Reflecting | #4

This past week has been a week of reflection. From visiting a concentration camp, to spending a week with a woman from South Africa, my perspective of the world has definitely shifted.

Everything is still going well in my internship! I’m officially half-way through. I’m especially grateful for the amount of freedom I’m given by my supervisor. We don’t get a step-by-step guide – instead, Dr. Notthoff prefers us to try everything out on our own first. We’re assigned a task on SPSS and it’s up to us to find a way to do it. Of course, she’s always there to help and we can ask questions at any point, but I find the learning process more effective when I’m persevering through trial and error. It’s always amazing to have the feeling of accomplishment when I figure it out, and I actually remember how to perform the task instead of relying on rigid guidelines. And, our supervisor is always interested in making sure we do what we’d like to do. So, we have individual projects we picked out! I chose to write a manual for future interns at Universität Leipzig, giving instructions for common tasks as well as advice for settling in to this particular internship and location. Other than my manual, I’ve been busy extracting data, which has definitely been tedious. But I’ve learned that I work well when I’m given a variety of tasks, so breaking it up with SPSS analysis and continuing to write the introduction and methods sections really helps. It’s been over a month and I still continue to be surprised by the level of work (e.g. writing a paper and doing statistical analyses) I get to do here without any prior research experience!

As for my travels, I visited Berlin to take day trips to both Potsdam and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. In Potsdam, I learned all about the Prussian royalty and old German history, and as you can imagine, all of the palaces and scenery are gorgeous. I loved Potsdam, but my visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp the next day was absolutely life-changing. In my German classes I’ve spent countless units learning about the Holocaust, but the textbooks, movies, and books can’t truly capture the cruelty of the camps. It was horrifying, numbing, and sobering to see the ways that the government tortured and destroyed millions of innocent lives – especially in person; I was standing on the ground where all of this happened, and there was no way to look away. And thinking about the world today, there are likely such camps in many countries. History repeats itself (and seems to be repeating, or is at least “rhyming with” itself right now in the United States), and it’s absolutely terrifying.

The famous words at the camp entrance

My experience as a student with a psychology background definitely shaped my lens of the concentration camp. Many of the topics we touched on in my social psychology class connected with the tactics used at Sachsenhausen. I remembered the studies that attempted to explain the behavior of the Holocaust – the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Shock Experiment, the Asch Conformity Experiment, and so on. Throughout my time here in Europe, my desire to go down a path of advocacy and activism has really strengthened. I know that I’d find a calling in psychology research studying prosocial (and antisocial) behavior and aggression. Additionally, my women’s studies education has also played a role in my lens here in Europe. While I was at the concentration camp, I kept wondering about the untold stories of victims of the Holocaust – what about the Roma women who were killed directly on sight, or the pregnant women living in unspeakable conditions knowing their child will not survive, or victims of the LGBTQ+ community who underwent brutal sterilization experiments? One of the biggest takeaways I got from my women’s studies class is that we need to uplift the voices of those facing oppressions in order to tackle oppressive systems as a whole, as they are all related. And by bringing to light stories from the Holocaust (which really wasn’t that long ago), we gain a historical lens crucial to fighting injustice. As I continue through my journey, I definitely feel a calling to try to understand human behavior as well as work towards social justice.

Bearing a heavy weight on my shoulders, I decided to cut my Berlin visit a bit shorter. Instead of scrounging for great finds in the city’s famous flea markets, I joined my host’s family get-together in her garden the next day. It was such a wonderful day – I felt so welcomed, I could breathe in the fresh air and feel at peace, and I saw amount of love and goodness in people after a day of learning about the capability of humans to be purely evil. Plus, we had a guest in our apartment for a week! She was a previous guest of my host, and they became close friends through that experience. Her name is Dalina, she’s from South Africa, and is a retired German high school teacher. I spent most of the garden party talking with her, as she speaks fluent English. Although all of my internship is in English, I miss speaking the language at home as most of my conversations with my host are in German and the city isn’t as English-friendly as cities like Berlin. So, I soaked up every moment I could to speak English with Dalina. We grew quite close despite our age difference and I’m even considering saving up to visit her in South Africa! 

