To Berlin and Beyond

Students are flocking to Emory's European politics program in Germany

By Samantha Perpignand 11Ox 13C


Setting the Scene: Assistant Professor of Political Science Drew Linzer describes the landscape of German politics.

Courtesy of David R. Davis

Even though Emory students can be found studying abroad on six continents any time of year, more and more of them are heading to Berlin to study European politics. This summer, 26 students enrolled in the program, the most in its history.

Until two years ago the program was based in Paris, but the escalating expense led then-director Tom Remington to explore other cities with the same cultural saturation and political vibrancy. Scott Schorr 12C—who participated in the program not once but twice—likens the new Berlin experience to the U-Bahn, the German rail system. Like rapid transport, the program shuttles students across many diverse cities, ideas, and institutions.

“Berlin is a multicultural, cosmopolitan, and progressive hub of Europe,” he said. “But Berlin is just the starting point for interacting with the modern European Union. During my two years, our group was fortunate to visit Brussels, Prague, Budapest, Dublin, Amsterdam, and The Hague, in addition to Berlin.”

During four weeks of instruction at the Hertie School of Governance, students learn about human rights, comparative judicial politics, and economic decision making in the European Union. But what sets the program apart are the site visits students take across Europe, seeing national and regional institutions and meeting with politicians and policymakers.

“Our very first site visit was a trip to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp right outside Berlin, for our Human Rights in Europe class,” said Nandita Balakrishnan 14C, who attended last year’s program. “I had never before gone to a place that actually made me feel physically ill until I went here. It was both horrifying and enlightening. This place makes you reflect on your own life and contributions. You can really envision the suffering the people who stayed here felt. Though the trip definitely left me feeling sad, in retrospect it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. It made me think.”

Berlin isn’t short on history—remnants from the Cold War are everywhere. “For me, the most memorable moment came when we visited the former Stasi headquarters in East Berlin,” Remington said, referring to the secret police of the old East German communist regime, whose headquarters are now a museum. “Before visiting the Stasi headquarters, we watched the film The Lives of Others, a moving and realistic portrayal of the work of the Stasi. At one point the Stasi officer meets with the minister of state security in his office. When our group visited the Stasi building, we saw that very office. What had been a scene in a movie became suddenly real.”

While site visits vary from year to year, students this year spent their first weekend outside Germany in Madrid, followed by trips to The Hague, Brussels, and Paris.

“I look at some programs where they just go to Europe and essentially have a regular class, but it’s done in a classroom in Paris. The extracurriculars are nice, but there’s no real reason to be in Europe,” said David R. Davis, who now directs the program. “So we try hard to really take advantage of these opportunities—that’s the core of the program. Europe is a great place to do human rights because you have a very strong regional court, you have all the international courts like the ICC [International Criminal Court], and you have a number of governments with a strong commitment to human rights in foreign policy.” 

The ICC has become a regular stop for students. “Next to Sachsenhausen, this was my favorite site visit,” Balakrishnan said. “The ability to see war criminals on trial is an experience I think very few people get. I could not believe that the defendants were allegedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. I cannot emphasize enough how surreal that is.” 

Four years ago, students watched the prosecutor present evidence against former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war. Davis took students back in 2009 to hear Taylor’s defense. In late April, Taylor was found guilty of all counts and sentenced to 50 years in prison. The Berlin program provided Davis and his students the chance to witness each stage of the event. 

Program organizers depend in part on well-connected colleagues across the university to set up meetings with figures such as Stef Blok, the parliamentary leader of the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, who discussed with students the need to reform Dutch society. “Doing this without a really good support system at Emory would be really hard,” Davis said. In the past, students have had the chance to meet with union leaders in Dublin to discuss the Irish financial crisis. 

“Our meetings at parliaments in Germany, Brussels, Prague, and Budapest deepened students’ understanding of the intense struggles taking place in Europe over issues such as the Euro crisis and immigration,” Remington said. 

Support from The Halle Foundation also has been crucial to the success of the program, allowing Emory to award substantial study abroad scholarships to several students each year. “We were able to bring people that couldn’t have gone otherwise,” according to Davis. 

The experience has been formative for many students. “We’ve had two students who have gone back and completed master’s degrees in Geneva, and one who did a yearlong internship with the World Health Organization motivated by the experience of visiting the organization during the program,” Davis said. “We’ve also had a student who went back to the Netherlands to pursue a degree in human rights, and another has done an internship with the ICC.” Some students also reorient their focus to international law or criminal law as a result of the program. 

By the time the program ends in Paris, students have experienced more than 600 miles of rare adventure. 

“Managing in a new culture gave them a sense of confidence about their ability to handle new experiences,” Remington said. “For some, the opportunity to visit the beautiful East European capitals Prague and Budapest opened their eyes to a new and unfamiliar part of the world.”

Samantha Perpignand 11Ox 13C is an Emory College student co-majoring in English and journalism.

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