ERP STUDENT PROGRAM 2018
July 1-21, 2018
Fifteen American Journalism Students in Germany: Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig.
Nicole Browning, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, KY
Often burdened by my own uncertainty, I have had my struggles coming to terms with my choice to study journalism and German at my university, and struggled even more trying to decide if this was something I wanted to do long term. It wasn’t a lack a passion that had me doubtful, but rather that I had found myself caught in a loop; I was in a cycle of homework, day-to-day stress, playing my role as News Editor for the school paper, and essentially limping through university with no color, ambition or fire behind my actions. I looked forward to the RIAS Berlin program as a momentary opportunity to catch my breath and revisit my roots–the reason I had fallen in love with journalism and German culture in the first place.
When I arrived in Berlin, I was freshly burnt out on traveling because I had spent the whole previous semester in England and had been traveling around Germany for a month already. Despite my low energy levels and low funds, I was determined to make these three weeks count and absorb the journalism landscape in Germany. And through this program and what it gave me–an opportunity to see the journalism climate and how it functions in Germany, an understanding of the history of the Cold War in Germany, as well as the personal struggle victims of war go through, and close connections with fellow American journalists on the program–I was able to relight this fire and drive that had seemed to be lost.
My first incredibly surreal moment in Berlin happened just after our first meeting as a group on the Sunday we arrived. We were walking to the beer garden, Cafe am Neuen See, when we ran into reporters sitting outside the CDU building waiting to report on the apparent government crisis. I felt like a starstruck teenager as I watched the journalists on the job in amazement, hoping that one day that might be me. There were many moments in the coming three weeks like this, in which we had the privilege of being up close and personal with journalists in the area; it was encouraging to see these people at work. For them, it was an ordinary day, but for us, it was somehow both foreign and familiar.
These journalists invited us in and shared their stories with us, making them easy to relate to but also exciting and mysterious as we learned about their day to day lives at work.
There were far too many interesting and impactful cultural and political learning experiences in Berlin to count. When I think about those experiences that will change me for years to come, it’s the ones that exemplified some struggle due to a broken political system that resonate with me the most. It’s learning about people who dove through feces to escape East Berlin through the tunnels, and the elderly people who were left behind and decided to build their own tunnel instead.
It’s hearing Kani Alavi talk about trying to integrate himself into West Berlin without really understanding the meaning behind the wall.
And it’s seeing the same Iranian immigrant finally realize that the wall meant separation–and seeing him relish in the faces of thousands of ecstatic Berliners when that separation finally ended. And seeing that a piece of history–the East Side Gallery–was standing right before us while a living, breathing artifact of such an iconic moment stood and shared his mural with us.
It’s learning about the Syrian refugee’s experience coming to Germany that, though decades after the former GDR prisoner’s attempted escape, left me with the same raw feeling in my stomach as I tried to comprehend the pain these people went through. These people were let down by their governments and sought refuge; these people felt pain and they carry stories that will remain relevant in the coming years as we navigate the troubling world of today’s politics; most importantly, these people felt pain that we could all relate to and pain that keeps their stories alive.
While meeting all these people who are so important to history and to the beautiful art of storytelling impacted me beyond belief, there was nothing compared to meeting fourteen fellow aspiring journalists who were my age and shared my dream, but with their own little twist. I was thrilled when I watched Shayne (who had been quietly watching during each of our meetings) connect with the Cosmo Radio crew and score herself an internship. Among all the friendships made and all the happiness we were privileged to share together, one memory sticks out in particular as I think about a compact, short, crazy, lively three weeks I spent in Berlin. A group of us went up to Viktoriapark to watch the sunset and enjoy a few beers and snacks. Little did we know, the hike up to the top of the hill was nothing short of exhausting, but once we got to the top little seemed to matter as we took in the fresh summer air and watched the life of the city below us. We sat on the hill in the park and shared our memories, hopes and fears. One of the group, Nick, told us what he put in his application essay for the program. Always wanting to be a sports announcer, Nick said he used to play sports video games and mute the volume, and then do the announcing himself. As we all rejoiced in his passion that seemed to start at a very young age, he stopped and said, “I just realized I’m really going to miss you guys when we go home.” It was in that moment that I understood how much of an impact we had all made on one another, and in that moment I felt the melancholy that comes with making new friendships. The leaving part.
Life is all about relationships; it’s about how you relate to something else in this world. It was through the RIAS program that I was able to make all these relationships–the relationship between the journalists we met with and myself, between (an even more broadened) idea of German culture and myself, between the history of Germany and myself, and between all the friends I met along the way and myself. This spider-webbed network of relationships allowed me to broaden my horizons and connect with the rest of the world. When I’m working for the newspaper back at my university in Kentucky, there are so many valuable and impactful experiences to be had, but it’s easy to get stuck in the windowless, dark, secluded newsroom and forget about why you started as a journalist. It was through all the laughter, stress, tears and stories gained along the way that I remembered.
Gabrielle Calise, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
Three weeks. Four German cities. Forty-six appointments. And of course, an uncountable amount of train rides taken, rolls of bread consumed and new friends met along the way.
It’s been one month since I returned from my student exchange program to Germany with the RIAS Berlin Kommission. After finishing a journalism degree from the University of Florida just a few months prior, I was excited to meet with fourteen other students and recent graduates to experience Germany.
Half of the itinerary was devoted to networking with journalists, and the other half was filled with cultural experiences related to the Cold War. Based in Berlin, we spent most of our time meeting with professional journalists at radio stations and television studios. The weeks were packed with lectures, Q&As and networking dinners. We toured historic spots in between meetings, from wandering through a chilly, damp network of tunnels underneath the city to climbing to the roof of the defunct Tempelhof Airport.
The program also included trips outside of the capital. We ventured to Cologne on a high-speed train to meet university students and visit newsrooms in the west. Our last week featured a stop in Leipzig, where we met with an expert on right-wing extremists in South Germany and toured the church where Bach used to perform. We also spent a half-day in Potsdam with Barbara Richstein, a politician in the Brandenburg State Parliament.
