At all levels of government, business, and the nonprofit sector in more than 150 countries, you will find countless individuals whose personal and career paths were forever altered by their professional exchange experience. Individuals who together form an impressive group: Cultural Vistas alumni.
You can count Christina Tsafoulias, a 2013-14 Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow, among them.
Since her fellowship year in Germany came to an end, Christina, a former congressional staffer in the House and now an advisor for congressional affairs at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, D.C., has continued to contribute to the discourse around the the transatlantic relationship in a meaningful way.
As one of the Atlantic Council’s 12 Next Generation Fellows she helped author Through a New Prism: A Next Generation Strategy for the U.S.-German Relationship, published in Washington and Berlin in June 2015, which offers strategies and recommendations on a myriad of topics, including traditional defense partnerships and economic ties, tensions in the intelligence relationship, and shared challenges such as migration.
We recently caught up with Christina to learn how her year abroad has impacted her career, why she feels exchange programs remain so vital, and see what tips she had to share about living in Germany.
You studied abroad in France as an undergrad. How did that experience prepare you for your time as a Bosch Fellow?
One of the best lessons I learned from studying abroad in undergrad is how to be comfortable with who I am and what I have to offer – as a language learner, as a student, and as an American. I studied in Paris in the spring of 2003, which is right when the Iraq war was starting. Paris was rife with protests against Bush Administration policies, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable as an American in France at that time.
There were times when I was afraid to open my mouth lest my American accent shine through and give me away. I was afraid that people I met would blame me for American policies they disagreed with, and I didn’t want to assume a mantle of responsibility for my entire country, nor did I want to be in a position to have to apologize for ideas I didn’t agree with.
What I found out once I opened up a bit to classmates and acquaintances, though, was this: no one blamed me personally at all, but they were curious to hear my take on events. I was able to engage in some in depth, fascinating conversations with French peers that never would have happened if I let my fear of being “found out” as an American win.
This was a great experience to keep foremost in mind when I moved to Germany for the Bosch Fellowship in June 2013, about one week before Edward Snowden released his trove of information on the NSA spying programs. No country was more hurt and outraged by the information than Germany, and I found myself once again feeling awkward for being an American at a trying time in transatlantic relations.
Luckily, this time, I could look back on my time in France and take inspiration from my lessons learned there. I engaged my German colleagues early in conversations about NSA practices and what impacts they have on American and German society, and in the end, my Bosch year was greatly enriched by being able to personally observe and interact with the German reaction to controversial American policies.
The opportunities themselves were quite different in that my time in Paris had an academic focus, whereas my time in Berlin was professional in nature. I certainly felt more carefree as a student in Paris, but I think I personally grew more as a result of my time spent working in Germany precisely because there was a larger element of responsibility attached to it. I also knew by that point what an amazing opportunity it was to be able to work in a different country and how out of the ordinary it was for most people – which definitely furthered my enjoyment!
In a paper for the German Council on Foreign Relations, you mentioned the chief value of exchange programs continues to be the horizon-broadening effect they have on individual participants. In what ways have you felt such an effect?
I’ve felt it in almost too many ways to enumerate! I believe that just having a more international perspective really helps you to keep up with an increasingly globalized world. For me, understanding people’s motivations has always been key to finding compromise and dynamic solutions – and there is no better way to understand a different society’s motivations than by living in that society and getting a personal feel for why its citizens make decisions the way they do.
To go back to the NSA example, I felt I came away from my year in Germany with an acute understanding for why the NSA affair represented such a quintessential example of the disconnect in a transatlantic partnership that had too long been taken for granted. It felt like Americans were saying to Germans, “sure, we spied on you, but let’s just get over it and move on,” while I got the sense that feelings and reactions ran much deeper in Germany – due in large part to a complicated historical relationship with government spying, among other cultural touchstones. Having that more nuanced understanding felt like a real value-add when considering the current state of the U.S.-German relationship.
On a more personal level, international exchange just opens up so many more possibilities than the ones you find exclusively at home. I was able to witness different career paths up close that I never even knew existed and talk with people who offered great new perspectives on areas of study or professional opportunities. I probably never would have written an article on the importance of exchange had I not myself lived abroad a few times and felt the excitement of knowing there are always more options out there than the ones you see immediately before you.
Do you feel that the skills and experiences you gained make you a better employee today? If so, in what ways – whether obvious or more subtle?
One of the most obvious examples is the improvement in my language skills that resulted from living in a new language. (I don’t say just “speaking” a new language because you gain so much more when you’re forced to live in that language.) I don’t pretend to be the most eloquent speaker of foreign languages by any means, but my ability to speak and understand French and German contributed directly to my being hired to work at the Embassy of Switzerland.
A more subtle skill is one of adaptability that I think many people pick up when living abroad without even noticing it. Every day you’re forced into new situations that confuse you, make you uncomfortable, or challenge you in new ways – and you have no choice but to confront them head on.
