Discovering Berlin

Lewis & Clark launches its first overseas study program to Berlin, with a special focus on attracting science students.

Shutterstock 415966762 © Jorg Hackemann Shutterstock 415966762 © Jorg Hackemann

Lewis & Clark launches its first overseas study program to Berlin, with a special focus on attracting science students.

“I’d never seen a doctor like her before,” raves senior Betty Yu, recalling her time shadowing Friederike, a family physician (and her host mother) in Berlin last fall.

A biochemistry/molecular biology major with a pre-med focus, Yu was one of 21 students who participated in Lewis & Clark’s new overseas program designed, in part, to inspire science majors to study abroad.

Over the course of the fall semester, Yu visited her host mother’s clinic several times. Although the lively conversations were often too fast for Yu’s limited German, Friederike translated for Yu after each appointment. Yu still remembers the palpable sense of connection between physician and patient

“Friederike sees so many patients, but she knows whole families and could tell me stories about them,” says Yu. In Germany, says Yu, doctors work hard and earn much less than doctors in the U.S., which may explain the shortage of physicians there. “But she’s so engaged … she really enjoys the work.”

Yu considers her Berlin experience to be one of the highlights of her time at Lewis & Clark. With offerings across the liberal arts spectrum—and special opportunities to study science—the Berlin program is certain to gather similar praise from future students.

Lewis & Clark overseas study participants at the New Palace in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. Lewis & Clark overseas study participants at the New Palace in Potsdam, just outside Berlin.

Science Emphasis Abroad

Lewis & Clark has a long tradition of valuing and encouraging international study. However, graduating with a degree in the natural sciences requires, in addition to general education requirements, numerous sequenced science courses and long hours in the laboratory. That means science majors sometimes have difficulty scheduling an overseas study program.

“Science degrees at Lewis & Clark have a lot of prerequisites, especially in chemistry,” explains Nikolaus “Niko” Loening, professor of chemistry and creator of the Berlin program. “It’s hard to find a semester to postpone a chemistry class and study abroad. Those who do end up returning to campus for a semester that’s just chemistry, chemistry, chemistry. It can be overwhelming.”

Loening, whose parents are German, has traveled extensively in Germany. A few years back, he spent his sabbatical in Berlin and began thinking about connections to Lewis & Clark. “I was surprised we didn’t have an overseas study program in Berlin, even though we’ve had a program in Munich for many years,” he says.

Berlin, with a population of roughly 3.5 million, is fast becoming one of the most visited cities in the world. It recently surpassed Rome to become the third most visited city in Europe, after London and Paris.

“Berlin is a young, dynamic city with a big youth culture,” says Loening. “It’s at the crux of a lot of history, obviously, but there’s also an amazing art and music scene, plus plenty of cultural diversity.”

Language was a deciding factor too. “Most of our overseas study programs in non-English-speaking countries require learning a foreign language,” he explains. “If you know Spanish, then Ecuador is fine; if you know French, then Senegal and Strasbourg are good. But if you’re not fluent in a second language, your options can feel more limited. In Berlin, English is a common second language, and almost everything is in both German and English. Since the courses for the Berlin program are taught in English, students are able to explore living in a foreign country without stressing about language difficulties impacting their academic progress.”

Drawing on the city’s inherent strengths, Loening decided to create an overseas study program in Berlin that includes three courses focused on German culture, art and architecture, and politics and history. In addition, depending on their majors, students take an environmental studies or structural biochemistry course. The program is open to all students, but it is of particular interest to those majoring in chemistry, biology, or biochemistry/ molecular biology since the structural biochemistry course counts toward their major requirements.

Berlin is a young, dynamic city with a big youth culture, It’s at the crux of a lot of history, but there’s also an amazing art and music scene, plus plenty of cultural diversity.Niko Loening, Professor of Chemistry and Creator of the Berlin Program

Loening partnered with the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES), a nonprofit that helps colleges develop overseas programs. IES already had a Berlin study center with many of the desired course offerings, and they arranged housing with German families for Lewis & Clark students. Loening served as the program leader and taught the 300-level structural biochemistry course.

Blythe Knott, acting director of overseas and off-campus programs, says the Berlin program is unique, largely because of its chemistry emphasis. “Structural biochemistry is required for many science majors,” she says. “Having this course taught by a Lewis & Clark faculty member in Berlin allows students to take the course abroad and stay in sequence for a four-year graduation. While other overseas study programs offer biology courses, none offer chemistry. This program fills that gap.”

Last fall, the Berlin program filled quickly; half of the participants were science majors and half were from other fields. “Having 21 students participate is a good number for a new program,” says Loening. Given the program’s strong initial showing, it is currently slated to be offered every two years.

Out of Their Comfort Zone

For many of the Lewis & Clark participants, the Berlin program marked the first time they had ventured out on their own outside of the campus setting. Students lived independently in host family apartments throughout the city and navigated the complex transit system to get around. For many, it was an eye-opener—and a big step in growing up.