Our schedule was packed tighter than a bus full of tourists headed to the Brandenburg Gate. But we still found pockets of free time to experience Berlin. I haggled for a vintage jacket at Mauerpark, moshed at a punk show in Kreuzberg and gobbled down döner kebabs at every opportunity. I got used to the lack of air conditioning and grew to love the taste of sparkling water. I tried to talk in a quiet, library-appropriate mumble on the train instead of shouting. I arrived to meetings on time.
Our program coordinators also made sure we arrived to meetings well prepared. Before leaving America, we were quizzed on Germany’s history and politics, down to the colors and possible coalition combinations for the six parties. We were given a hefty list of books and films to finish before coming to Berlin. After we arrived, we spent train rides and lunches brushing up on the backgrounds of the speakers we were about to meet. The preparation helped us discuss trends in communication and transatlantic relations with everyone from local students to politicians including U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell.
Throughout the trip, I noted several key differences between journalism at home and abroad. German public media outlets are sustained by a mandatory fee that each household with a television must pay. Most American journalists rely on Twitter, while Germans like WhatsApp. German audiences have a voracious appetite for foreign news compared to Americans, who tend to largely focus on local and national happenings.
Some highlights: Innovation can be found in newsrooms across Germany. Cologne-based broadcaster RTL employs a digital team to experiment with new storytelling platforms, from Google Home apps to smart fridges. Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild, has a house in Los Angeles that hosts cohorts of editors for three months at a time. This allows them to take advantage of the different time zone and edit German news that breaks overnight without having to become nocturnal. Finally, radio station WDR, which calls itself “the sound of the world”, has programs to help refugees integrate and fills 75% of its broadcast with music from other countries.
Now for the unfortunate realizations from the trip: Fake news and wavering levels of trust in the media are problems that plague German journalists, too. Rising extremism and safety for journalists were recurring themes throughout the meetings. President Trump’s attitude regarding the press was also a hot topic.
The upside of experiencing the same pitfalls on both sides of the Atlantic? We don’t have to deal with these problems alone. The meetings and tours showed me that journalists from both nations are eager to bond over our shared hardships and open to brainstorming solutions.
Some of the ideas that German journalists have come up with are things Americans can adopt at home in our own newsrooms. For example, WDR includes a daily segment to share good news in order to reduce distrust and negativity that people feel towards the media. The station reports on positive stories big and small, from increases in the butterfly population to new discoveries. I also learned about the increasingly popular concept of constructive journalism, an idea from Denmark that offers solutions to problems instead of just reporting about them. And of course, being as transparent as possible helps.
I knew that our country’s histories and current affairs are deeply intertwined (walls and immigration continue to be big themes for us both!) But visiting sites where famous chapters of history played out made the similarities of the past and present feel so much more stark. What emphasized this most of all was meeting with witnesses to these chapters in history: A man who was interrogated and imprisoned by Stasi officers. A former translator for rock stars that played in communist East Germany. A Syrian refugee who only made it to Berlin after multiple failed escape attempts. Spending time with these people reminded me of humanity’s capability for evil as well as bravery. It also reaffirmed the importance of the work we do as journalists — stories must be told to remember what we’ve been through, and for us to learn from the past.
So where does this leave me now? After four weeks back at home, my routine is back to normal. (Well, as normal as the life of a recent college graduate can be). I’m back to commuting to my internship in my old Honda Civic instead of zooming around Germany’s capital inside those crowded banana-yellow trains. I spend the days pushing out breaking news at the local paper instead of trying to decipher German words spoken in the supermarket. I’m sending texts to my new friends from the trip instead of meeting for drinks with them in a beer garden.
But I’m still talking about Germany every day. About the people I met. The places we visited. The problems we face together in both countries, and the ways we can work together to improve things.
I’m also still keeping up with about foreign news on a daily basis, and brainstorming story ideas that I’d like to pursue when I return. Now that I have a broader understanding of the media landscape in Germany and the support of the RIAS network, my lifelong dream of reporting abroad seems possible. And after a wonderful three weeks with this program, I already can’t wait to come back to Berlin again.
Rose Carr, Western Washington University Bellingham, WA
The RIAS Student Fellowship excels in its ability to create a knowledgeable and professional program focused around student journalists who are entering into their career. For three weeks you will attend meetings, tours and visit historical sights – pertinent to the Cold War. You will have the rare ability to see Berlin unlike anyone else, alongside a group of your own American journalist peers from around the country. During this time, I found it to be utterly surreal that I had an all access pass to some of the top broadcasters and producers in Germany. RIAS is a perfect opportunity for those interested in international broadcasting, foreign relations or foreign correspondence. The networking opportunities with the professional journalists and broadcasting stations is incomparable. This program benefitted me in more ways than one.
I was lucky enough to network with Nadja from n-TV. Although things are still in the works, she spoke with me about internship opportunities. There is potential for me to intern for two to three weeks with their video production and editing team. This is a connection I look forward to pursuing.
I can’t say enough how amazing it was to connect with fellow U.S journalists – many whom I hope to work with in the future. Learning how to network alongside fellow peers was incredible and being able to process together information learned from a particular meeting was also very helpful. To this day I continue to hold relationships with the other fellows. It would have been a completely different trip if those 14 other students weren’t there with me.
This fellowship is one I will remember forever and cherish. I learned about German politics, culture and language – and even more about myself and what kind of journalist I want to be.
The RIAS program is that of excellence and I hope that anyone who is even slightly interested – apply immediately.
Emily Damm, TAMU, College Station, TX
As a student of communication and political science, the three weeks of the RIAS program provided a huge amount of real world relevance. In my application essay, I wrote about my desire to immerse myself in a new culture and better understand the importance of communication work in the international and political science community. RIAS succeeded in both of those goals.
