Robin (RJ) Willscheidt


Stanford in Berlin, Spring 2016-17
Major: Political Science
Minor: Art History
College year while abroad: Sophomore
About the photo: As much as there is to see and do in Berlin, one of the great things about Europe is how easy it is to get around. This was taken on a weekend visit with a friend to the Venice Biennale, which I’d always dreamed of going to. Worth it.


Why did you choose to study abroad in Berlin?

I grew up in Germany and felt like I’d been losing  part of myself during my time in the States. I wanted to come back as an adult—to really engage by living, studying and working in Germany. Berlin was also the logical choice for my major and minor, given its incredible mix of art and politics. The Krupp internship program factored into my decision as well, as it allowed me to extend my time abroad through an internship. The stipend and placement help offered through the program was too valuable to turn down.

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

I expected, rather naively, that Berlin would be like the rest of Germany. It’s not—at all. The city made me adjust my expectations in a lot of ways. One big one was language; I expected to be speaking German with everyone all the time. That was not the case. Everyone in Berlin speaks English, and if you initiate in English or don’t tell them that you want to speak German, people won’t speak it to you. I had to make an effort. Get city advice from your (awesome, I guarantee) German prof! Talk politics with your host parents! Go to Düssman—this HUGE bookstore on Friedrichstraße—and buy a German book! It's easier once you know what to expect in a conversation.

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

Berlin is both a political and artistic hotspot, so I often had the opportunity to practically explore my fields. There was always something going on that I wanted to see. I was literally in the front row for speeches by President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, and Jean-Claude Juncker (the President of the European Commission), went to a talk by one of my legal heroes, human rights lawyer and professor Christopher McCrudden, networked with some amazing alumni, and went to a ton of phenomenal shows and exhibitions, from Monet to Banksy within Berlin and the Münster Skulptur Projekte, Venice Biennale and Kassel Documenta outside the city. These opportunities really made my courses come alive and narrowed down my academic interests and career goals significantly. Experience-based learning is the way to go.

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

I learned that I need to be more spontaneous. Some of my most memorable experiences resulted from split-second decisions to tag along or hop on a U-bahn somewhere. Going to an open-air movie, heading to a jazz club, hiking on a whim—those were what defined my experience. Last weekend, my bosses from the Krupp program spontaneously took a trip to the decennial Münster Skulptur Projekte and invited me along with them. On campus, I’m a constant planner—always stressed. When I jumped in without worrying so much about what was coming the next day, I was so much happier.

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

I had to come to terms with some personal feelings about what it was like to be back in Germany, not having been home in such a long time. I struggled with how far my language had fallen behind, how I hadn’t seen certain family members in many years, and whether or not I could really consider myself culturally “German,” despite my passport legally defining me as such. I had to look inward and check in with myself; to define my experience on my own terms. I gained a lot more self-awareness.

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?

Honestly, given that I grew up in Germany, I was already pretty familiar with German culture. There were some things that I had to remember—like how cold Germans tend to keep their houses, and that you have to wear real pajamas instead of t-shirts—or that had changed. For me, it was less a national culture and more a city culture that I had to adjust to: public transportation, being conscious of my surroundings. Bike-friendly Berlin is a reality now, and the lanes are usually on the sidewalk. Watch your back and beware the red-brick road. Figuring out how to watch SNL (very important), since it’s not available in Germany, was an adjustment, too.

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

Having the freedom to get anywhere in the city by way of public transportation. I spent the latter half of my childhood in a very small town in Utah, so being able to hop on the U or S-Bahn on any given day and do something new--go to a flea/food market to score some baklava, hit up a P!NK concert, head to the middle of the forest (no joke - the U goes there)--was amazing.

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

There were many, but one day that really stands out is when a couple of friends from the program and I went canoeing on the Wannsee. It was the first sunny day in a while. We headed down on the S-Bahn, rented canoes, and rowed around for hours. It was spontaneous and fun--we ate Oreos that someone had brought along, floated around in the middle of the lake singing random songs that we all knew at least some of the words to, and got lost a couple of times. All in all, a fantastic way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?

Ice cream, museums, spontaneous, U-bahn, awe

Fun Questions:

What was your favorite food you had in Berlin?

Strawberries—no question. Karl's dirt-fresh berries are available all over Berlin during berry season—little strawberry-shaped carts in U-Bahns and on sidewalks are your clues—and are the best you can get. They taste like candy. I ate 3 kilos a week.

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

My local library has an e-book lending system and app—it was a godsend on my U-Bahn commutes. I didn’t realize how much time train commutes free up until I was sitting there every day. I read SO many books.

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

Not really a Berlin discovery, but I gained a new appreciation in the city: the Ton Steine Scherben. They're this German pre-Green Day punk rock band that sings a lot about alternative culture in divided Berlin, with songs like “No Power for Nobody.” Fun stuff.