German Ink for Duke in Berlin

German Ink for Duke in Berlin

Durham, NC - The Duke in Berlin program offered by the Germanic Languages and Literature department got some high-profile attention this summer in Germany. 

It was the subject of a feature story in Der Tagesspiegel, one of Berlin's most well-respected newspapers. It paints the picture of a program that gives Duke students a true, real-world experience through both classroom work and involvement in clubs, internships and initiatives that immerse students in the community.

A translation of the article follows:

By Sarah Schaschek

Nights in Kreuzberg, wild living in a German dorm? Young Americans who come to Berlin for a semester barely get to know these sides of living in a large city. American elite universities watch over their students studying abroad and provide them with a strict schedule.

If this isn’t a success story: When Thomas Silvers came to Berlin eleven months ago, he could barely order a coffee. Over the course of the year, he took several intensive German courses, two seminars in English, visited Prague and Weimar, traveled home to New York to celebrate Hannukah, and in January he started a six-month internship doing cell research at a firm in Adlershof. During the summer semester, he studied biochemistry and organic chemistry on the side at the Technical University (Technische Universität, TU), this time in German. He recently took the language test that enables him to study full-time in Germany.  Now he’s sitting in the Cafe am Neuen See, a popular beer garden – glasses, tie, high forehead – and refuses to speak a word of English.

It’s the last night of the “Duke in Berlin” program, a type of permanent representation of the American private university in Berlin. As with other universities (like Stanford and the University of California) Duke allows itself an on-site team that tends to the students’, such as Silvers’, stay, all year long. The goal is to integrate them as much as possible into the operations of the Berlin universities and at the same time to fulfill the requirements of the American universities, which primarily send prospective Germanists and engineers.

Silvers’ time in Germany will all count for him. Because the German system is so different from the American University system, the representation in Berlin has worked out a study abroad program that allows students a smooth transition from there to here and back. Franziska Fiebrich, who is currently in charge of 55 University of California (UC) students at the Free University, will convert each individual course that her students take into UC credits within the next few weeks. Duke’s study abroad program in Berlin has such a strict schedule for that same reason. From the host family to the trip to the theater, nothing is left to chance here.

Thomas Silvers is 21 years old. He expects top marks on the language test, like most of the people here at the table. The organizers are proud that their fosterlings often perform above average, but that’s no coincidence. Silvers is used to a heavy workload. He’s in Berlin to study and to work, not to be subjected to the peculiarities of German libraries and to live the dorm life in Kreuzburg for half a year. To be able to participate in “Duke in Berlin,” he went through and passed multiple stages in the application process together with students from Harvard and Cornell, who also use Duke as a contact point.

That several universities come together to send their students to Berlin has to do with two contradictory developments. On the one hand, the attractiveness of the German language is shrinking in the US. “Now we’re competing with Spanish and Chinese,” says Jochen Wohlfeil, who opened the Duke branch at the end of the 1980s, back then with six students.  Though the program is supposed preserve its familiar atmosphere, Wohlfeil is flying to the US in the fall to advertise for the location.

One Semester in Berlin costs $25,000

On the other hand, American universities are working on preparing their students for the international market. Over and over again you hear the phrase “pressure of globalization.” The vocabulary being handled here is vividly economic. Though a stay abroad is even more expensive than studying on American ground, the American Institute for Foreign Study (AISF) says, on its website, that nowadays you “can’t afford” not going abroad. Because planning a stay like this is so time-consuming, the universities offer their students an all-around service. For this purpose, NYU Berlin operates a dormitory and offers almost all its courses in English.

In Germany, where personal effort and cultural friction are considered a part of the international experience, “island programs,” as the American branches were traditionally called, are greeted with smiles. The army of supervisors (sometimes even their own professors fly along with them), that absolute consistency: No one really understands why someone would want to spend a year abroad, so isolated. And no one here in Germany can that people pay $25,000 for a semester at a university like Duke.

Robin Curtis, who had given film classes at NYU in Berlin until the spring, is really familiar with this critical German perspective. She doesn’t find American isolationism unproblematic, but she also appreciates the advantages of the island. She came to Berlin from Canada on her own in 1986 to study German. “Sure, I really learned German thanks to all of that organization,” she says.  But because she had to manage everything herself – from her residence permit to matriculation – she “practically wasn’t a student at all” during her first half year.

NYU, Duke, and above all the University of California have responded to the critique and also offer classes at the Berlin universities. But Curtis also says that the study abroad programs offer a level of support that “German universities could only dream of.” When she discussed the concept of home in German film with her class, 15 students listened to her, attentive, eager to debate. “Oxford Standards.”

Support also means a math course is created if a student needs a few more credits in math.  Curtis knows because she has a colleague who teaches one single student  – an awesome experience, for the scholar, too. Thomas Silvers experienced something similar when he realized last fall that he still needed an internship. During the farewell dinner (Flammkuchen and traditional German potato soup) he shares that Jochen Wohlfeil only needed one single call to get him a position in Adlershof.

Original article in print and online in the Berlin Der Tagespiegel