With every visit to a studio, we were reminded of the phenomena of “fake news” and the distrust surrounding media outlets. Many of the journalists are themselves struggling with the best ways to respond. Through the open dialogue with journalists, we were also able to explore the rise of extremist political views. Many of the journalists we met were struggling with how to cover extremists without giving them a platform. I think many American outlets are grappling with this, as well.
It was surprising to me to learn how the German people value art and that the government helps it flourish with dedicated funding. In my own experience, funding for fine arts programs in U.S. public schools is the first to be eliminated in a budget crunch. On our very first day in Germany, we were able to see this appreciation for the arts with a visit to the State Opera and a tour of the East Side Gallery with Kani Alavi. The East Side Gallery was a major highlight for me. It was nice to see something that was such an ugly part of history be transformed into a memorable piece of art with messages of hope and love. We were able to learn more about Germany’s musical legacy through a tour of the Bach museum while in Leipzig. Other cultural experiences included a boat trip to see Glienicke bridge and the former airport Tempelhof. One cultural experience that I will remember vividly is watching the World Cup final between France and Croatia while at a beautiful biergarten.
We spent three weeks learning more about Germany’s history and life in the GDR through various tours: the Stasimuseum, the Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen, and “Unterwelten” escape tunnel. On our last day, we met Peter Keup, a contemporary witness to life in the GDR. Peter shared with us his struggle of trying to flee the GDR, capture and imprisonment, eventual sale to West Germany for his freedom, and attempt to find healing. His strength and simultaneous vulnerability was inspiring and heartbreaking. The opportunity to hear Peter’s life story really illustrated to me that what seems like a distant, historical event is, in fact, some people’s current and real reality. It became clear that the pain inflicted on people from the GDR cannot be fully understood from assigned readings or museum tours; putting a face and a personal story with these educational experiences made history come alive and have current impact. I know that from hearing his story, I will be forever changed.
Another impactful RIAS experience was the Neukölln tour and visit with Firas Zakri, a Syrian refugee. Peter Keup’s discussion of his desperation to leave the GDR was echoed in the tales of the Syrian refugees. Zakri spoke candidly about his harrowing journey from Aleppo, Syria, to Berlin. Specifically, he talked about the desperation he felt. He knew he needed to get his family out of Aleppo, but that meant leaving them for an unknown amount of time as well as risking death. Firas challenged all of us to consider what we would do if we were in his life situation at the time. While he has found a somewhat happy ending through his survival and reunion with his family, I struggle to think how we, as humans, can be satisfied thinking that is enough. In America, the current administration is jailing and separating families seeking asylum. After speaking with Peter and Firas, I am even more outraged by this practice. I fear the damage that the practice will have on the asylum-seekers, as well as the ripple effect it will have on America. These questions will haunt me and shape my future research.
From an academic perspective, I feel that the RIAS program -46 events packed into 21 days- has provided a foundational understanding of German culture and politics. This ‘framing’ will better inform my academic research and future professional work. Germany is no longer a distant country that I know only through my ancestry and history books. Rather, it is a place filled with real people who strive to move beyond the mistakes of history to create a beauty-filled and compassionate present; a place of adventure, laughter, and friendship.
Nick Derberbian, State University of New York at Oswego, NY
For a student who had never been abroad before, this experience was more than I could have ever imagined. Not only was I able to develop a different perspective of how the broadcasting industry is in Germany, go in depth of the Cold War and how it was like to live while the wall was up, but I was also able to create fourteen new friendships that RIAS made possible. To see the difference between Europe and the United States with the industry was one thing in itself, but to see other students in all around the United States to share different stories was incredible.
Going into this experience I was incredibly nervous. I was traveling alone. I’ve really only talked to the other students over a group message for the past weeks leading up to the trip so I didn’t know if I was really going to be able to stand all three weeks sane.
Before I go further into my RIAS experience I want to thank Erik, Isabell, James, and Lisa for making this a great trip and educational experience that I truly will never forget.
When I checked the itinerary, I was very overwhelmed to be honestly. But each day I was getting more familiar with the city and loving each stop that was scheduled. My focus has been sports broadcasting since middle school so when Erik told us that he was going to be able to squeeze in a visit from Jürgen Klinsmann I almost couldn’t believe it. The conversation we had with him is one that stuck with me throughout the trip. Talking about the differences in upbringing with young athletes really determines one’s path. In Europe, football (soccer) is life to people, they breathe and wear their team on their sleeve. Here in America, they’re die-hard fans, but not everyone is really showing their pride like the Europeans. He also talked about how his son had to make a decision with what sport he should play to advance into college for a possible scholarship. When he told this story I immediately related because playing baseball in college was a possibility for me and ultimately, I had to make the decision of whether or not I wanted to continue. Sports to some are a way to continue life and make it a profession, for others it’s a way to get away from a job and relax. Klinsmann and I were going back and forth because I had so many questions. He really put sports into perspective for people because for some it’s their entire life surrounding it.
Having the trip not only focus on broadcast journalism and visiting different stations of television and radio was probably the most elevating part. As great as it was to see newsrooms and get on different sets of television, learning the unbelievable history that Berlin had to show and what I’ve learned for a short part of high school, seeing that first hand was breath taking. Touring the Stasi camp after reading Stasiland was such a fulfilling experience. We were THERE! The descriptions in the books and then being there and seeing it with your own eyes was something else.
Overall, being able to say that I “lived” in Berlin, Germany for three weeks of my life is an experience I will share with so many. Being able to go off and explore was another great privilege that RIAS was able to give the students that were a part of this group.
I would also like to give a huge shout out to fellow RIAS Alum Michael Gargiulo. Without his prior experience, I would never have been able to connect with the group of amazing individuals and now be part of this amazing alumni network.
