The Fulbright Berlin Seminar

by Rolf Jacobson

When I first learned that I had “won the lottery” and been awarded the opportunity to attend the annual Fulbright Berlin Seminar, I was excited by the prospect of traveling to Berlin, but really had no idea what to expect from the seminar. I also knew I’d miss out on almost a week of prime spring skiing in Norway, which I was definitely bummed about. But it’s not every day you get the chance to stay on the 27th floor of a 4-star hotel in the heart of a major European city, so I quickly decided to take my winnings and go to Berlin.

The Fulbright Berlin Seminar is a logistical beast, bringing comparisons to the 1944 Allied invasion of France, or D-day, to mind. More than 500 American Fulbright students (and family) descend on the overwhelmed front-desk staff of the Park Inn Hotel, hoping to check in to their rooms and then be ushered into a fleet of waiting tour buses – within the span of a couple hours. Needless to say, things didn’t go as smoothly as planned. But the guided tours of Berlin are an amazing chance to see the city, get oriented, and learn about its palpable history. So check in as early as possible, and make sure to get on the tour bus.

The Fulbrighters at the Berlin seminar are a mix – the majority either US Fulbright students currently studying in Germany or German students heading to the US on Fulbright scholarships next year. But there are also many US Fulbright students from a wide range of other European countries. Relatively few are older or choose to pack family members along, but the activities and accommodations for family members are generous (though expensive). For example, family members are offered separate excursions to the Berlin zoo and the natural history museum, and child care is provided at the hotel during evening events.

Most of the Berlin seminar consists of talks and panel discussions with either Fulbright students, Fulbright alumni, or various dignitaries. Some of these are really quite special and engaging – such as keynote addresses from the former US Ambassador to Germany, and the mayor of Berlin. And the music gala featuring Fulbright musicians is not to be missed. But frankly, for Fulbrighters coming from Norway who haven’t seen Berlin before, the seminar may be a little over-structured with relatively little free time. Fortunately, not all the sessions are mandatory, so it’s possible to decide which non-mandatory sessions you’re interested in attending, and then use your remaining time to explore the city.

Berlin is a vast, modern city, still in the process of healing the scars left by World War II, communism, and the Berlin Wall. Over the years, the process of rebuilding has created an extraordinarily diverse city fabric. You can stroll down the wide boulevards of a 1950’s-era modernist utopia on Karl Marx Allee, or duck under the stone columns of Berlin’s historic museum district, still bearing the pock marks and blast holes from the intense street fighting that ended WW II. As the city has filled back in, new immigrant populations have helped create a unique food culture – make sure to sample the Currywurst and Döner kabobs offered by some of the city’s many street vendors.

Perhaps most importantly, the Berlin seminar is a chance to connect with other people. If you’re interested in traveling in Europe, it’s a great opportunity to make acquaintances and learn about the best places to go and things to do. Some of the seminar sessions are designed to facilitate certain types of connections, and the nightly dinners with an open bar don’t hurt your chances either. In all likelihood, you’ll meet some people from your home state or region, talk with German students interested in living and studying there, and make connections with others studying in your field. As I Iearned, it’s all there for you to take advantage of, and it’s well-worth a missed ski-trip or two.