June 30–July 20, 2019

Fourteen American Journalism Students in Germany: Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig, Hamburg

Jude Ahmed, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA

The opportunity to join the RIAS Berlin Program was an incredible opportunity to cultivate my understanding of how the media can shape a political landscape; not just through effective reporting but through individual empowerment. Quite honestly, I came into the RIAS program grappling with a personal distrust of journalism. Much of that bias came from observing how American and international journalism presented issues such as the Egyptian revolution, which my family experienced firsthand. Journalists have an immense responsibility to the world, and I am so appreciative of the journalists I met who actively recognized that responsibility. In our countless meetings with journalists, networks, and politicians, we shared thoughtful discussions on the role of these professionals in shaping their wider community. Over sparkling water and orange juice (a needed immune boost on a heavy itinerary), we compared American private media to private and public German media outlets. Over beers, we tackled what neutral reporting truly means. I was also surprised by the genuine interest of German professionals in hearing our perspectives on the media and society. With our fourteen person cohort and journalism students from Axel Springer and the University of Leipzig, we continued the honest discussions of the busy day late into the night.

Prior to visiting Germany, I had the preconception that Germans have a deep understanding of their history and a certain enthusiasm for championing diversity.  During the RIAS program, I learned that reckoning with the past has not been as simple as the nation’s outwardly projects. I found, “Berlin has everything twice,” scribbled in the first few pages of my notebook. Originally this note, taken down in a meeting with commissioner Dr. Richard Meng, referred largely to the infrastructure that developed on either side of the Berlin wall. However, to me, this also reflected the duality of the contemporary national discourse. For example, we received a tour of Neuköln from Firas Zakri, a Syrian refugee willing to share his difficult story of migration, and his ability to study IT with the help of the state. Later we would meet Beatrix von Storch of the Alternative für Deutschland, and heard a rather twisted but carefully crafted interpretation of the broader impact of Syrian or Muslim immigrants. Outside of our itinerary, I spoke with an Egyptian engineering professional who told me a rather different story; his exclusion from the German workforce that he attributed to his apparent Arabic name.

In the program’s Cold War focus, we explored the history of East Germany through monument and museum tours as well as through the personal accounts of Germans who lived through that time period. Peter Keup, who was once imprisoned by the Stasi for attempting to flee East Germany, gave our group an emotional and powerful tour of Hohenschönhausen Memorial and the Berlin wall memorial. Time and time again were the conditions of East Berlin compared to an open-air prison, and the remnants of the wall once dividing east and west Germans described as a symbol of hope and a lasting memory of despair. Iranian painter Kani Alavi described the East Side Gallery’s significance as a reminder to remove the psychological as well as physical barriers restricting people around the world today. The lessons of the past reflected the issues of the present, as we discussed the U.S. efforts to build a wall on the southern border, or the German government’s condemnation of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement which calls for an end to the restriction of Palestinian movement facilitated by a jumble of walls, borders, and military checkpoints by the Israeli government.

By the end of three weeks, my brain was filled with discourse and debate, a new perspective on journalism, and a wholehearted desire to delve deeper into the questions we tackled on this trip. I had the privilege of continuing my travels for two months thanks to RIAS. In that time, I visited seven countries and sixteen cities. Berlin helped me develop a confidence in navigating foreign transit systems, and a certain knack for coaxing stories out of smoking strangers (pro tip- offering a light is the fastest way to make friends).

The role that broadcasters like the Berlin-based RIAS play is crucial to how policy is shaped. I want to thank Erik, Isabell, Andrew, and Lisa for welcoming me into the RIAS program and creating an unforgettable and life-changing experience. A special shout out goes to Lea for leading us through Berlin in our free time!  They truly crafted a thoughtful and enriching itinerary meant to develop professional as well as personal connections to the people, institutions, and the history of Germany. I wholeheartedly thank my amazing cohort: Erin, Mike, Kingsley, Christian, Ariana, Sinclair, Nick, Molly, Jen, Juliana, Allie, Michelle and Jillian. Our RIAS itinerary was jam-packed. Yet even at the end of a busy day, my  amazing friends coaxed my tired legs over to Café am Neuen See or on a Döner hunt. I have no words to describe their role in making this program memorable. I am so proud of you all, and I cannot wait to see where life leads you.