The family garden party – so nice!!

I learned so much about South Africa, and in this I even learned a lot about America. I knew this, but yet I still felt surprised when Dalina said that the president of the United States is the most influential person in the world. South African news covers events in their country, in the continent of Africa, and in America. American trends, such as music, fashion, or even things like vegan lifestyles, spread throughout the world. I can’t believe how many songs I’ve heard in English on the radio here. Although yes, many American exports are great, but through globalization, America is also exporting misogyny, racism, homophobia, diet culture, beauty standards, and so much more. I can’t believe that I didn’t realize that computer code is all in English, so you must learn the English language in order to study computer science. I also learned about some of the rich history of Africa! There truly is so much we don’t learn about in our Euro-centric education system.

Dalina and I in a small town nearby (Quedlinburg)

Dalina and I bonded over the fact that our lives feel so competitive, and Germany feels so much more relaxed and leisurely-paced. I realized how economic systems (Dalina and I grew up with capitalism, while my host grew up with communism) have such an impact on our mental health and relationships. Dalina and I agreed that we always feel the need to buy more “stuff” and can never really relax. In Germany and many other countries in Europe, people aren’t as competitive and don’t need as many “things” to be happy. My host doesn’t need a microwave, toaster, dishwasher, standing shower, or air conditioning to live an incredible life. She’s traveled to 36 countries on her own, usually without any phone (and if she does bring her phone, it’s her ten-year old Blackberry) or internet, only a backpack, and just a bit of knowledge of English and Spanish. She’s one of the happiest and warmest people I’ve ever met. My host mentioned that life under communism was stress-free – you always knew your job was secure and you’d have food on your plate – but there was no freedom. She couldn’t travel or live without fear and paranoia. Gaining an international perspective on various economic systems has even led me to many self-revelations about my personal mental health/stress and relationships.

Speaking of mental health, I’m realizing how important it is to take care of yourself while in another country. For me, this means taking a good amount of breaks (both during my time at work and on my travels) and designating time for self-care every day. It gets hard not being able to talk to friends and family very much, and I often feel like I’m missing out on a lot at home. My life here is absolutely incredible, but it is definitely more difficult than I expected. Luckily, I’m in a city where life is a bit slower, there’s a ton of ways to relax in nature, and I come home to a loving, nurturing host. I’m learning to breathe a bit more, stress a bit less, and prioritize myself and my goals, but these things will be lifelong challenges for me. I’m really starting to give actual meaning to the phrase “take care of yourself” (or, as my host would say, “pass auf dich auf”) in my life.

The scenery of Leipzig is always beautiful!

Looking at my time here so far, I am so incredibly grateful for such life-changing, eye-opening experiences. It’s amazing how much I learn every single day – both in my internship and by living abroad. Auf Wiedersehen für jetzt!

One thought on “Reflecting | #4

  • June 28, 2018 at 2:59 pm
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    Elizabeth,

    This was such an amazing, eye-opening,, well-written reflection. It sounds like you are having some truly transformative experiences in your time abroad. I am so happy that your experience thus far has been so fulfilling and enriching!

    Your reflection on the implications of history and its tendency to repeat in cycles was really eye-opening, and it was such a cool experience for me to read through your process in crystallizing your passion points around some of the social issues that you mentioned throughout this post. Seeing how your expertise/area of study can intersect with the change you want to see and make in the world is such an empowering moment. While the work you’re doing as a researcher has certainly added value, it sounds like this moment of crystallization alone has made the trip worthwhile.

    I also want to commend you on your openness and intention in meeting and interacting with new people. You are practicing some truly excellent networking strategies. Building relationships through authentic connection is such a critical piece of expanding and activating your network, and the fact that you are building these sorts of relationships will pay huge dividends for you down the road.

    Lastly, your observations on work culture and the impact of economic structure to a culture’s adherence to healthy work-life balance was really interesting. Have you thought about how you can maintain some of the positive aspects of this work-life balance that seems to be present in Germany while balancing the expectation of constant productivity here at home?

    Again, thanks for a great blog post! It was such a treat to read about the powerful learning and growth that you got to experience.

    -Josh

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