Paula Begonja, FCRH ’19, remembers basking in the rare, sixty-degree sunny day when she ate ice cream beside the Spree River; taking her first bite of shawarma in Little Istanbul; and seeing the “stunning” street graffiti that swathes the district of Friedrichshain.

“It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and learn about a city and its history,” she said. “But once you’re actually there, seeing it with your own two eyes—like, ‘Oh wow, I saw this picture in my textbook, and now I’m actually here, looking at it!’—it’s a completely different thing.”

Begonja was one of 14 Fordham students who visited Berlin, Germany, on a research trip last spring through a course called Berlin Tales: A Cultural History of Germany’s Kiez and Metropolis. The class, taught by Maria Ebner, Ph.D., a German language professor, involved months of reading and researching texts and narratives on the city, culminating in a weeklong trip to the capital itself.

Carrying on the Memory of a Colleague

“In the German program, we aim to engage more than the language that we’re trying to teach,” said Ebner, who accompanied the students on the trip. “We are trying to offer something that is applicable to now, something that the students are invested in, and give them a little bit more of an understanding of the cultural, historical setting—how history affects the present.”

The Berlin trip was partially financed by an external grant from the Max Kade Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports programs between Germany, Austria, and the United States, and the family of a young man named Christopher Clark—an instructor in the German program who died suddenly last year. His parents made a donation that helped pay for the trip.

“He was very, very fond of and attached to the city of Berlin,” said Ebner, a former colleague of Clark’s.

From Mar. 21 to 28, the students lived in Schöneberg, a lively neighborhood in Berlin. Their first day in Germany, like most days in March, greeted them with arctic temperatures (and jet lag).

Exploring Culture and History

“We were in the snow, freezing cold, and we stopped to get sausages and mulled wine,” recalled Sophia Lee, FCRH ’20. “We were all huddled together in our coats with our really warm drinks and it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re here!’”

Berlin brought new sights and sounds to the U.S. students: discussions about immigration with a Syrian refugee, a concert in a small instrument repair shop on the suburban side of the city, and even a dark, dirt-filled 10-foot deep execution pit in Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp an hour away from the capital.

“I walked down this ramp, stood, and looked out and up. It just struck me that this was the last thing that a lot of people saw,” Lee said.

The Research: Migrant Music, Secret Files, and Censorship

One of the biggest reasons behind the Berlin trip was the students’ research.

At the beginning of the semester, they selected topics that stood out to them. One project explored the difference between women’s rights in East and West Berlin; another investigated how German cinema helped reunify the divided Germanies.

“Music is not only an art—it’s a societal tool,” said Begonja, who studied how music allowed Turkish migrants to better assimilate into German society. “It’s very important for people like migrants in Germany because it allows them to fit in better. If they’re able to show their difficulties and their emotions through their music, it allows them to better integrate themselves and unify with one another.”

Begonja’s research turned up many papers that supported her argument—how music is a transcultural phenomenon that can bring two cultures together—and helped her connect the Oriental rap and hip-hop movement in the 1990s to life in the present. “Popular Turkish-German rappers today such as Bushido, Sido, and Kool Savas, are able to continue in their legacy and practice,” she wrote in a seven-page paper that will be published on a digital Fordham platform this semester. But it wasn’t until she reached Berlin that she connected her classroom lessons with reality.

“I was able to get a local feel for the life of a typical migrant in Berlin,” said Begonja.

The student who described the execution pit in Sachsenhausen—Sophia Lee, a film and television major—studied the Stasi files, a group of documents collected by the notorious East German secret service.

“Basically, in East Berlin, six million people had files on them. It was like their neighbors and husbands spying on them. And after the Wall fell, people found out about the files and wanted to read them,” Lee said. “I was really interested in examining people’s personal experiences with reading their own file and what they made of what was said in there. Was it true? Was it not true?”

Lee read academic papers and, with the help of Professor Ebner, translated some of the Stasi files that she had access to. In Germany, they even visited a Stasi prison.

“The files should be seen for what they are, the records of an oppressive state apparatus firmly positioned within the framework of a socialist and totalitarian regime,” she wrote in her paper. “While the information contained within the files is accurate, they fail to capture the reality of a subject’s experience and life.”

Though the students reached back into history for their research, their findings, which will be published by the end of this semester on a digital research platform, aren’t archaic, Ebner emphasized. They still resonate today.

“We’re still talking about immigration, censorship, and the question of what needs to be transparent by the government,” she said. “How music and culture influences political movements or the ideas of a group of people, and how appropriation of culture happens on multiple different levels.”

Their Reunion in America

Lee, Begonja, and Ebner reunited with several members of their study abroad group on Sept. 20 at the Rose Hill campus. Gathered around a table on the fifth floor of Faber Hall, they reminisced about their trip, watched homemade video collages of their time in Berlin, and spoke with students interested in taking the class in the future. The course has been available for three spring semesters—in 2012, 2014, and 2018—and will be offered again in 2020.

As the sun began to set, they Skyped with one of their study abroad mates, Elodie Huston, FCLC ’18, on the classroom’s projector screen. Huston, along with another student who studied abroad in Berlin last spring, is now living in Germany on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. It was there, in Berlin last spring, that Huston found out she had won a Fulbright.

They chatted for a few minutes before she had to say goodnight.

“What time is it there, 11 o’clock?” a student guessed.

Huston had already logged off, but their conversation continued.

“Time stops in Berlin,” Begonja said. 


Taylor is a visual storytelling strategist in Fordham University's marketing and communications department, where she documents University life through photography and video. Since joining Fordham in 2018, she has served as a writer, photographer, videographer, and social media manager, dividing her time between University Marketing and Communications and the Office of the President. She earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from Stony Brook University's School of Communication and Journalism and her master's degree in public media from Fordham University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Her work has appeared on NPR, NBC New York, and amNewYork METRO.