Leighty Hanrahan, Universtity of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
As a student currently pursuing degrees in Political Science, German, and International Studies, the RIAS Berlin Commission’s three-week undergraduate exchange could not have been more enriching of an experience. We were fortunate enough to arrive during one of the most turbulent political happenstances in recent German history, which only bolstered our curiosity of what the three-week exchange would entail. This exchange encouraged us to also stay updated on German news and inform ourselves of the German political system, as the importance of this central-European country quickly grew apparent even in our first few hours in Berlin. I also learned, that as inquisitive as we grew about the German political and affairs, the Germans that we encountered at our separate appointments mirrored our interests, but only regarding the current U.S. political climate. “What is going on over there?” is a question that frequented these meetings, which conjured among my fellow RIAS undergraduates a range of emotions. This caused us to not only reflect upon our surroundings in Berlin, but to also reflect upon the apparent astronomical impact that our current U.S. administration has on the world.
The exchange provided an equipoise of activities relating to politics, journalism, history, and the arts. I originally had expected our appointments regarding contemporary politics to largely pique my interest on the exchange. Of course, meeting Peter Beyer at the German Foreign Ministry and Ambassador Richard Grenell at the US Embassy proved inspiring, as I aspire to on day work as a Foreign Service Officer and/or for the Department of State. But I was surprised to discover that my favorite meeting on the RIAS Exchange was with Mr. Kani Alavi. Kani is the German-Iranian artist and was a key figure in the creation of the East Side Gallery. He told us not only the origin of his mural, but also his life story. I found both to be extremely riveting and, especially on the first full day on the exchange, it allowed me to formally contextualize and feel the weight of Berlin’s momentous (but convoluted) history. I was so captivated by all that Kani’s stories offer, as both a testament to Berlin’s artistic culture as well as an assurance towards its future. After this first day, I met with Kani on a few other occasions when we had free time. My fluency in the German language allowed me to communicate with him, as he did not speak much English. My meeting with him now causes me to entertain the idea of writing my Honor’s Thesis for the German Major about Kani and the East Side Gallery, and I am hoping next summer to return to Berlin to learn more about him.
Samarie “Shayne” Hill, Hillsborough Community College, Ybor City, FL
Flying overseas. Visiting a crypt. Using chopsticks. Being pick pocketed. Who knew that a summer trip to Germany would be filled with so many firsts for me? For the majority of my life, any inquiry into my childhood in Florida would lead back to almost the exact same response. What’s your hometown like? Eh, small. Is it famous for anything? Being boring. What’s fun to do around there? Absolutely nothing. I was a restless sort of kid growing up, perpetually caught up in daydreams about the world I was fairly certain existed outside of the home I’d always known, but could never be sure of. I knew that there was more to life than what I’d yet seen; so I went to Berlin with a bad case of FOMO, but with an extra E on the end because what I really feared was missing out on everything. Those first few days of the RIAS program were a whirlwind, marked by a feeling that can only be described as equal parts heady freedom and extreme jet lag. Berlin is a city of perplexing juxtapositions. Modern above ground trains drop off busy passengers at stops where pre-World War II buildings that have been beautifully restored cast shadows. Sitting in the middle of a restaurant, a waiter approaches with a greeting in German only to see the look of apprehension on my face and switch to flawless English as naturally as breathing. But the most menacing juxtaposition came in the form of cement blocks stacked almost double my height in the heart of Berlin.
At the end of our first week with RIAS, we took a tour of the Berlin Wall Memorial that had been erected in place of the now mostly destroyed Berlin Wall. Tall metal bars stood next to the protected pieces of the original wall that still exist, following the demarcation line that once separated Berlin into two different worlds. Children ran the length of the memorial, slipping between the bars like fish through wet hands. Seeing this, it was difficult to believe that less than 30 years ago this was impossible. Our tour guide led us through the former “death strip” of the German Democratic Republic or GDR, the no-man’s land where attempted escapes would be met with a series of booby-traps that would not have been out of place in your average horror movie. As our guide detailed the brutality of the East German regime, my heart sank lower and lower, finally coming to a rest somewhere beside my feet. Looking at the memorial, it wasn’t so hard to imagine it in all its deadly glory and I couldn’t seem to get this one thought totally out of my head: I didn’t expect it to be so…big. We’d read about the backstory of the Berlin Wall before coming; I knew all about the division of the city between the Four Powers, The GDR’s determination to stop the brain flow, the many standoffs between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the paranoia of the Stasi. But reading about the people who rebelled against their Communist state and actually seeing the pictures of the dead attempted escapees commemorated forever alongside the wall that was their downfall brought the inhumanity of the whole business into stark relief. On that day, I began to think about the walls surrounding my own life.
Before visiting Berlin with RIAS, politics seemed to me like an endless game of telephone, rife with miscommunications and heresy. Even after meeting with several politicians in different cities, the term transatlantic relations didn’t begin to take on a new meaning for me until I got a glimpse of Germany’s favorite past-time. In the middle of a bar plucked straight from the Middle Ages, I was trying to decipher a menu of German delicacies when a roar rose up all around me. A crowd of people had just cheered at the flat screens displaying England’s opening goal against Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. I’d never quite understood the world’s obsession with soccer; in the U.S. we worshiped a different sort of football. But the longer I sat in that bar, the more I watched the faces of the crowd cycle through crushing disappointment and exuberant joy, the more I began to understand something. Soccer means everything to Germans, in the same way that we all have something we love. In order to appreciate another culture you have to immerse yourself in it, right there with its people. In that moment, I began to see soccer as a metaphor for all of the little misunderstandings that build barriers between people of different lands. The only way to combat that is to step outside of yourself and see others as they are, even if it takes crossing an ocean to do so.
Berlin is the greenest city I’ve ever seen, so it seems only natural that I should grow while I was there. At the suggestion of another RIAS student I began to write down all of the things I tried for the first time in Berlin, and it became a sort of mission to fill the list with as many items as possible. First, there was the food. Beef doner from the Turks. Tempura at Thai Park. Kolsch beer in Cologne. Baklava from a Syrian bakery. T4. In three weeks, hardly any dish was consumed twice. Then, there were the random adventures probably common among most Germans, but totally novel for me. Getting lost at the train station and making friends with the kind strangers who pointed us in the right direction. People watching in the tourist districts, laughing appreciatively at their selfie postures and trying to blend in with the locals. Attempting to hail cabs in the Leipzig sunshine, staring in disbelief as the drivers zoom past waving sarcastically. One of my favorite moments had to be riding a rickety beach cruiser across Tempelhoff Airport, the site of the 1948 Berlin Airlift, now used as a park of sorts. I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was about twelve, so although it doesn’t count as a first, as the wind whipped my braids back from my face I thought that it was the first time in so long that I had felt so free.
