Exploring the Fulbright Experience in Berlin

Last week I had the privilege of representing Luxembourg at the annual Berlin Seminar, hosted by the Fulbright Germany Commission. This was a meaningful experience for me, as I got to meet fellow Fulbright grantees, learn about other European countries, and bond over shared and unique experiences; and all of this took place in the dynamic city of Berlin, a perfect backdrop to my first adventure in Germany.

The Berlin Seminar, which hosted over 500 hundred participants, also provided an outlet for meaningful discussion and collaboration. While there I was able to meet American Fulbrighters, as well as German students who would be studying in America the following term. We interacted during workshops and discussion groups — a few topics were gender issues, EU politics, and (in the group I moderated) “Art and Identity Formation” — and found out that many of us were actively engaged in community service projects aimed at addressing salient issues like refugee integration. In fact, the refugee crisis was a reoccurring theme during the entire conference and a final presentation by migrant students was even offered to the English Teaching Assistants in an attempt to help us improve awareness in the classroom. Finally, the conference was more than just ntellectually stimulating, at times it was even therapeutic. While talking to other Fulbright grantees, I realized many of us are working through similar stress over life plans and applications for next year. The seminar provided an environment where we could talk through our anxieties, support each other, and offer advice.

Enjoying events hosted at the Berlin City Hall

Outside of the seminar, I was able to take some time to explore Berlin and I was struck by how a city of approximately 3.5 million people could feel so laid back. Berlin is fun and quirky with a culture of street art and hipster spots; however, I experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance seeing this vibrant culture exist alongside evidence of Berlin’s fraught history.

Street art and a mask shop in the Oranienstrasse area

I tend to think of history as something long ago, but I had to keep reminding myself that Berlin was divided into East and West Berlin during my parents’ lifetime, and the Holocaust took place during my great-grandparents’ time. These events are not as distant as they seem to me, and so it’s truly amazing how far Berlin has come in such a short period of time; yet it was also upsetting to see that people are so removed from the past that they are able to take happy selfies in front of the Berlin Wall or have picnics on the stones of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There was so much that I loved about Berlin, but also so much of the city that left me feeling ambivalent. However, I do think that the temporal closeness of political oppression and violence may be why Berlin feels so open and accepting now (certainly the way Berlin was described by Berliners made it seem as though the city was generally more progressive in its attitude toward migrants and other marginalized populations); perhaps people in Berlin make more of a conscious decision to be compassionate and accepting of others as a result of these historical reminders.

A section of the Berlin Wall
A section of the Berlin Wall

Despite those little moments of uncertainty, I am grateful to Fulbright for sending me to such an amazing city and I hope to visit Berlin again soon!

I was happy to even stumble upon a bit of Luxembourg while in Berlin.

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– Athena Turek-Hankins
2016-2017 U.S. Fulbright grantee to Luxembourg