Yu, who had never been to Europe, almost let fear stop her from applying. “I’m really close to my family and I was afraid I’d be homesick.”

She wasn’t. Instead she learned that “you have to get out of your bubble. If you do something different, you’ll learn from it.”

Junior chemistry major Riley Zickel grew up in “a very, very small town in California” and discovered he’s not a city person. At times, he found Berlin “super intense.”

During a weeklong break, many of his fellow students headed to London, but Zickel sought a quieter environment. “I went by myself to small villages in Hungary,” he recalls. “I needed to breathe and get out into the woods.”

For Anri Nick Ryan, a junior biochemistry/molecular biology major who grew up in Tokyo, Berlin pushed her to reflect on her cultural and national identity. In an online post, she wrote:

“Growing up in Japan, I looked different from my full-Japanese friends, so I identified as an American. In Germany, my host mother told me she was hesitant to call herself German because her parents weren’t from Germany and she didn’t ‘look’ German. Now, she’s lived in Germany for years and speaks the language, so she identifies as German. I realized every person has his or her own definition of why they belong to a certain country. Living in Germany has given me a more conscious, though more complicated, view of who I am and where I belong.”

Life Direction

The Berlin overseas study program has been carefully designed to give students a keen understanding of both the city and Germany. For some students, it did even more by helping them zero in on a direction for their future.

Junior Nicole Huizinga says the Berlin program provided her first opportunity to “step back and ask, ‘What do I want to do with my biology major?’”

In the program’s Contemporary Germany course, Huizinga was able to put her major to work by researching how gender bias impacts German medical research. She became so inspired by the work that she applied for a Lewis & Clark Dinah Dodds grant. The Dinah Dodds Endowment for International Studies, established by Missy Vaux Hall in honor of Dinah Dodds, professor emerita of German, provides funds to Lewis & Clark students to continue and expand research projects begun during their overseas study programs. The grant enabled Huizinga to attend a Berlin conference on women in science and technology and interview top researchers about testing for sex and gender differences in biomedical research.

The experience has set Huizinga on a new career path. After graduation, she plans to study how gender impacts the brain and behavior at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Betty Yu says her overseas study experience has altered her perception of what’s possible in medicine. It’s convinced her that she not only wants to be a medical doctor, but she wants to be the kind of family physician her host mother is.

“She knows and loves her patients,” says Yu, who is planning to volunteer with an overseas health care organization before attending medical school. “That’s how I want to be as a primary care physician—warm, caring, and connected.”

Award-winning writer Bobbie Hasselbring is a frequent contributor to the Chronicle.

  • Exploring German Culture

    During the Berlin overseas study program, Lewis & Clark students studied the culture, history, art, architecture, and politics of Berlin and Germany as well as environmental studies or biochemistry. However, it was walking the streets, sampling the food, using the transit system, and interacting with German host families that immersed them in city life. The students documented highlights of their experiences in a blog.


    “My first two weeks of dinner meals here were like a series of blind dates. Trying this and that, not knowing if I was ready to make a commitment, but enjoying the thrill. It’s as if schnitzel and I were eyeing each other, but weren’t yet ready for one another. I need to play the field first. But when that day came and my lips first met schnitzel, I knew there was no other dish for me.”

    —Sandy Mahar CAS ’17, History


    “Music is a constant here. Every day you hear live music. I met a really nice musician in a park. I heard a beautiful voice singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ After a moment or two, I joined in. Wiesel welcomed me with open arms—and beer—and we sang the night away.”

    –Riley Zickel CAS ’17, Chemistry

    Art and Architecture

    “I’m incredibly inspired by the buildings, streets, parks, cars, clothes, and art. One word I keep coming back to is refinement. It reflects the history of German design that prefers clean lines, exact and sometimes avant-garde proportions, and neutral or even detached color schemes.”

    –Bridget Thompson CAS’16, Sociology/Anthropology

    History Discovered

    “While Germany was divided, the Stasi—East Germany’s state security service—used this space [Stasi Prison Hohenschönhausen] to contain political prisoners and people who tried to emigrate out of East Germany. We walked through the halls of the prison, peeking into interrogation rooms and cells that had once held prisoners. Our tour guide revealed he had been imprisoned here by the Stasi for nearly a year after trying to flee to the West. I found it inspiring that he cared so much about sharing his story and educating others and that he chose to spend time in a place he once would have done anything to leave.”

    —Allie Collins CAS ’16, History

    “There were a lot of ghosts in the walls [of Stasi Prison], and you could feel them. When we entered one of the cells, I could see the kind of mental torture someone would go through living in that small, windowless room.”

    —A.J. Slepian CAS ’16, Biology

    “[At the Deutsches Historisches Museum] I thought the Homosexuality in Germany exhibit’s most powerful display was the listening booths that provided an audio loop of homophobic quotes spanning decades from citizens, politicians, celebrities, and organizations.”

    —Grace Dudley CAS ’17, Economics