IS student Sam Sommerfeld makes global connections through language and history while on exchange

May 30, 2023

Sam Sommerfeld was one of the recipients of the 2021 International Studies Travel Grant and was able to participate in a 6-month exchange to Germany. Now that he’s returned he’s taken some time to reflect on his experience abroad.

By Sam Sommerfeld

In winter 2022 I attended a 6-month exchange with Humboldt University zu Berlin. For the duration of this exchange, I studied in the department of Sozialwissenschaften which combines political science, sociology and economics. While most of the courses at Humboldt University are conducted in German, I was able to sign up for a variety of fascinating courses in English. Furthermore, despite studying in English, I had many opportunities to improve my German language skills through both informal and formal means.

Thanks to The International Studies Travel Grant, I was able to partake in a month-long intensive German Course as soon as I arrived in Berlin. This program was offered exclusively to exchange students at Humboldt University, no matter their level of fluency in German. I was placed in the B1.1 course where I studied with students from all around the world. The class’s international and multi-disciplinary community allowed me to make connections with people I never would have met normally and to learn more about countries which I had not researched. Throughout this class, my German language skills improved considerably and allowed me to continue my German education at a higher level than the courses offered at SFU. The course also focused on improving our familiarity with German and Berliner culture and challenges that I continued to engage with throughout my time on exchange. Moreover, my instructor was extremely passionate about connecting my classmates and me with as many local cultural events, landmarks and exhibits as possible. As part of these efforts, we took several fascinating tours, of not only museums but of markets, protests and activist communities. Furthermore, the school (Sprachzentrum) itself, offered several free guided outings that I was able to partake in, such as a trip to the Planetarium, a riverboat excursion and a guided tour of Berlin in English and German. Finally, this program helped students understand how the enrollment and administrative process worked at Humboldt which was incredibly helpful.

Living in Berlin has made me appreciate the Cold War and its global impacts in much realer and grittier terms. In many ways, the struggle between the USSR and the West over a divided Berlin was the epitome of the Global Cold War. The struggle between East and West, both in terms of political/economic systems and cultures is still very evident in Berlin, from the architecture of the buildings to the ruins of imposing guard towers. This new appreciation of the Cold War and its impact on the average citizen has been extremely enlightening as I was born after the fall of the USSR and have occasionally struggled to see the impact of the Cold War’s historical legacy on current events.

Moreover, living in Berlin during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting energy crisis, has been particularly enlightening. Germany has long had a positive, almost compassionate relationship with Russia; however, the recent invasion has caused an enormous shift in public opinion.  It has been fascinating to see Russian support fade and to hear rising calls for Germany to take a leading role on the world stage from within the country. This change and a more assertive Germany will undoubtedly make a difference on the world stage and I look forward to being able to research and write more about this issue in my future classes.    

This exchange allowed me to make connections with interesting people and places, develop my language skills and see ongoing global issues through a European lens. These opportunities were always enhanced by living in Berlin which is an energetic and unbelievably unique city. Overall, my exchange with Humboldt University was an incredible experience and one that I would highly recommend to others.