Germans developed this saying after reunification: Mauer im Kopf or “The wall in the head.” It was used to describe the attitude of Germans who still lived divided and harbored prejudices even though the physical Berlin Wall had fallen. There are many events in her past that I’m sure Germany is eager to forget, yet Berlin is full of memorials dedicated to remembering indiscretions and all of the German journalists we met during the program felt an incredible responsibility to tell their people the truth. Berlin’s determined to live her best life despite hardships, and this above all was what inspired me the most. I didn’t want to live behind walls of my own making. During my summer in Berlin, I was offered an internship at an awesome radio station during our stint in Cologne, copped some classic albums at an outdoor flea market and met an amazing assortment of RIAS alumni who were all nice enough to take selfies with us. Like I said, I grew. So for anyone considering taking a trip abroad with the RIAS folks, know that you’ll grow too. It’s kind of a Berlin thing.
Dolores Hinckley, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
I often think the most valuable thing I as a journalism student can gain is access to professionals. RIAS did just that in spades, and grew me more as a person, a journalist and citizen of the world than I could have expected. From print/digital, television, radio and everything in between, we met German and correspondent journalists every day, and gained an incredible insight in what it means to live and work in this country. But more than meeting journalists, we met Germans of every background. Ones that lived through the realities of Stasi surveillance and life on one side of the wall, and others who had no notion of East-West divides but felt their own limitations by their country of birth. The experience of being German was different to everyone I talked to, from Mayor Walter Momper to Kani Alavi, one of the East Side Gallerie painters. But nonetheless I often saw a similar commitment to democratic ideals, and the overall idea of Germany as a place where one can thrive.
In my month in Germany, sometimes big moments of learning came discreetly. Branching outside of Berlin, I understood how certain divisions in German-American relations form, all by just a small instance during one of our visits. It wasn’t until visiting the Runde Ecke Stasi museum in Leipzig that the NSA surveillance scandal from a few years back really clicked in my brain. The tour guide had mentioned how many Germans, particularly East Germans, have fake Facebook names. She explained this is owed to their reverence for privacy and distrust for data-devouring social media networks. The total outrage of the German people after the NSA scandal broke made much more sense. Germans knew what it meant to be tracked, recorded and analyzed. They did not want it to happen again.
As a broadcast student, there are few times left in my career that encourage me to deep-dive into history unattached to a reporting assignment. The chance to immerse myself in the Cold War and World War II, and then see it played out through the eyes of the citizen, the politician and the journalist while in Berlin, was an incredible experience I am so thankful for. It has affirmed my desire to tell people’s stories, and ignited a fiercer commitment to understand the historical context those stories live in. In the bomb shelters and aerial views of Tempelhof and the cells of Hohenschönhausen, I learned about the hard-fought struggle to democracy and freedom. In the halls of the Reichstag, the American Embassy and the Federal Foreign Office, I learned just how crucial the US-German relationship has been, is and always will be.
Before this trip, I understood Berlin and its country to be a place that functions successfully by that natural German inclination toward efficiency. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The democratic, peaceful and thriving life of Germany was purchased with much struggle and hardship. Those pains of the past are motivations to improve and thrive in the future. I see that drive to the future mirrored in my own country. German journalists increasingly face the same challenges their American colleagues do. Time and again, I heard an all too familiar tale of public distrust of media and shortening attention spans. Despite those similar struggles, German media in some respects has much of what I would like to see re-instilled in the U.S., particularly an emphasis on context and detail. It’s not the most carefree time to be a journalist in either country, but from what I have seen in Germany and at home, it is a time to be encouraged by a new dedication to truth and public service.
I will never forget the people I met and the stories I heard while on RIAS. Now back home, I am thankful for the chance to tell people stories of my own and share what life in Germany is really like. RIAS was an incredible opportunity for me on many levels. I saw places I had never seen, made lifelong connections in my industry and grew in my desire to become a better journalist.
Hannah Lee, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
Everybody has a different reality — whether that’s living in a different country, a different political sphere or a different family. Journalists are calling this an ‘information news bubble’ and many are living in it — even the journalists themselves.
So what does this have to do with me?
Well, when I came to Berlin, I was fully prepared to learn about the same Berlin I had been to three times prior. I was wrong… and that’s the issue, especially for me as a journalist and many Americans when it comes to politics:
When we think we know something, we think we know it completely. But we don’t.
You can never know anything completely. You can know a lot about something, but stories, people and places are always changing, and nothing is forever.
And if I, or maybe even America in this case, don’t change with the times, we’ll continue to build this bubble. Or literally, a wall.
Unknowingly, I let my experiences, my history, my view of the world guide my fear of politics. I come from a family of conservatives who see no view other than their own, which makes it difficult to have mutually understanding conversations. So rather than getting involved in politics, I tried to steer away from them — that way I stayed neutral in what always felt like a polarized situation.
However, after these past three weeks with RIAS, I’ve learned that steering away from politics has also steered me away from the rest of the world. That’s especially true of Germany, where I’ve built such strong connections. I realize now that politics are the tool that keep us in contact with the rest of the world. They help us recognize that there’s something bigger than ourselves. They are a major part of what dictates our future and if I don’t choose to be a part of my future, then what am I doing?
After visiting politicians, broadcast stations and students in Germany, I realize I’m not alone. The rise of Germany’s populism, the AfD, has caused similar problems. Rather than suffer from this shared climate, I’ve come to understand that the U.S.-German relationship and their civil societies should strive to take this opportunity to face domestic threats together. But of course, that’s easier said than done… maybe that’s where journalists come in.
