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Students take a stroll on the streets of Berlin.

Berlin study abroad program travels beyond the four-wall classroom

The most important aspect about study abroad is you get what you put into it. If you go to another country and stand by while the country exists around you, you just went somewhere. If you go there and put yourself into the country and you make an effort to live in it, you will get out what you put in. ”

Ravi Tandon, Computer Science Sophomore

Undergraduate Exchange Program at Humboldt University 

Medical Student Rotation at Charité Hospital

The Berlin Program

Ethan Tang spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore year studying abroad in Germany. He toured the East German Police Headquarters, explored the history of the Berlin Wall, and gained a more in-depth insight into the local culture through his classes.  

For him, participating in Northwestern’s Berlin: A Global City in the Center of Europe program proved to be a substantially transformative, yet academically challenging experience.

“Our classes were intense and learning the German language was difficult,” said the economics major. “But it was incredible to talk about a topic in class, and then see it in person and be able to experience it.”

The program is one of several Northwestern opportunities at Humboldt Universität through an institutional partnership. Students in the program inquire into the city’s culture, history, politics, and its relation to the rest of Germany and Europe. Topics vary from year to year based on faculty expertise and current or trending topics.

“Students have the opportunity to explore this fascinating, historically unique, dynamic and ever-changing city onsite under most favorable circumstances,” explains Ingrid Zeller, Professor of Instruction in the Department of German, who will be the program director for Summer 2019.

According to Zeller, the program encourages students to carve their own paths, while also promoting a strong sense of community. “Students are eased into the experience by a strong team and support system of Northwestern administrators, faculty, graduate students and peers, which gradually allows them to grow into more independent global citizens in the second part of the program,” she adds.

The eight-week program consists of two four-week sessions. The first session is taught by Northwestern faculty in Berlin, while the second allows students to enroll at Humboldt Universität directly.

Session I

During the first part of the program, Northwestern faculty members in the German Department bring their expertise of the country – and its language, literature, history, and politics – to the country itself.

Since the program was established in 2012, a rotation system has allowed numerous German faculty members to work onsite in Berlin with the students and direct the program, including Denise Meuser, John Paluch, and Ingrid Zeller. In addition, over a dozen graduate students and additional faculty members have taught on the program.

In those first four weeks, Northwestern faculty offer students a broad introduction to Berlin and the German language, all through a combination of traditional classroom learning and concurrent excursions throughout the city and nearby historically and culturally relevant locations.

Last summer for example, students dove into Berlin’s gentrification issues in the course "German 222: Introduction to German Culture, Politics and Economics," which was co-taught by Denise Meuser, a Professor of Instruction in the Department of German and 2018 Program Director, and Jan Behrs, a DAAD Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of German, who received his Ph.D. in German Literature from Humboldt Universität in Berlin in 2012.

First, students were introduced to the topic through readings, lectures, and classroom discussions, which enabled them to put on their comparative lenses and discuss similarities and differences between Berlin and their hometowns.

Then, by walking through the neighborhoods Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain – places they were learning about just hours before – the students were able to contextualize the issues they were studying.

“My favorite part of the program was the excursions because part of the learning process is going out into the city and experiencing for ourselves what Berlin is about,” said communication sophomore Emma Raimi.

Session II

Offered by Humboldt’s Summer School, the second part of the program includes classes which allow Northwestern students to integrate with peers from around the globe, turning it into a worldly, comparative experience.

Students with a wide range of interest and areas of study can choose from various topics. A few of Summer 2019 topics include:

  • “Land in the City: Green in the City” for Environmental Studies majors interested in Berlin’s sustainable advancements and its role as a global leader in green urban planning,
  • “The Contested City - Intercultural Tensions in Germany” for Political Science and Social Policy majors interested in the tensions surrounding Germany’s open borders policy for refugees and immigrants, and
  • “What do Germans laugh about? A Performative History of German Comedy from 1945 until Today” for Theatre majors interested in Germany’s distinct brand of humor and performance.

“Experience ‘your own Berlin’ and don’t follow what anyone else is doing,” said Raimi, as advice to prospective students. “Explore for yourself, because it’s a city of change and it’s a city of art and individuality. I encourage you to find yourself and your own individuality in the city. You can really grow if you experience it that way.”


Study abroad provides students with an unparalleled experiential education about the world-at-large. Northwestern programs, administered by the Global Learning Office (GLO), have successfully incorporated various facets of outside classroom learning. The programs, all developed by Northwestern alongside partner institutions abroad, are known for their balanced combination of classroom lecture, thematic site visits, field research, community engagement, or immersive excursions. GLO currently offers 142 undergraduate programs in 40 countries.

The 'Student Perspectives on Study Abroad in Berlin' film was produced by the Global Learning Office.