Letter Re: Study Abroad

Kaylen Alexis writes to Davidson students about his year in Germany.

By: Kaylen Alexis ’19

Dear Davidson Community,

I write to you from 21A Aßmannshauser Straße in Berlin, my home away from home until the end of July. I’ve been living here in this very room since the turn of the calendar year, but I’ve been in Berlin since last August. I thought I would write a piece for the Davidsonian (something I’ve never done before) to serve a few purposes. First, I want to offer a glimpse into the life, thoughts and experiences of a student abroad. This is especially aimed at those who are thinking of fleeing the coop sophomore or junior year. Secondly, I’ve been away from Davidson for a while now, and I feel as if, through writing this, I can maintain some semblance of contact with my college. I do miss it. In addition, I have a working theory (it’s not revolutionary) that helping others is therapeutic. But a warning: I don’t have enough perspective yet to fully summarize and compartmentalize my time in Berlin. Rather, I can only provide a scattering of thoughts and impressions; I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Prior to living here, my knowledge and perception of Germany stemmed more from history books than contemporary news and modern facts. I don’t think I’m alone when I admit (somewhat grudgingly) that by word association, Nazis, World Wars and The Holocaust came quite readily to mind when I thought of Germany. Everyone will tell you that the country has changed, and they’re right. Publicly, Germany bears its guilt openly and “well,” and privately, people have (for the most part) moved on. Past transgressions are indeed a thing of the past–an old Germany that simply no longer exists. Berlin especially champions progressive values. Reading the news from back home only further highlights Germany’s unprecedented rise to the forefront of the “free world”, but note, there are traces and reminders of yesterday. Jewish schools have armed guards outside day and night. A product of past transgressions to be sure, but sadly, also a current necessity against surges in anti-Semitism across Europe. I share this only as an example of how living somewhere new can alter your perspective and allow insight into a country’s societal complexities. One can only learn so much from Inglorious Bastards or high school history courses.

Language acquisition is a stimulating experience. Challenging, frustrating, exhilarating and rewarding, all mixed up together, day in and day out. Setbacks and progress go hand-in-hand and learning German has been all the above. Berlin has so much English that it’s hard to call what I’m doing immersion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered food IN GERMAN, and the person behind the counter has responded IN ENGLISH. The power of English is impressive; everyone wants to speak it, and it seems as if everyone here can. I’ve become jealous of Europeans who have their mother tongue, plus English, plus one or two other languages from surrounding countries. They’re linguistically advanced. I thought I was glad to have English as my first language, but seeing that everyone else learns it too makes me not so sure…the grass is always greener.

Part of coming abroad really is about finding yourself. I now have a little more perspective and insight into this cliché, and I’ve found it to be true. Berlin is a wild city, full of contradictions, such as intense, significant history juxtaposed with a wild, irreverent nightlife. One might go abroad and change his or her habits completely, much like that first year in college. One might also go abroad and realize that the way he or she has been doing things really is the best way for him or her. Both examples are, I think, ways of finding yourself. I appreciate that I exemplify the latter, but in order to experience my creature comforts and find the various outlets that let me be me, I’ve had to work a little harder. That, I postulate, is part of going abroad, and perhaps growing up (I’ll have to confirm this in a decade or so). Upon arrival, Berlin doesn’t line up an assortment of clubs for you to consider joining. There are no immediately accessible athletic or musical outlets such as intramural/club sports or a cappella groups. However, the rewarding feeling that comes with doing your hobbies abroad is only intensified due to the work one must put in to secure them here.

So go abroad. Or don’t. Do the year if possible. Or get your toes wet with one semester. I miss home, I miss (aspects of) Davidson, I miss people…and I’m happy here. You can be too.

Kaylen Alexis ‘19 is a German Studies major from Carrboro, North Carolina. Contact him at kaalexis@davidson.edu

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