Michelle Ailport, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ

Juliana Amos, Queens University of Charlotte, Charlotte, NC

In 1982 my mom, her three sisters, and my grandparents packed up and moved from North Carolina to Berlin, Germany. I grew up listening to stories of Berlin and how it changed my mother’s life. My grandfather flew for Pan American and worked as a pilot for civilian travel in Germany until 1985. Each member of my family has their own stories of their time there that they hold close to them.

Getting the opportunity to be a part of the RIAS student program not only provided me with the chance to experience some of my family’s past, but it also opened my eyes to another world. This was my second time visiting a different country, the first being a couple weeks before for an Italian language program, and it was nothing less than amazing. Talking to media organizations, politicians, and learning more about the Cold War helped me gain a new perspective. I never realized how imperative it is not only as a journalist, but also a human being to look at things with a different set of eyes until this program.

Journalism in the United States tends to focus on the events occurring within the country rather than internationally. While we still have international news, there’s much less of it compared to other countries. Talking with staff members from Bild, Tagesschau, and RTL helped me identify the differences and similarities with American news. Most of the similarities I noticed involved technology. Just like the United States, most media outlets in Germany are changing their ways of production because of new and upcoming equipment and programs. For example, in the news room it’s becoming more common for moveable cameras controlled from the control room rather than people being stationed at each camera.

One of the most rewarding activities was touring the Stasi prison and visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial. Our tour guide was a man from East Germany who tried to flee the GDR in the early 80s and spent time in a Stasi prison until he was released in a prisoner purchase by the West German government. As he walked us around, he told us what it was like in the prison and East Germany at the time. When he shared his personal story with us, he was open and honest. At moments left our group speechless. It is one thing to read about what happened in textbooks, but it was another to hear about it from someone who was there.

I came into the program as a curious aspiring journalist and left with so much more. I have so many ideas to apply to my future career and I couldn’t be more thankful for RIAS. I made connections through the alumni get-togethers that other college students getting ready to embark on their career could only dream of. One of the greatest things about the program was meeting 13 other students and leaving with 13 lifelong friends. Thank you to the RIAS Berlin Commission for everything and I can’t wait to be involved in alumni events in the future.

Jillian Carafa, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY

Jen Cartwright, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA

The RIAS Berlin Commission Exchange Program was a wonderful experience. Germany, as we call it in English, has an interesting history. It is in many ways similar and very much intertwined with the history of the United States. Many of the most important events in recent history occurred in Germany, or very nearby; recent history can be defined as the last century, for the purposes of this text. Heavy involvement in World Wars I and II, and the relentless endurance of the Cold War make German history apart of U.S. history. Present day Germany is equally enticing, with many issues being addressed that are near and dear to my heart. Though I have spent some time in Berlin prior to this Program, it’s always too soon to leave and I know that I have only scratched the surface.

I was born the year the Wall came down, so I can’t fully understand what the atmosphere was like. However, I can certainly appreciate the madness of a divided city and country, and the hopefulness tied to its end and reunification. With the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall this year, it was an excellent time to study the Cold War in one of the most relevant historic cities. Former inmate and first-hand witness Peter Keup leading the tour through a former Stasi prison was one of the most moving and powerful experiences of my life. The past is present in Berlin. At the fall of the Wall, DDR elite had gotten old and were unwilling to fight anymore, there were reforms in the USSR, and with the unpopularity and open resistance against the government in Germany as well as Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the climate was ripe for revolt. Although technically never sanctioned, or intended, the allowance of passage through the Wall, to ease some of the strain, resulted in total collapse of the DDR. After the West ‘invaded’ the eastern ways of life, there was a bit of nOSTalgia for the old ways. People didn’t know how to operate or function in this new world at first, and their money was suddenly worth less. Still, it was time to be whole again, to move about freely in one’s own city and country, visiting family and friends as one pleases.

