Ashley Ray-Harris is a recent alumna from DeSoto, Texas. Interested in the racial and cultural diversity of modern German culture, DeSoto chose to study for a year in Hamburg through the Smith College Junior Year Abroad program.
Why did you decide to go to Hamburg?
I decided on Hamburg because I wanted to be fully immersed in the German language, but I still wanted to be in a big city. Berlin is very accommodating to English-speakers and I thought Hamburg would be a greater challenge. The more I learned about Hamburg, the more I fell in love with it. I’m from Chicago, and Hamburg is very similar; it’s on the water and has a ton of different neighborhoods. I had never been to Germany before, but finding a place that seemed sort of familiar, but was still very different, made me choose the Smith College JYA Program.
What was your biggest “culture shock” as you got used to living in Germany?
It’s a much more outspoken society. In America, we’re very polite, particularly to our professors. However, in Germany, if students don’t like something they let the administration know. When my first semester at the University of Hamburg started, there was a one-day protest, and no students went to class because the university had raised tuition. I couldn’t imagine that happening in America, where we expect tuition to go up every year. Even in the classroom, if students thought the teacher had assigned too much reading, they’d yell about it and argue until the reading was reduced or the assignment was changed. I couldn’t imagine doing that at Williams.
Did you stay with a host family? If so, how did that affect your experience abroad?
I lived in a dorm with 18 other students from all over the world. I liked it because it moved my experience past Germany. I made friends from France, Norway, and Turkey just by hanging out in our living room. It also gave me more independence and the opportunity to live as most college students live in Germany.
Did your experience abroad change your initial perceptions of Germany at all?
I can’t say I really went to Germany with any initial perceptions. Germany is a country that’s often stereotyped as being very organized and homogeneous, but I knew from my earlier German classes that these things weren’t true. I didn’t really know what to expect, but in Hamburg I found this amazing mix of the old, stereotypical German identity that most people imagine, and the new, diverse, and colorful Germany that most Americans never consider. I think I have a better idea of German society today than I did when I went.
Do you think that you will incorporate your study abroad experience into your major, for example through a thesis or an independent study?
I’m a History and English major and my concentration in history is German History, so everything while I was there was inspirational and furthered a lot of the research I had been doing at Williams. For me, it goes back to that idea of a new, multicultural Germany that Americans don’t always know about. A lot of people asked me why I, an African-American female, wanted to go to Germany. They had no idea that it’s an incredibly diverse place, and I wanted to explore its diversity more. While there, I focused a lot of my classes on the huge Turkish and African populations in Germany and on how they’re perceived by the Germans. I’m continuing that at Williams this year with classes that focus on race and Germany and I’m working to shape this idea into an independent Winter Study project.
Why do you think it’s important for Williams students to study in foreign countries? Do you recommend a full year abroad?
I think time abroad is incredibly important. I’ve grown in a lot of ways. For me, being in such a different place, where I faced new challenges, really helped me realize what was important to me and what I wanted to focus on. It was an opportunity to get out of the academic bubble for a while and examine things. I can’t say I didn’t miss Williams a lot, though, and wouldn’t really recommend a full year abroad. Williams is such a special place and we only get so much time there, so it was hard seeing cool speakers and events coming to Williams on my Facebook feed and knowing that I’d never get to experience them. For me, it was worth the sacrifice, but you really have to consider what you’re leaving behind.
What was your favorite food that you ate while in Germany?
Döner! It’s a little like a sandwich or gyro, and it’s made with chicken or beef, onions, cabbage, lettuce, tomato, and tzatziki sauce. It’s a Turkish dish that came to Germany during the huge migration of Turkish workers, but has become a German favorite. Apart from being delicious, I think it’s a great example of how German culture is changing and expanding.