First Person: Being abroad taught me more than any textbook could have

First Person: Being abroad taught me more than any textbook could have

By Michelle Lee ’16

Five years ago, when I first toured Norwich, the opportunity to study abroad caught my attention. In the midst of my second-to-last semester of undergrad, I realized I needed to get my act together if I still wanted to make a semester in Berlin, Germany, a reality. Before long, my flight was booked and bags were packed for what would be one of the most influential experiences of my life.

I made my way to Norwich’s international micro-campus, CityLAB:Berlin.

Feeling sheltered having grown up in the Northeast, I had visited American cities and fallen in love with places such as Chicago and Phoenix, but nothing I had seen could prepare me for what I would find abroad.

Not fully aware of what I was in for, I arrived in Berlin, and immediately felt taken aback by the roughness. I wasn’t expecting such a prestigious European city to feel off-beat. Graffiti covered buildings, squatters and foreign languages gave me culture shock, and the cold gray winter felt unwelcoming to my arrival.

However, it didn’t take long to fall into the routine. Making myself more comfortable with my surroundings, I gradually was able to experience all Berlin had to offer me.

Stepping away from the typical tourist venues, I became interested in current issues within the city of Berlin. It is a city that fought so hard to recover from division in the past, but now finds itself divided again over political issues regarding the present influx of refugees. The architectural response to the situation has changed my own thought process, as I observed Tempelhof, the famed Nazi airport and later site of the Berlin Airlift, get transformed into mass housing for the massive influx of refugees. Seeing this brought to mind the architectural challenge of how to design for present and future needs, while the future is unclear.

While focused on my studies, I strove to see as much of the world as possible within my four-month time frame. Night buses between cities gave me firsthand experience with Prague and Warsaw. Mid-semester excursion brought my class to Paris, where we became immersed in the art community of the city amidst a noticeable security presence, post-terrorist attack. Seeking my own adventure, I headed towards the Asian continent. Through China, I struggled with both language and cultural barriers much greater than I had in Europe, which was also a stark contrast to the welcoming attitude of Okinawa. As the semester in Europe came to an end, I traveled once more, to spend Easter with the Pope in Rome, beginning to grasp a new understanding of mass-scale architecture. Leaving Germany, I found myself not yet ready to return to the states. Taking a few stops on the way home, I became intrigued by the Mediterranean life of Malta and the art deco architecture of Scotland.

Overall, the challenging academics and a hunger for adventure brought me to places I never imagined. These experiences opened my mind past our small university in Vermont, onto a dynamic and ever-changing world. In Berlin, living within a community struggling with gentrification, in a city overcoming the ripple effect years after reunification and slowly coming to terms with an ugly past, I became aware of how drastically historic events have changed cultures and architecture for future generations.

Being abroad taught me more than any textbook could have. As a student studying architecture, pictures and floor plans can only explain so much. Traditional education can’t provide the understanding that comes with being able to touch the iron work of Mackintosh, walk the death march of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, climb the stairs of the Eiffel Tower and stand in a mass of strangers in St. Peters for Easter mass.

“Surreal” is the only way to describe returning to the states. I was homesick in the sense that I missed the familiarity of the States, both eager to get home but saddened by the completion of my adventure. But now, after transitioning into a job Phinney Design Group in Saratoga, NY, where fellow NU alum Mike Goard is vice president, I have a growing awareness of the many positive changes this experience had on me, personally and architecturally.