When I first stepped foot into Kalli Federhofer's office back in 2009, I had zero plans to major in German. I had no intention to major, to minor, or to do anything in the German department but to fulfill my LSA language requirements.
On that afternoon during my freshman year, though, I dropped into Kalli's office hours. I walked in as an undecided freshman, and walked out holding a piece of paper--notarized with Kalli's legendary calligraphy--stating that I would be, from then on, minoring in German.
For anyone who is familiar with Kalli's knack for landing German majors, and for anyone else who has walked out of those office hours surprised to find themselves feeling the Liebe for the German Department, you can probably guess that my relationship with German did not, actually, end after I'd completed my minor requirements. Instead, I became a German Major (alongside my Major in Communications), and spent every summer between my years at U-M interning throughout Germany.
I graduated from U-M in December of 2012. Since then, I've lived and worked in Berlin, Germany as a photojournalist. While I contribute regularly to news outlets like NPR, my focus as a journalist and photographer is in adventure sports. I cover extreme sports for magazines like Outside and Runner's World, photographing incredible humans doing incredible things around the world.
This career is not, actually, a non sequitur to my German degree. In fact, it's very much the opposite. The experiences, skills, and language abilities that developed throughout my time in the German Department are woven deeply throughout my work and identity as a journalist, and are evidenced throughout my last four years of work.
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The time that I was ever published journalistically was in 2012. I worked with another young journalist, and together we published a piece for the New York Times about a legendary Moroccan ultramarathon runner. As it turned out, after spending weeks tracking this guy down for an interview, the only common language that either of us had with said Moroccan runner was…German. All of the interviews conducted with the runner for this piece were completed, therefore, thanks to my studies in the German Department. What a world, eh?
Beyond the unexpected applications of German, there are also the more traditional ones. Since I decided to build my journalistic base in Berlin, knowledge of the German language and culture has been crucial in establishing my career. Having the possibility to navigate the European media world with an understanding of German media (shoutout here to Peter McIsaac) has given me a significant advantage in establishing relationships with newspapers, magazines and interviewees.
Having watched other journalists interview German-speakers in English, and having conducted interviews with the same people in German, I can say with confidence that having the ability to reach someone in their own language provides a significant advantage. In producing a piece for NPR during Berlin's celebration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was crucial to be able to speak to Berliners in German. I can't emphasize how much more receptive people are when, as a journalist, you approach them in their own language; furthermore, many of the people whom I talked with for said piece were in their 60's or 70's, and were rarely confident in their English skills.
As I write, I'm sitting on an airplane from North Africa back to mainland Europe. I just came off of an eight-day, no-internet, dusty-dirty photo job in the Atlas Mountains, where, you guessed it--actually you probably didn't guess it, because it really just isn't logical--German was my operating language of the week. As it does over and over again, German emerged throughout those days in the mountains as the common language between myself and many of those I was interviewing, and facilitated my relationship-building with my the subjects of my assignment.
I'm not really sure how or why this happens, that German keeps popping up throughout my career. Maybe its coincidence or maybe it's because like-minded people somehow wind up interacting. But what I can tell you is that I've used German while on assignments all over the world, in places that make zero sense to need it…and each time it pops up, from the depths of Argentinian Patagonia to Norway's Arctic Circle, it always provides an indispensable edge as a journalist.
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German skills are incredibly relevant. They're relevant in politics, and they're relevant in international relations; they are relevant in networking, and they are relevant in business. But the reason I'm writing this is to emphasize is that German skills can also be relevant in the most unexpected of places, and throughout the most unexpected of careers.
So, get cracking. Suffer through that German 300 grammar class, and pay attention during Business German. Your time in the German Department at Michigan will continue to give back to you after graduation…especially when and where you least expect it to.
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