The present-day Social Market Economy in Germany is a hybrid between a fully Free Market economy, as in the United States, and an entirely State economy, as that of Scandinavia. It’s based on subsidiaries and a court of King Arthur principal, round table economics, whereby the elite work together to accomplish things. It is very decentralized, naturally, given the past dictatorships endured, with the central idea of corporatism. I particularly like the joint committee for healthcare, prior to this Program, I was pursuing medicine. In the United States, decisions are made by corporations and politicians, as opposed to doctors, hospitals, and patients (sickness funds) as it should be. I see several differences in the governments of Germany compared to that of the United States. Germany has a threshold of 5%, rather than the US’s winner-takes-all policy, there is also a multi-party system, allowing for more options than the polarizing two-party stranglehold in the States. I like that the private lives of politicians are kept separate from the public sphere and their work, unlike in the U.S., and the nature of the very decentralized Bundestag with its fette Henne is more democratic than in the US where our system of checks and balances often fails, giving the executive branch more power. I enjoyed our visit to the Reichstag, where I saw the fat chicken in person, I really like the symbolism of an unassuming hen, as opposed to a strong, fearsome bird of prey. There are the conservatives, CDU/CSU, currently in power and most popular, the social democrats, SPD, representing the labor party, the liberals, FDP, small but always represented, comprised of former elite, the green party, which I feel I can relate to, the Leftists, keeping a sense of Communism alive, and the Alternative for Deutschland, AfD, whose xenophobic ideals are reminiscent of Donald Trump; whereas we have republicans and democrats, right or left, with little in between. I found our talk with Beatrix von Storch with the AfD very interesting. I am so pleased we were able to sit down with a representative from this Party. I do recognize the limitations of Germany’s system, with some difficulties as to which level is responsible for certain things which can create a lack of transparency, and of course all the bureaucratic red tape to get through, making change a slow process. Ultimately, as far as government is concerned, I love the idea of coalitions. The AfD can be a democratic possibility, but not viable to be in power, as no current Party would work with them.

The music, film, tv, radio, food, and social activities in Berlin are my favorite of any city I’ve been to. I wholeheartedly support the attitude of environmentalism, sustainability, accountability, and a sense of responsibility that permeates the present culture. The vibrant presence of refugees and immigrants in Berlin, with “multi-kulti” areas of the city, make it a worldly and welcoming environment. I really enjoyed our walk and talk with Firas Zakri in Neukoelln. The willingness to discuss the past and speak out against oppression or injustice evidenced by the street art of Berlin, the existence of Turkish and Syrian neighborhoods, and even the allowance of a far-right party (given the history) feels very liberating. The United States abolished slavery over 200 years ago and people still refuse to talk about it. We are continually falling far behind as a major world power in health, education, strengthening our environmental impact awareness and minimization, and sustainability, and the wealth discrepancy in the U.S. is vast. The art, culture, and history I’ve experienced in Berlin has left me grateful to’ve experienced it but feeling a bit miffed about continuing to call the United States of America “home”.

Sinclaire Jacobs, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK

Molly Kruse, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK

I knew that a three-week trip to explore journalism and the Cold War history in Germany could never be boring. But I honestly didn’t expect to learn so much about my own country — its priorities, quirks, advantages and shortcomings — while in a completely different one.

A recurring joke in our group of 14 American students was how much we missed free water at restaurants. Even at McDonalds in Germany, it was like pulling to get the employees to give you “Leitungswasser” instead of a bottle of expensive “Mineralwasser.”

This was a small difference between daily life in Germany and the U.S., though — and not that life-changing. But we came to discover even more surprising things, like Germany’s robust public media system, supported by a monthly fee that Germans can’t opt out of. Or the German penchant for conserving energy, which manifests itself in a complete lack of air conditioning and leaving the lights off, even if the room is half dark.

And then there is the beautiful acceptance of refugees, to whom the government gives housing, a stipend and educational opportunities. There’s the way remembering the past is part of the German DNA, with World War II memorials at every corner and little gold blocks by the doorways of former Jewish residences, where the Jews lived before they were taken from their homes.

And of course the harrowing history of a wall dividing the two sides of Berlin, which was torn down only eight years before I was born, and which reminded many of us of the wall our current president has promised to build in our country.