But politics have never been my forte. I’ve always had a stronger fascination with art, music and fashion. I love the way artists test boundaries and explore new realms of creativity. In politics, I didn’t think that was the case. I think that was a part of the reason I wanted to go on this program in the first place. I wanted to appreciate a side of journalism that I’ve never fully been immersed in.
I especially came to see that when we met Kani Alavi, a German-Iranian artist. In his story, I saw the intersection between art and politics. His initiative to memorialize the Berlin Wall through his paintbrush showed me that I also can help improve American-German relations — even if that’s through much smaller initiatives in my home state.
Three days after the RIAS program ended, I was offered a job to be an editorial assistant for a local media company in North Carolina. Needless to say, I accepted. I hope that I can localize important international issues for this publication. America covers far less international news than other European countries, and I hope I can change this and help Americans become more informed on global affairs.
I refuse to continue to live in this news bubble.
Mollie Lemm, KRWG, University of Montana, Missoula, MT
When I was 18, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. with the United States Senate Youth Program. That week was incredibly amazing and we got to hear from Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and numerous other important members of our political sphere. However, even with all of those names, one quote sticks out from me from that entire week. “You don’t know what’s out there until you’ve stumbled across it,” said Elizabeth MacDonough, the parliamentarian of the senate. This statement drives my desire to explore the world and understand the possibilities it has to offer. The RIAS student exchange program started out as one of those opportunities that I just happened to stumble upon and it ended up giving me so much insight and inspiration about German-American relations and my desire to further explore them.
The three week program started out with 18 hours of international travel, a 5 minute shower, a quick debriefing in the lobby of the motel we were all staying at, and then pizza and beer while Croatia played Denmark in the World Cup. Even though I have traveled a little bit before, switching from the slower paced Montana lifestyle to Berlin takes a bit of getting used to, and it took a few days to feel acclimated to the Berlin ways. Even with this, I feel like I absorbed so much information every day of the three week period. Coming from a small Montana town, I am astounded by the wealth of history and information present in a place like Germany. Even though a lot of it was destroyed and rebuilt, there are so many stories engraved in its streets and buildings.
Every journalist benefits from increasing their worldview and learning as much as they can about the world and I really felt like this exchange provided me with a very unique and precious view into what makes Germany tick. By understanding and learning about the history of Berlin during the cold war and before, I was able to look at the current landscape and understand why certain people acted they way they do now. It was incredibly interesting to visit Leipzig and see how an East German city now conducted itself. In America, I often feel very removed from the events of the world, but when I was in Germany and could listen to people tell their stories, I realized just how close the history actually was. The true significance hit me when I thought about my parents and how if they had been born in Germany, their entire lives until they were 30 would have been under a divided cold war nation. I think about how my mom worked at national parks, went to college and then art school, lived in Seattle, met my dad, married, and lived in Japan, and all of that before she turned 30. My life and theirs would have been fundamentally different if they had been born in Germany, which I have always viewed as a contemporary to the U.S.
History and insight is so powerful in figuring out motives and it determines how people react to different things. Everything happening in Germany right now is in some way a reaction to everything that has happened in Germany in the last 80 years. I would not be able to understand current Germany if I did not understand past Germany, and for that I am beyond grateful to the RIAS program.
The program not only provided an avenue for learning, but connected us with journalists and others who passionately tell the stories of Germany. Even though I am not studying broadcast, I felt like I learned so much about how to be a good journalist using any form of media.
When I first learned about the RIAS exchange program, I only thought of it as a cool opportunity to visit Berlin for almost free. I didn’t come in with expectations for what I would take out of the program but I feel now that it really was instrumental in my understanding of Germany and my development as a journalist. Aside from the actual content of the program, I met so many amazing and fellow American students and I count myself as lucky to call some of them friends and I look forward to our continued collaboration and love of Germany. I am returning to Berlin in a few short months and I feel a lot more prepared to integrate myself into society and journalism in Germany now than I did before this program. All in all, I am incredibly grateful to RIAS and to the German government for sponsoring a program like this.
Sam Lichtenstein, Elon University, Elon, NC
The way in which a country deals with its past can often redefine its future. Perhaps the most fascinating case study of a nation that is proactive in the treatment of its troubled history is Germany. From the appalling atrocities committed during the Third Reich to the fierce paranoia that perpetuated the former German Democratic Republic, German re-unification has endured a long, harrowing road towards democracy. Over the past month, my peers and I have gotten the chance to speak to influential people in the realm of German politics, media and education. This opportunity has been an indispensable addition to my academic development as I enter the beginning stages of my career.
One of the most surprising parts of modern Germany is its commitment to public media funding. Each household within its borders must pay a flat rate of 17.50 per month, which sums up to about 8 billion euros dedicated to supporting regional, national and international public broadcasters. To provide some context, America spends about 5 percent of what Germany spends on public media. Our meeting with Deutsche Welle, one of Germany’s international broadcasters, illuminated the stark differences between American and German journalism. German stories rarely ever use the American standard of the “inverted pyramid” style, an approach rooted in a desperate effort to capture a reader’s attention immediately. Instead, German news stories tend to build up to the climax, hoping not to overwhelm the audience too early. Public funding also allows broadcasters to focus more time on stories rather than rely on commercials to fill air time. Watching the seminal Taggeschau in sports bars during halftime of every world cup game was a fascinating experience for me.
Some of our most enlightening appointments on our trip were with politicians. I was impressed with the penchant of current and former politicians in Germany for modesty. In America, politicians often catch the public eye with fiery dialogue and radical stances. That does not seem to apply as much in Germany. Walter Momper, the former mayor of Berlin when the wall fell, was outwardly humble when he explained his efforts to integrate East Germans back into Western society. Peter Beyer, Merkel’s top man in the foreign ministry, was bothered with President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric surrounding NATO commitments and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Barbara Richstein, a former justice minister and local politician, was candid in her concern with the rise of the AfD party in her constituency. Each politician was articulate in expressing the significance of sustaining a unified Germany and a united Europe in the age of New Nationalism.
