On the Campus - October 7, 1998

Past editions of On the Campus, Online

Working in Germany during the summer
She took a chance, and it changed her life

by Nancy Smith '00

Since I'm writing this column before any of the students are actually back "on the campus," I'm resorting to a trite subject: "What I did on my summer vacation." But the story is more than a self-absorbed recap of my trip to Europe. Actually, I did go to Europe -- but I'll spare you the personal travelogue, and I'll resist the temptation to haul out my photo album. Actually, the story of my two months in Germany is as much about the fantastic opportunity of the Summer Work Program -- and about a skeptical student who finally decided to take advantage -- as a personal chronicle of beer and bratwurst.

The Summer Work Program was heavily advertised in my German class last fall, and the sales pitch was appealing. Participants would be set up with a German company and, in most cases, an apartment or dorm, where they would work and live from June to August. The list of participating firms was impressive, including such moguls as Lufthansa, Deutsche Bank, Siemens and Schering. We would be paid enough to cover living expenses and probably enough to allow us to travel on weekends. I nodded and smiled as my professor enumerated the benefits. But when I left class, I dismissed the notices tacked up in East Pyne as just one more piece of Princeton's patchwork quilt of flyers promising to change your life.

I started taking German freshman year because I basically loved learning languages. But turning those memorized vocabulary lists and grammar drills into survival in a foreign country was something that absolutely terrified me, an experience I knew I'd always wish to have but that I thought I'd be too timid to actually try. But shortly before the application deadline, my roommate said something that made me reconsider: "You know, this is pretty much our last summer to do something quirky and irresponsible before we have to start building our life around our senior thesis and our career." The thought set me on my feet running -- running up campus to pick up the form.

Writing with dictionary in hand

Because of my interest in journalism, I was matched up with the Frankfurter Rundschau, a daily newspaper based in Frankfurt, and assigned to one of their local bureaus in the small town of Friedberg, about 30 minutes outside the city. People kept asking me, "So you're really going to write articles in German?" I could hardly believe it myself. I pictured myself interviewing people with a reporter's notebook in one hand and my well-thumbed copy of The Bantam German-English Dictionary in the other, and always answered, "Nah. I'm sure they wouldn't let me do that."

On my first day on the job, I was too ashamed to take the dictionary out of my backpack. I'd make lists of words I didn't understand, then wait until no one was looking and slyly ruffle the pages under my desk. But all modesty soon went out the window when I was given a press release about a concert in the park; I discovered that an entertainment event had its own extensive vocabulary that did not overlap with the academic works of Brecht and Kafka. I knew the German word for postmodernism, but I had no idea how to express the five Ws of a weekend festival. So simply as a practical matter, the dictionary emerged into full view for quick (and frequent) reference.

The editors in the office recognized my insecurities, but kept trying to convince me that I was fulfilling all the expectations for a foreign "Praktikantin." My daily agenda would usually include a small pile of press releases to rewrite, and the possibility of accompanying another reporter on an interview or event. The event I found most interesting was a political podium discussion sponsored by a youth organization, with local Bundestag candidates from the four major parties as the guest speakers. What impressed me most was the engagement and enthusiasm of the teenagers in the audience, and the fervor with which they asked tough and informed questions. The next morning, I was asked to write an editorial summarizing an American's impressions of this snapshot of a German political campaign. This simple 30-line commentary became the piece I was most proud of at the end of my internship, because it presented an opportunity for genuine exchange. Not only were my eyes opened to the German political culture, but I had the chance to give German readers a glimpse of my own background through my comparisons. The opportunity for cultural exchange became a basis of my internship, as the editors encouraged me to write several articles about the lives of American military families in the greater Frankfurt area.

Five male suitemates

But most of the day-to-day cultural exchange came about through the friendships I made during my brief stay. Two German interns started at the Rundschau the same day I did, and after helping each other master the office's arcane computer system, we took lunch breaks together nearly every day, consulted each other for journalistic and personal advice, and went on outings together in Frankfurt. And in the student dormitory where I lived, my five male suitemates were like instant brothers to me. They invited me to join in on barbecues and fondue and gave me a crash course in German soccer vocabulary, so I could curse at the referee's calls along with them for the five weeks of the World Cup. We had all kinds of late-night discussions, debating the world's ecological and political problems and comparing the education systems in Germany and America.