Contrast the German public media system with our ever-more-privatized media in the U.S., and the differences are hard to miss. While our news stations are forced to become cutthroat and polarized, German public media thrives on comfortable salaries and ample time to fact-check. Back in the states, it’s normal for us to leave on all the lights, drive our cars everywhere and not think about where energy comes from. Meanwhile Germans, besides their allergy to air conditioning and smoothly-functioning public transit, are setting an example for other nations with the “Energiewende,” or transition to renewable energy. It makes me think — if Germany can do these things, why can’t the U.S.?

I will be glad to go back home and drive my climate-controlled car, don’t get me wrong. And I also discovered a lot of things to love about my country, like passports that can get you anywhere, Southern hospitality and stores that are open at all hours. But seeing another country making things work that most Americans couldn’t imagine is so valuable — I wish more of my friends could have this experience!

Ariana Lasher, University of New Haven, West Haven, CT

Michael Makowski, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI

Christian Nunley, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK

As a first-time traveler to Europe, this program taught me more than I’d thought imaginable in a three-week span. First off – I met a group of 13 other students who, through the program, became friends I feel I’ll have for a lifetime. Although I understand this isn’t typical of most groups, we meshed from day one and became a cohesive unit. Both to our benefit and to our detriment. I met students from upstate New York all the way to Washington state, just outside of Canada. They taught me slightly less than the excursions we made, but gathered friendships I’ll cherish for a lifetime. But, when one of us was late, we all were. A price I was willing to pay.

As for the RIAS Berlin Commission – I’m forever indebted to the world-broadening, perspective widening, opportunity providing program that is RIAS. Throughout the three weeks in Germany, we learned about Germany’s biggest media outlets in states all around Germany. We also got to tour all of said broadcast and print and learned what they all had to offer. Whether it be; ArD, ZDF, RTL, Der Spiegel, Bild, and Deutsche Welle. Much less the radio stations KRCW, formerly NPR, and Cosmo. Little did I know, these companies were comparable to the top networks in the US. So – I was meeting and networking with the best in the business.

We also got the chance to understand how the public broadcasting fund is allocated and the things it allows journalists to do. Which is wholly different in the US. As a broadcast journalism major, this was a shock unlike many I’ve had. This, and the free education Germans receive. But that’s for another time. This public broadcasting fund allows incredible much autonomy in what journalists can report on. Instead of searching for ratings and clicks, they’re able to produce the content that needs to be reported on. Although, this makes them extremely traditional in their methods. But hey – if it’s not broken, why fix it?

Another aspect of this program that was enriching was the thorough knowledge we gained about RIAS, Germany, and most acutely, Berlin in the Cold War. Seeing a culture that remembers their trivial history, in order to deny it the opportunity rebirth itself, was especially interesting. We toured historical monuments that helped paint a vivid picture as to what life was like just a mere 35 years ago. The most interesting of the tours – the Syrian refugee tour. Our tour guide broached the group to his attempt to escape Syria and his daunting journey to reach asylum in Germany. Hearing the first-hand testimony of a refugee illuminates an issue I’d only seen on social media. This put a face and a memory to the story of a global issue, what a journalists job consists of.

All in all, RIAS gave me the experience of a lifetime, that I will remember for the rest of my life. Not only that, I believe it’ll provide opportunities that’ll boost my career to heights I hadn’t previously dreamed of through it’s rich alumni network. Through all the people I met, the historic stories I heard and the beautiful destinations I saw – I’m a better and well-versed person because of it.

Kingsley-Reigne Pissang, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI

Nick Scheffler, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

My RIAS Berlin Commission experience was life-changing, enlightening and mentally stimulating. Having never been to Europe before, this experience gave me a new outlook on the world. The program consisted of 4-5 intriguing appointments per day – consisting of meetings with journalists, politicians or historians, museum and city tours, and alumni get-togethers. I managed to leave each event with something, whether it be a new piece of knowledge, a new perspective or a new connection.

On the first day of the program we met with RIAS Berlin Commission member Dr. Richard Meng. He said something that stuck with me for the remainder of the three weeks. He discussed how our experience here will teach us more about our own country than Germany. He was right. Throughout my journey, I formed opinions about the United States I would never have been able to independently create if I was not exposed to the culture and history of Germany. I really learned about culture — the shared system of beliefs held by a group of people. I took what I had learned and compared it with what I know about American culture, and discovered things I like and dislike about both. It was a truly eye-opening experience.

