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An Internship in Germany with IAESTE

Two days after graduation, I flew off to Germany to begin a 2-month internship at the Institute of Nutritional Science in Potsdam. My European excursion was made possible by IAESTE (International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience, www.iaeste.org), an organization that coordinates international exchanges for science and engineering students and graduates interested in gaining research experience. My stipend was funded by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service, www.daad.de). The fact that Potsdam was located in the former East Germany only heightened my curiosity because I wanted to experience a culture and lifestyle as different as possible from my own in western Canada. I had no idea that my brief stay in Potsdam would lead to an adventure lasting more than a year.

Every weekend I rode the efficient German trains to explore far-flung towns, glittering cities, and neighboring countries. Although train tickets are expensive, the Deutsche Bahn offers bargains such as the Schoenes Wochenende ticket (Happy Weekend fare, DM35) that allows unlimited travel on most trains during the weekend.

After two months in Potsdam I was too fascinated by Europe to leave willingly, so I scoured the Internet and bombarded laboratories across the continent with emails asking for employment or an internship. (Even if a company or laboratory is not publicly hiring, one should still inquire because many opportunities are not advertised.) Through this strategy, I found a 1-year position at the Max-Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin. With the distinction of being the largest construction site in Europe, Berlin was literally transforming itself by the day.

Germans are eager to speak English and universities are full of students interested in conversational exchanges. Although one could easily survive in Berlin with English and a very limited knowledge of German, I took an evening German course after moving there. It was exciting to be in a class full of people from all corners of the world.

Aside from the language barrier, living in Germany requires adaptation to some cultural quirks. Hierarchy is clearly defined and respected; openly sharing one’s personal life at work is not. Sometimes German bureaucracy achieves correctness at the expense of efficiency. My experience with extending my visa was a humbling cultural lesson in itself.

Watching Berlin evolve at the turn of the century was an experience of a lifetime. I gained a foreign language and many wonderful friendships with Germans and non-Germans alike, and my career interests have expanded dramatically to an array of fields that include foreign affairs, writing, photography, and architecture.