I had to put Berlin in a 12-hour nutshell, it would be that one.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
Radical, international, sleepless, shared, brief.
What was your favorite food you had in Berlin?
Club Mate (pronounced "mah-teh"). Technically a drink, in particular a lightly carbonated tea extract thing, but for me it was at least as important as food. Tastes kind of bad at first but after a while you start to like it (hipster cred!) -- and in my case, also to depend on it. Sadly imports to the US are expensive so I'm gonna have to figure out how to brew it myself.
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
Thermal leggings and a down jacket -- all black, of course. Those wintertime walks to the train station can be pretty cold. California natives beware!
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Berlin?
There are too many. Berlin is absolutely overflowing with great music, from solo piano concerts to 60-hour techno parties. The names of most of the great tunes I heard and the artists who made them (and sometimes even the DJs who played them) were lost in anonymity. But in a way that makes the memories even better.
Every Stanford undergraduate should give serious consideration to studying overseas.
Regardless of the academic path you choose, you will be enriched by time spent in another country. Achieving cultural literacy and gaining substantive understanding of other perspectives in the world will deepen your awareness of yourself, your educational goals, and your own society. Nearly one-half of each graduating class studies abroad through one of Stanford's overseas programs.
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