The program’s historical emphasis taught me more about the Cold War and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, than what I have learned throughout my education career so far. More importantly, it was taught through a different perspective: one that isn’t in an American history book. I became aware of the similarities of the Cold War era to the era we live in now. I learned about the dangers of authoritarianism. I learned about what building a wall between two groups of people can do to the fabric of that society. Learning about the city, it was no wonder I have fallen in love with it. During my three weeks in Berlin, I was able to familiarize myself with the city. This consisted of going to Preußenpark for some delicious Thai cuisine where I ate crickets, Mauerpark for the flea-market, all different kinds of bars and biergartens where we met and conversed with locals. We ate the food and drank the beer, learning more and more about the Berlin culture everyday.

The events throughout the three weeks also gave me an impression about Germany’s current media, political and cultural landscape which you could not experience by reading anything in a book or online. I was astonished by the ARD. Coming from a country where nearly all of the media we consume is privatized, it was amazing to learn about a media which seemingly has no strings-attached to a profit-margin nor the state. However, the meetings at private media outlets such as RTL, Der Spiegel and BILD were enlightening, and gave me a different perspective about how private media works in other countries. By traveling to different media outlets I developed a better understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of each type.

The best part of the program was the people. Meeting my fellow students was truly an honor, and I have made friends who I will stay in touch with for a very long time. Learning new things, eating new foods and seeing new places is always better when your with like-minded individuals. Along with the students, the RIAS alumni were amazing to meet. Our get-togethers in Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig and Köln were highlights of the trip. I got to talk with so many established professionals, and hear their stories and opinions.
The three-weeks I spent in Berlin was a remarkable moment in my life so far. As someone who has never been to Europe before, it completely exceeded any expectations I may have had going into it. The RIAS Berlin Commission is an important group. They allow aspiring and established journalists to experience a new perspective about their work and the impact it has for good, something that is easily lost in today’s media environment.

Erin Snodgrass, Loyola University New Orleans, New Orleans, LA

My RIAS experience surpassed all my expectations. In three short weeks I made lifelong friends who share my interests and passions all while exploring a city and country with a rich history and an incredible journalism landscape. I am so grateful for the opportunities I had to visit historical landmarks and learn about the Cold War’s past and lingering present. Highlights included a Stassi Prison tour with a former prisoner; a lively discussion with the head of Germany’s far right party, the AfD; and short trips to Hamburg and Leipzig.

When I first arrived in Berlin at the end of June, I was exhausted and sweaty. I had no idea what was in store for my new-found friends and myself, but we quickly hit the ground running with tours of the city and informative talks with professionals. When we had a personal tour of a Stassi prison and the Berlin Wall Memorial with former GDR prisoner, Peter Keup on our third day, I knew we were in for an incredible three weeks. Peter walked us through the cells and interrogation rooms of Hohenschonhausen Memorial, recounting his own stories sitting in those rooms. When he spoke about his long-lasting anger toward GDR officials who never faced repercussions for their actions, we felt his pain. And when he offhandedly revealed that after Germany’s reunification he discovered that his brother had served as an informant for the Stassi, the entire group was shocked and moved. The Bahn ride home was somber as we all digested the incredible morning we’d had. For much of the rest of the trip I listed that day spent with Peter as my favorite international experience ever.

Later in the trip however, we had an incredible opportunity that rivaled that superlative. Through student interest and incredible initiative and scheduling work by the RIAS team, we were able to add an 8 a.m. meeting with Beatrix von Storch, the controversial leader of the Alternative for Germany party that has been gaining momentum in parts of the country. We had an exciting and sometimes heated conversation, allowing many of us to ask pointed and important questions about the group’s oftentimes racist, sexist, and homophobic policies. We all left the meeting with adrenaline flowing but grateful for the experience.

As much as I fell in love with Berlin – it quickly became my favorite European city after only three short weeks – I was thankful for the three short trips we took outside of the city to explore the rest of Germany. I was particularly fond of Hamburg and the city tour and newsroom visit we had while there. Another incredible part of the RIAS experience was meeting all the previous RIAS fellows in every city and creating a strong network of working journalists across the country. We spent hours in a small restaurant talking intensely with German journalists. I believe we covered everything from the best bars in Hamburg to Trump’s Middle Eastern political strategies. I feel incredibly lucky to have met and learned from some truly wonderful journalists who I hope to keep in touch with in the future.