This eight-week summer program that I almost didn't apply for inspired me to consider a much wider range of possibilities than I would have by staying within my familiar borders. I'm now thinking about working internationally after graduation, and I may seriously consider participating in the Woodrow Wilson School's spring semester in Australia. And the next time I see a flyer promising to change my life, I'll probably stop to read it -- unless it's offering skydiving lessons.

Problems without solutions
A reporter confronts the messy world beyond Princeton's ivied gates

by Daniel A. Grech '99

Hearing her name called, Marilyn Matthews leaned out the window of her third-story apartment. Standing next to me, her friend called out, "There's a reporter here to see you from The Boston Globe!"

When I visited her last summer, Matthews was living in the Mission Main project, widely regarded as Boston's most dangerous and decrepit public housing. The housing authority had informed the residents they had to relocate while the red-brick tenement was being renovated. Matthews and her neighbors had a written promise they would be permitted to return once the work was complete, but most feared they would never come back.

I went upstairs and entered Matthews's apartment apologetically, thanking her for her time. Even after 10 weeks as a Globe intern, I never felt comfortable intruding during such sensitive times in people's lives, and I was continually amazed at people's willingness to take the time to speak to me.

Surrounded by cardboard packing boxes, Matthews settled on the couch and began telling me her story, pausing periodically to scold her two giggling daughters, ages six and seven, who played while the movers cleared out the apartment. She had no husband, no college education, no job. She was six months pregnant with her third child, which she hoped would be another girl. She was anxious about moving across town alone.

"I don't want to accept this move, but I know that if I don't I will be homeless,'' Matthews said. "This is really upsetting, and I can tell this stress isn't good for my pregnancy. How can I raise my daughters if I don't have a stable home?"

As I listened to Matthews's story, I wanted to reassure her that in her new home she could raise her children in a neighborhood that isn't overrun with drugs, and where trees aren't cut down indiscriminately and buildings aren't painted blood red. She could look forward to an apartment with a working doorbell, one where she wouldn't have to lean her stomach on the window sill to see who was calling her from below.

But as a journalist it was not my job to console Matthews, and reluctantly I didn't. I was not a social worker nor a counselor. I was not a friend. I listened and took notes, and Matthews told her story. Then, with my deadline approaching, I politely took my leave.

Months after I wrote my article about the Mission Main relocations, the image of Matthews recounting her inner-city struggle as her life was stuffed piece-by- piece into a moving van has stayed with me. While she had shared with me her hopes and struggles to attend nursing school and raise two daughters alone, I had maintained a so-called professional distance. Rather than engage Matthews as a person, I had treated her as the lead for tomorrow's news story. Although I hated maintaining that distance, I knew it was my job.

But Matthews was not simply a figure in a news story; and Matthews is not simply a character in this column. She was, and is, a real human being, making a new home today somewhere in the fourth story of a South Boston housing project.

In a summer job where I doggedly pursued tragedy, I tried to be empathic while maintaining whatever emotional distance I could. It was a lesson I never learned well -- whether interviewing the father of a car-accident victim or the 12-year-old girlfriend of a drowned teenager, I couldn't help becoming emotionally involved. I became a confidant. I yearned to be a friend.

In the bleached sterility of the Woodrow Wilson School, I am taught that once you cut through the muddy complexities of the everyday, problems have solutions. This summer, Marilyn Matthews helped me rediscover the stubborn implacability of everyday problems. Under her tutelage I encountered a world not so much where problems don't have solutions, but one where actual solutions don't matter nearly as much as the struggle to find them.

As I return for my last year at Princeton, I look forward to the relative calm within its ivied gates. While I will miss the immediacy of the newsworthy, I will relish the breathtaking freedom of the intellectual and the emotional safety of the academic. My only hope is that behind every statistic in my urban-politics seminar I remember that there is a Marilyn Matthews struggling to get by.

Daniel A. Grech is president of the University Press Club.