Alumni Spotlight: Matthew Uecker


Matt Uecker is currently a senior studying anthropology at Whitman College. After graduating he hopes to return to Berlin to live and work for the indefinite future.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose this program for multiple reasons. First, I wanted to be in a German-speaking country to improve the German language skills I already had. Second, I had been to Berlin prior to this program and I knew it was an amazing city that is often undervalued, so I wanted to have a prolonged experience the city by staying there for a few months. Lastly, I had researched this program thoroughly before deciding to attend and I knew the classes would be of interest to me while also giving me both major and general course credit at my college in Washington.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

One of the biggest things IES helped me with prior to leaving for Berlin was obtaining my Russian Visa. The program took us on a week-long trip to St. Petersburg and since the visa process can be tricky in regards to Russia they made sure we were coached through the process of obtaining the visa before we left the US.

Other than that, they did provide us with a packing check-list, general information on what to expect within the first weeks of the program (culture shock, how to live with a host family, etc), they put us in contact with previous attendees of the program in case we had further questions on life abroad, and they also helped us with filling out forms for health insurance abroad in case we needed to see a doctor for any reason.

That being said, however, I did have to organize certain things on my own. For example, while they did give us directions to the center, we still had to arrange how we got from the airport there. Furthermore, I also had to organize all the traveling I did outside of the program planned trip to St. Petersburg. Overall the program was very helpful in many preparatory ways.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Embrace your time abroad as much as possible. You'll likely never have a period in your life just like this one, and with that being said, I advise everyone to embrace their time abroad as much as possible.

That doesn't mean you have to say yes to every opportunity to do something, self-care is very important and you should always do what is best for you, but you should absolutely attempt to fully be wherever you are.

Instead of worrying about what friends back home are doing, you should try to interact with locals if possible, learn the language as much as possible if it's not one you already speak, and be aware of where you are while you're there.

Be thankful for being there, and really take everything in as you're experiencing it. Be mindful of your time abroad, you'll be surprised at how much you learn just by living in a new place.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

An average day/week in this program will vary based on what kind of class schedule you set up for yourself while abroad, but there are some things that will be consistent for everyone.

In general, you'll have class at least 3 times a week and up to 5 times a week, with occasional weekend excursions with your class as well. Most people are done with class by mid-afternoon, but some days you have a later class and won't be done until 7 pm or so.

You won't have endless class back-to-back, there's always time to grab some food or go home if you forgot something, but I would recommend coming to the center with everything you need for the day because it may take you 25-30 minutes to commute between the center and your home.

Outside of classes, you'll have plenty of time to travel to other cities and countries, do your homework of course, but also to interact with other people in the program, explore Berlin, and even spend time with your host family. Typically, a day or week in this program has moderate work with a good balance of free time that you can decide what to do with.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I can't say that I felt any great fear before leaving for Berlin, I was mostly excited. Over the first two to three days I was there though, I felt very displaced and afraid that I had made a big mistake in going on this program because I didn't feel very comfortable only speaking in German with my host family yet and because I didn't enjoy the orientation week very much.

After waiting about a week, however, I quickly learned that there was nothing to fear and that these new experiences were going to make me a more confident person as I participated in them.

Your time abroad will undoubtedly make you a more confident person, and that comes with good reason. Being abroad is basically being thrown into situations you're consistently unfamiliar with. So while I didn't have a fear before leaving necessarily, there were plenty of foreign situations that I got into that induced some kind of doubt or fear in my ability to function in them correctly. As I came to learn though, and as you will too, things get figured out one way or another. Then you'll start believing in yourself to handle new situations on a daily basis, I promise.

What did you enjoy most about being abroad?

While the courses were interesting, the professors helpful and fun to learn from, the travel being incredible, the absolute best part of abroad was finding a few friends that made every situation more enjoyable, more memorable, and more valuable.

You'll meet a lot people when you study abroad, and that can be fun, but don't confuse having a lot of friends as being better than having a small number of friends that greatly improve your quality of life. It may sound cliché, but I wish I had thought about this more at the beginning of studying abroad. Not until the end of the program did I find the people I enjoyed being with most, so I encourage everyone to be aware of their worth and to surround themselves with people that make them a better person as well.