Before I left for Berlin I was wildly excited for the three weeks ahead. Even with my excitement I could have never fathomed the amazing experience I was lucky enough to have. Leaving Berlin on the last day was heartbreaking for a variety of reasons: saying goodbye to some of my favorite people; saying goodbye to a city I absolutely loved; and saying “see ya later” to a program that gave me so much.

Alison Walker, Emerson College, Boston, MA

Glimpses of sunlight, smells of spring air through a window, and faint sounds of birds chirping from afar. It was that interrogation room, the one with a window that made Peter Keup cling onto his humanity while imprisoned by the Stasi. That single window reminded him of life outside of East Berlin. Outside of dehumanization and captivity.

Keup was just 21, when he spent 10 months in Hohenschoenhausen, now a memorial that serves as a staunch reminder of the terrors of the Cold War. Keup led us through the halls of the prison, recalling tragically intimate details of his time there.

When I asked Keup what about what current events remind him of his time imprisoned he
paused for a moment and then responded, “A couple of years ago I had the idea of living in a real solid democracy. But now according to the ideas of the radicals, which is a worldwide
phenomenon, not so much. Look to the U.S., Germany, Turkey, Poland, Hungary-they are all
giving up part of the status of democracy.”

Keup went on to answer my question by discussing how the fear mongering ways of fake news and Russia’s involvement in the rise of populism hit too close to home.

I sat next to Keup on the U-bahn on our way to see where so many died attempting to escape
over the Berlin Wall. He discussed his life’s work with me, his passion for researching
dictatorships, and how it led him to North Korea.

Meeting with Keup was one of the over 50 invaluable stops on the Rias Berlin Fellowship.
I’ll never forget when we fired away questions at AFD leader, Beatrix Von Storch in a round
table-like fashion. She shared an eerily similar rhetoric of the far right in the United States and
pro-Brexiters in England. We challenged her answers in a way many German journalists simply don’t because of their “never again,” thinking and hate speech law culture.

Another fond memory from the program is when I bonded with the artist, Kani Alavi, who is
credited for preserving the Berlin wall. Alavi was able to rally over a hundred artists from around the globe to paint on the wall. He fought the German government to keep it up as a way to remember, and never forget all that the wall still symbolizes in the world.

I was able to compare the many interviews I’ve had with refugees in the United States amidst
America’s immigration law crisis to that of a Syrian Refugee living in Berlin. Hearing his story helped me understand the differences in international immigration law and how his journey was both similar and different as a refugee in Germany.

The list of valuable memories from the fellowship could truly go on forever. RIAS is an
unmatched experience, one that has been a significant milestone in my life.

From the walls of the U.S. Embassy to Deutsche Welle, the program is a mix of history, foreign policy, politics, and journalism.

RIAS has armed me with the context and intellectual understanding to tackle a wide range of
complex international topics as a young journalist. The pragmatic knowledge and cultural
understanding I gained about my own country and Germany is nothing any textbook could do

On top of it all, RIAS provides networking opportunities many starting a career in journalism
dream of-all of which, I’ve been utilizing to expand my career prospects as an aspiring foreign correspondent.

What made the experience particularly special, though, were the other fellows on the program. We were brought to Berlin from Universities all over the U.S.

Our unique personalities, backgrounds, and professional experiences added depth to every aspect of the program. We challenged each other’s worldviews and had endless political discussions that are off the table for many in today’s sensitive political landscape. Nonetheless, we learned so much from each other, and bonded as forever friends.

While the world is at a unique crossroads in time, RIAS was a crossroads for us student fellows as well. The program was a moment where we grappled with some of the world’s biggest issues, while we simultaneously had the time of our lives.

We wandered about every corner of Berlin, together. Meeting locals, enjoying the nightlife, and of course spending every lazy Sunday at MauerPark. In a way, we made ourselves at home in a city immersed with a history and culture like no other. Berlin will forever be part of our story.

Thank you again for everything, RIAS!