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Why did you decide to study abroad?
My decision to study abroad was really nothing I could have foreseen when I came to Colby as a freshman- I had studied Latin in high school and wasn't too fond of my German classes my first semester. I kept up with the language, however, until the end of my sophomore year. I had never traveled outside the US before (save a childhood trip to Nova Scotia), and decided that going abroad should be part of my college experience. It would be new, challenging, and difficult, and so naturally I was very excited.
How did you choose where to go?
The decision was actually pretty simple to me based on my hopes and requirements for the program. With my language abilities, it had to be a German-speaking country, limiting my choices really to Germany itself or Austria. As a History and Government double major, I then had to look for programs where I could take classes in both areas of study. I heard that both IES's Vienna and Berlin programs would be good fits for this. I also knew that I wanted to live with a host family, and so searched for a program with homestays. Berlin is also clearly a historical and poltical center, and would allow me to visit museums, memorials, and events of interest. The IES Berlin program fit all of these requirements, so it was the one I chose.
Can you briefly describe your program while abroad?
My program consisted first of a month-long orientation program, introducing us to the city, the other American students in the program, an intensive language course, and living in Germany. This was capped off with an awesome week-long "European Capitals Tour" where we visited Vienna, Budapest, and Krakow through the IES program. Because I was a semester student, I couldn't take classes at Berlin's famous Humboldt University, which the IES center was tied too, and so our classes were instead taught by German professors who came to our center to teach. The classes were all in German, and I took a course on German Jewish history, one on German security policy, a post-1989 German film course, and a course mainly designed as field trips to various political events and speakers in Berlin. Many of these classes also included visits to museums and other significant sites in the city. In October we went on another IES-sponsored trip, this time to the eastern city of Dresden. As the program progressed I spent most weekends traveling outside Germany and around Europe while trying to balance homework and projects.
What were some highlights or memorable moments of the experience for you?
Living in Berlin was an awesome experience. For me, the most memorable moments are simply walking around the city and experiencing the clashes of past and present. A Neo-Nazi rally (and anti-Nazi counter rally) shut down the Alexanderplatz in September, Kurdish protestors called in a bomb threat against Turkey's president and ended our opportunity to see him speak the same month, and Iranian protestors hurled insults against the American embassy in October directly in front of the Brandenburg Gate. These events put me at the center of both international and strikingly local politics and debates in a way Waterville never could be. Visits to museums, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and other WWII-Holocaust monuments, remnants of the Berlin Wall, and tours of bunkers and tunnels with the Berlin Underworld organization demonstrated the city's deep connection with its past. These experiences in the city will forever stand out in my mind.
What was your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge I think was trying to fit in to German culture. Americans are always in Berlin, and so whenever I tried to order food or speak with them in German, they'd often respond in English, recognizing my accent, making it more difficult to feel part of the city's fabric. Added to this, I needed to balance time between my American friends in the program, my host family, and my own interests. It was hard to do this and I now wish I had spent more time doing all three of these of course!
How have you and/or your perspective changed after returning from study abroad?
This was my first experience living in an apartment as well as a major city, especially one with as great a public transit program as Berlin, so I think I learned to be a lot more self-confident and self-reliant than I was before, shopping for my own food and not setting foot in a vehicle smaller than a bus for most of those three months. It was interesting to watch the Germans respond to the Republican presidential primary, which many followed closely, and their critical comments about Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry gave me the opportunity to evaluate my own country and its faults. The trip also gave me a great understanding and appreciation of all the people and the countries I visited.
What advice would you give to prospective study abroad students?
First advice is definitely to do this, even if you are nervous, because it will turn out so awesomely in the end. I was very nervous about the program but it turned out to probably be the best and most different experience I've ever had. Following that, make sure you're choosing a program that fits ALL your interests- Berlin worked perfectly for me because it combined my interests in history and politics and allowed me to live with and interact with a host family. You need to choose a program that meets more than just your academic interests, or it won't be one you'll appreciate as fully as another.