The RIAS summer study trip provided me the opportunity to make new discoveries and take them back with me to America. The state of journalism in the new digital world is a complicated topic. By studying other countries’ successes and failures in media policy, we can advance our own media landscape in order to inform the public more effectively. However, it is important to understand the differences between the average German and American media consumer. Because of their history, the German people understand that their existence is contingent upon their ability to consume well-researched, hard news. This can be seen in the content of its public media and the lingering popularity of print media in Germany. Both the Nazis and the SPD of East Germany recognized the importance of controlling all aspects of information as a vehicle for maintaining its power. The unified German government has acknowledged that information is a valuable commodity that cannot be left to private interests. I left Germany wondering if America should treat journalism in the same way.
Adrian Molinar, New Mexico State University, El Paso, TX
Still Building Bridges
In thinking about visiting Germany, a person might expect to learn about the unfortunate past the country has had to overcome as well as a strong lingering influence of that past. As an American tourist he/she might expect to feel a tension that says, “You don’t belong.” That person would be wrong. If you ever find yourself in Germany, you might be surprised to realize those expectations couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there is WWII and Cold War influence, but not in the way you might expect. There is a strong foundation of accountability in every person’s mindset. They recognize this destructive past and actively use it to avoid thinking in extremes. RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) is a big reason for this heightened level of maturity.
This media outlet was established shortly after WWII. It’s purpose was to help promote democratic values in the changing landscapes of the community. After the country was separated into four distinct regions, each governed by different powers with its own set of laws, the people began to realize a different set of liberties in each region. More specifically, East Germany was governed by a communist Soviet Union, and the west was governed by the United States’ democratic model. And although Berlin was in the heart of East Germany, that city was equally divided.
Considering the strong influence socialism still had on Germany post WWII, the country was still wrestling with this idea of democracy. In 1961 the Berlin wall came up relatively overnight. Thus, RIAS had its work cut out for it. With East Germany controlling every aspect of the media and education, people didn’t have much of an idea of what life was like in a democratic society. RIAS, established in West Berlin, was one of the only options. But it was a dangerous one because listening to this radio station was considered a crime against the state.
Nonetheless, there were those who took their chances. Many looked for a way out, whether it was through a tunnel, creating fake passports, or going through the application process (which also carried with it certain risks). In short, people were living in fear. The Stasi (secret police) had a lot to do with that. They were literally everywhere. I had the chance to speak with someone who had a father that was a secret informant for the Stasi. His father was actively spying against his own family. This organization went to such extremes to ‘protect the state,’ the likes of which would be difficult to fully describe in one essay.
If you have a chance to speak with a German who lived during the Cold War about RIAS, you might get the sense that this media outlet carries a special place in his/her heart. He/She might tell you that it would have been difficult to unite Germany without this news agency. You might also be surprised to learn that RIAS was established by the United States and that America too carries a special place in German hearts.
Remember that application process? After applying for this, East Germans were easily persecuted by their own government and many went to jail because of it. Nevertheless, West Germany offered to buy these people from the Soviet Union. They were given food, housing, and offered integration programs to help ease their transition into a democratic state. Imagine being conditioned from an early age that your position in society is the only thing that matters and that that position is determined by the state and your compliance to the structure of that state. Leaving that place into a society that says, “You’re free,” can be overwhelming for some, and it certainly was.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and Germany began to unite. The United States decommissioned RIAS so that Germany could be left to govern its new home. During this process there was a parade that showed American troops marching back to their posts getting ready to leave Germany for good. Germans waved goodbye to their American friends with tears in their eyes and a gratitude still felt today. Yes, American politics disturbs many Germans, but the very essence of who we are and what it means to be American, also lives in the German people.
The German government therefore decided to keep RIAS alive. As a publicly funded media outlet, RIAS continues to tear down walls and unite people. The RIAS Berlin Kommission has been paying for professional journalists to come to Berlin and learn about their rich history. They’re trying to say, “Look this is who we are. We are a humble, compassionate people who have learned from their past” and “More things unite us than divide us.”
This experience was in a very professional setting. It is the first year RIAS opened its doors to college students. Because of this, I am lucky to have become part of a network of 1,600 alumni journalist members. RIAS went above and beyond to set up meetings with multiple media outlets, politicians, museums, etc. It’s an experience I’ll never forget and now, I get to help them continue their long-standing tradition of building bridges.
Pamela Ortega, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK
When I first applied for the RIAS Berlin Kommission student program, I figured there was no way I was going to get it. I spoke no German, knew very little about Germany and had never been Europe. Funny enough I learned later, I was the type of student they were seeking.
My first few days in Germany, I kept wondering why in the world I was there. I hated not speaking German. See I was always in my comfort zone in the United States, I spoke both English and Spanish, so I could communicate with virtually anyone. But being in Germany, knowing no German really did take me out of my comfort zone. One evening I decided to take a walk and ended up at a nearby park. People were on dates, others were having picnics, there were children, adults, senior citizens. It was a Wednesday night and everyone was enjoying themselves. Something like that would never happen in Oklahoma. People didn’t go to parks for fun, especially weekdays. That evening I realized Germany was going to be so much more than what I played it out to be.
I think I got my first real hit of reality when we visited the Berlin wall memorial. To think today people are still dying when crossing borders, simply seeking a better life. The last week I learned about the Berlin underground tunnels and tactics used to travel to the West, like fake passports and tunnels. Tactics, that today are still used by immigrants throughout the world. The Syrian refugee who gave us a tour of the Syrian neighborhood discussed exactly how he bought a fake identification in Greece. I also heard Peter Keup’’s first hand account of he tried to escape to the West. The whole time I just kept thinking, what would I have done if I was in East? Would I have risked it and escaped? Or would I have waited until the wall came down, not knowing exactly when it would come down?
