Step out of the ordinary! Immerse yourself in the culture and language of a country that’s not your own. This year, twelve of our students — sophomores, juniors, and seniors — took the leap and joined 18 more students from Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Iowa, to live and study for one year in Freiburg, a beautiful university town in southwestern Germany. They are now participating in the “Academic Year in Freiburg” (AYF), one of the longest-running study abroad programs for U.S. students in Germany. 

As this year’s academic director, I have the honor and the pleasure of accompanying the group as their teacher, mentor, and advisor. Together, Ulrich (Ulli) Struve, the program’s administrative director with 16 years of experience here in Freiburg, and I have been leading field trips supported by AYF alums though the Hans Fabian Fund, helping students with their paperwork, advising and registering students for classes, keeping the door to the AYF office open for a cup of coffee or the occasional last minute homework session, and answering any question regarding living and studying in Freiburg you can think of. 

Students arrived in September, a full month before the start of the German academic year. We made use of this lead time with a program jam-packed with orientations, intensive language lessons, and day trips to neighboring France, Switzerland, and the Black Forest to get a sense of the amazing landscape and cultural riches that surround us. Thanks to the support of the Freiburg-Madison society, we also got to sail on the crystal clear Schluchsee (a lake nestled in the Schwarzwald), and dine at the historical Schönberghof after a leisurely hike through woods and wineries just outside Freiburg’s gates. 

As I write this, we’re already looking back at our first three months together. Like many of the students, I suspect, I am surprised by how much I have come to feel at home in the city, the university, and the AYF office. Students are busy with their course work, volunteering for the “Inside America” program in local high schools, playing cello and double bass in university orchestras or rugby for a local woman’s team, and making music together in our very own AYF combo, the now legendary “Black Forrest Badgers.” Riding the streetcars from the student dorms to the university and city center feels like second nature already, and we have even warmed up to the fact that all stores are closed on Sundays. Students have formed deep friendships within the group, bonded with their individual language tandem partners, and hung out with fellow “WG” roommates. As they have integrated and immersed themselves into their new German surroundings, America remains present in different ways — whether in terms of people pressuring us about politics, or simply at our sumptuous Thanksgiving feast this past week, where everyone brought fabulous side dishes to complement the turkey prepared (surprisingly well!) by a local caterer. 

Former AYF students who live in the area joined the feast with their spouses and children and we felt the warmth of yet another AYF support network: its ever-growing alumni base in Germany and the U.S.! Now we’re looking forward to the holiday break and the New Year, which brings a much-anticipated class trip to Berlin, a semester break with plenty of opportunity to travel, and internship opportunities in Freiburg next spring term.