Stanford in Berlin, Winter & Spring 2014-15
Major: Symbolic Systems
College year while abroad: Junior
Why did you choose to study abroad in Berlin?
Life in Berlin has a reputation for being, above all else, a journey. It was time for my narrative to take on new meanings, and Berlin seemed to offer the most mind-expanding opportunities, in terms of its radical, evocative, and hyper-intellectual nature. I wanted to be overwhelmed with a new sense of the world.
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Berlin?
I expected to have more experiences with students my age, but, once I arrived, it quickly became clear that social scenes are not nearly as stratified by age as they are in the United States. The closest friends I made while abroad were in their thirties. It was a refreshing shift in perspective, but definitely one that required a readjustment of expectations from the social circles I would run in. I had to grow up to be able to keep up.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Berlin?
It’s hard to find an intellectual discipline in which Berlin’s resources do not excel. I personally found refuge in the deep historical and artistic scenes which added a completely new dimension to how I consider the world—I would mention that Berlin excels in imparting experiential knowledge, in the sense that it is first and foremost a place in which one learns by doing. Friends of mine also had incredible experiences digging into the political and engineering realms.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
To name a few brief strains of thought: my place as a global citizen; the reflection of my American identity abroad; the meaning of self-subsistence for me in my own living space; the importance of reflection and introspection in my life; the role of spontaneity in a full and curious life; the essential habit of writing things down.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
I wasn’t able to rely upon my usual methods of therapy or sense of belonging, such as heading to a favorite coffeeshop or restaurant, or walking down the hallway of a Stanford dorm to commiserate with friends. It was a powerful experience in understanding what the meaning of home is, and how it must be actively constructed as you take your life with you around the world.
How was your experience living with local families?
It was exactly what I needed it to be: a home base in the center of the city, as much freedom as I needed, and an immediate link to someone who knew the city very well. My host mother was also from New York, so I had the unique opportunity of comparing my home city with my abroad destination in conversation with someone who had also lived in both places.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
California and Germany have a pretty large gap in the warmth of your average social interaction. Not smiling at people on the street was a surprisingly strenuous and taxing habit to break. People just show their affection much differently over there.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Berlin?
The ability to effortlessly traverse the city with its overwhelmingly consistent public transportation system. Commuting to and from the Stanford Center for classes was a breeze, and exploring a new area of Berlin was available at any moment due to the interconnectedness afforded by the metro.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Berlin?
Watching the sunrise over the Oberbaum Bridge with my closest friends, eating fresh döner after clubbing, mesmerized and soaking in the glorious industrial wasteland of Kreuzberg along the Spree River. A moment of peace and tranquility, a reminder that even the grittiest and noisiest of places have their quiet centers.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
“Don’t forget to go home.”
What advice would you give to someone who was considering studying abroad in Berlin?
Focus on what precisely you are looking for in your abroad experience; nobody knows the “correct place” in which you should study abroad. Berlin is an experiential city, and perhaps the easiest place in the world to feel as if you are “living as history is happening.” If you’re looking for the ultimate breadth of experience, along with plenty of stories to take home, Berlin would be a very solid choice. Make sure you take into account the challenges presented by different cities, though.
If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently?
I would push myself to be as adventurous as possible from the first moment I arrived. I allowed myself some time to get comfortable before pushing myself to explore with every moment I had, and, by the end of the ten-week session, you’re trying to milk every last minute for everything the city has. There’s absolutely no time to waste.
How has the experienced changed or enhanced your future academic and career goals?
Risk-taking and confidence feel much more an integral part of my intellectual vision. The wide and deep array of new experiences, both academic and otherwise, filled me with a sense of autonomy and ownership of my life. I became better at clarifying precisely what I sought in particular classes, surmising in what ways I could best use the resources around me, and finding more ways to be proactive in my education rather than sit back and let it pass me by.
What was your favorite food you had in Berlin?
Schnitzel (veal cutlet), spätzle (potato pasta), and a fine German Pilsner. I’m drooling just thinking about it.
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
My winter coat. Growing up in New York City, I’ve lived through some bone-chilling winter seasons, but those windy Berlin nights gave them a run for their money. California-born students, beware.
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Berlin?
A major dichotomy exists in America between music promoted at raves and in clubs (especially in the “EDM” genre) and styles considered more “sophisticated,” with greater depth and room for artistry. No such distinction exists in Berlin. Music aficionados are as likely to be spotted watching the Berlin Philharmonic as they are to be admired dance-battling dominatrixes in Berghain, the hardest techno club in the world. Techno music is inextricably intertwined with the nightlife in Berlin, a godsend for German electronic music fans who are able to see top music acts for simply a 15€ club cover charge. America can’t really compete on that one.
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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