I not only learned about the Cold War and the Berlin Wall but about German media as well. The whole time I kept thinking how is the German media so successful and not falling apart like in the states. Well I soon learned their mantra “mandate to educate the people,” applies quite literally by having every household pay 17.50 euros a month for public broadcasting. Later I learned about Axel Springer’s journalism powerhouse and mantra on journalism “we don’t make newspapers to earn money we earn money to make newspapers.”
Intertwined behind this whole experience was the concept of U.S-German relations. From meeting with Peter Beyer, coordinator of transatlantic cooperation at Auswärtiges Amt to sitting down with the U.S Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. I learned the integral role both the United States and Germany play in the politics of each other. Both countries are the leaders of their respective hemisphere, so a fostered relationship is integral to each countries success. And RIAS and KCRW have been there along the way to document the evolution of the relationship.
By far my favorite part was learning about immigration and the refugee crisis. As an aspiring immigration reporter, learning the complexities of immigration in Germany helped in understanding one of the largest issues to face countries worldwide will be immigration. From learning about the Turkish guestworker program to the learning about the current refugee crisis. Speaking to Germans on the topic, I soon realized the issue was complex, people always have me a long winded response to my simple questions “what do you think about the refugee crisis?”
RIAS not only gave me three weeks of learning, three weeks of travel, a love for German croissants, a distaste for beer, five new Latino friends, a growing love for doner, an appreciation for public transportation, a network, three new best friends, a bike ride through Tempelhof, and a desire for Syrian sweets, it gave an inside look into a world different from mine. I was taken out of my comfort zone, challenged and taught to “get on my bike” when I’m moving slow, but importantly to be a sponge and take it all in.
Sophia Saliby, Indiana University Bloomington, IN
We arrived in Berlin on the brink of a government collapse. As we wandered to a biergarten on our first night, we stumbled upon the CDU headquarters surrounded by media outlets covering the overnight talks to keep Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition together. We even ran into a reporter from ntv who will go on the RIAS program in America later this year. It was an exciting start to a trip that would take place in the shadow of tense global news, especially related to the relationship between Germany and the United States. During our second week, we saw President Donald Trump rip into other NATO members, and especially Germany, over commitments to defense spending during a summit in Brussels. Later that week, President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During that meeting, the President made comments expressing his opinion that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 elections; he would later walk back on that statement. A highlight of the trip was our meeting with U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell where the discussion of transatlantic relations took centerstage as we reflected on the news that had occurred during our time studying journalism and the media landscape in Germany. Ambassador Grenell gave us further insight into the mind of the President and his aims to keep the relationship between Germany and the U.S. strong. This is all to say, it’s clear we had an incredible opportunity to be in the middle of Europe during a time where Germany’s relationship with the U.S. is on the front pages, both in Europe and America. Through the RIAS program, we were able to engage with journalists in Germany who are deciding how to cover Trump and how to report his actions and comments, just as American journalists are grappling with the same issues.
During my time in Germany, I learned that, unfortunately, the “fake news” phenomenon and a general mistrust of the media is not confined to America. In many of the newsrooms across Germany that we visited, journalists are dealing with the same problems our cohort has faced back home when it comes to politicians discrediting our work and the public turning increasingly to niche media outlets. However, conversations are happening now on how to move forward in this increasingly tense environment for media. It was an incredible privilege to not only be privy to these conservations during the RIAS program, but to be able to contribute and bring our own perspectives to discussions with journalists throughout the broadcasting industry in the country. I think it is well-understood within American media that there is less of a market for stories told from abroad. While this may be true to some extent, the RIAS program made me more aware that there are plenty of opportunities for young journalists like me who aspire to report abroad and being a part of the RIAS network will be a great asset to achieving that goal.
Dylan Srocki, Miami University, Oxford, OH
When I was selected to be one of the participants in the first RIAS Berlin Commission student program, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I knew that the program was geared towards broadcast journalist students, so I expected meetings with professionals in the field of media. I also expected to talk to politicians about the state of German-American relations. Both of these expectations turned out to be true.
During the program, the other students and I had the opportunity to meet with numerous German journalists, including those in both the private and public sectors, and who worked in all mediums, including print, radio, and television. These meetings allowed me to learn about the media landscape in Germany as compared to the United States. For example, each person in Germany pays almost 20 euros each month for public television, which has led to a robust public broadcast system, and a general population that is aware of newsworthy events both in their own country and abroad. We also had the privilege of meeting with politicians such as Barbara Richstein, Peter Beyer, and Richard Grenell. With them, we talked about the diplomatic issues that have created a rift between our two countries, such as NATO defense spending and the Nord Stream pipeline.
What I did not expect when I was chosen for the program was the emphasis on German history, specifically with regards to the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. Throughout the stations that were planned over the duration of our three weeks, I learned about the stark differences in East and West Germany and Berlin, and that knowledge helped me to gain a better understanding about why RIAS was so important to many people. I’ve always had a passion for journalism, and hearing stories about RIAS and the impact that it had on the people living in Berlin during this tense time period helped to reinforce the ideas that I have long held about the profession—namely, that the work journalists do is essential to the working class and to the public in general. Talking about the issues related to German reunification and integration was also an unexpected part of the program that was eye-opening to me. I had no idea that there was still a divide between West and East Germany, but I learned that not only are there cultural differences between the two regions, but strong differences in political beliefs as well. Additionally, immigration is as controversial a topic in Germany as it is in the United States. One of the most impactful talks for me was with a Syrian refugee, who talked about how he faces many of the same issues that impact minority groups in the States.
In addition to all that I gleaned from the program, I gained a wonderful network of journalists, both in the United States and abroad. I became friends with the other fourteen students, and I am looking forward to continuing relationships with many of them. The RIAS family also includes a large number of professional journalists, many of who strive to be active alumni. Going into the program, I don’t think I ever would have considered working in Germany, but I very much enjoyed my time there and met an abundance of nice people. I just want to end by saying thank you to all those who made my RIAS journey an overwhelming success.