That can be an incredible asset in your career when you step back and think about it. You don’t need to know what the solution is right away, but you do know you’re going to come up with one, and you trust yourself to be able to do it. That kind of flexibility in the face of a challenge has absolutely made me a better employee.
In the same paper, you refer to the “little things” one notices and internalizes when experiencing everyday life in another country, and how they can help to inform one’s viewpoints of another culture. What kind of “little things” do you remember standing out most during your experiences?
The “little things” are so great because there are a million of them and you often carry with you without even realizing it. For instance, in France, I would see parents picking up their children from school in the late morning or early afternoon to take them home for lunch. Now, of course, not every parent has the ability to do this, but such a significant number of parents did that it really impressed upon me how much this says about French society: the value that is placed on time spent together between parents in children, the fact that many adults clearly worked close enough to both their home and their child’s school to make this daily ritual a reality, etc. Granted, this was in the city of Paris in some more affluent neighborhoods, so it couldn’t be extrapolated to every community in France, but it gave me as an American some insight nonetheless.
In Germany, it quickly becomes apparent how obsessed Germans are with organic (or, as they call it, “bio”) food. In many neighborhoods, I found multiple food markets dedicated to organic-only foods, and all of the major grocery chains had significant organic offerings that clients bought with what seemed to me as impressive regularity. In itself, this is a fun little fact about Germany. But when you step back and take a look at TTIP negotiations and the nearly intractable impasse between the U.S. and E.U. on organic foods, you realize that this is a cultural touchstone for Germany, and you suddenly better understand why they may not be willing to compromise on it in trade negotiations.
One of the recommendations in the Next Generation report was to invest further in U.S.-German exchange programs. In your opinion, amid so many competing budget priorities why does this remain a necessary investment?
As an advocate for international exchange programs, I understand that it is challenging to call for further investment when foreign policy budgets are stretched thin by security, food, and financial crises around the globe. I strongly believe, however, that we need to foster cultural competence in a time of global insecurity. There is no better way to do that than through exchange programs. Not every participant in an exchange will go on to be a world leader who contributes to solving the most pressing issues of the day, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s desirable.
When we encourage people from every walk of life to travel and to gain new experiences, we’re contributing to cultural understanding on a broader level. One person might be inspired to go abroad again and teach his native language, another might have been exposed to new research methods she brings home and disseminates, and yet another might fondly remember a semester abroad and encourage his children to study abroad during their academic career.
The great news – and the thing that can make exchange difficult to quantify – is that international exchange programs have such a wide variety of impacts and affect participants individually. These are essential seeds to sew as we find ourselves increasingly connected by technology and world events.
What advice would you give to individuals considering whether to pursue a professional experience overseas?
Don’t overthink it too much! Unfortunately, it can be easy to talk yourself out of something like working abroad if you concentrate too much on details. Of course, it’s a significant decision to make and I recommend being well prepared, but, to some extent, a move to a professional experience abroad is always going to involve a leap of faith.
Trust that the experience, even if it’s one that challenges you every day and humbles you whenever you open your mouth, is worth it. There are organizations out there (like Cultural Vistas!) that can help you think through the practical matters of seeking out professional opportunities and making the move, but in the end, it’s up to you to commit to the new experience.
If I am going to spend time in Germany or Europe, I absolutely have to see, eat, or do what?
Eat all of the pretzels in Germany. Lord knows I did.
More seriously, take full advantage of weekends! Europe is so small compared to the U.S. and it’s so easy to hop from one country to the next. Even if you don’t have time to take a two-week vacation in each country, use a 3-day weekend to explore a capital city and its environs. You might be a bit tired afterwards, but you won’t regret it.
Best picture you took?
This one is a shot of me and a few friends from the Bosch Fellowship at a reception next to the Brandenburg Gate. We were able to go out on the balcony and have our picture taken with the gate in the background, and it just encapsulates to many wonderful aspects of my time in Germany: living in a city so rich in history, making great friends I’ll keep in contact with for the rest of my life, attending fascinating lectures and speeches by European leaders, and then taking a moment to stop and soak it all in.
Prettiest spot in all of Germany?
An unconventional choice: Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. The architecture of the airport is undoubtedly grand and impressive (and also fascist), but that’s not what makes the spot beautiful. Since being decommissioned in the 90’s, the airport and its grounds have been turned into a public park, and, to me, the whole place perfectly encapsulates Berlin! You have people jogging and biking on the runways, there are public gardens and an area for picnicking and grilling, there’s a Biergarten, they hold public events and concerts there – it’s urban space remade into something the entire community can enjoy. I spent a lot of free time there, and I miss it more than I can say.
One thing that made you laugh and made you say: “only in Germany”?
Getting yelled at by fellow pedestrians for jaywalking!
Cultural Vistas acts as the U.S. representative of the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship and has administered the program, which is fully funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, one of the largest foundations in Germany, since its inception in 1984. Learn more about the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship.
If, like Christina, you took part in an exchange program managed by Cultural Vistas and are interested in sharing your story, or connecting with former colleagues, we encourage you to leave a comment here and to join our growing community on LinkedIn.
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