Admissions blog

Postcard from Durham: Study abroad impressions at Duke University

This was taken on West Campus in front of the famous Duke Chapel right at the beginning of the spring semester.

Charlotte Kaiser (MPP 2022) spent the spring studying abroad in Durham, North Carolina, for an exchange semester at Duke’s Sanford School. Read a report on her experiences.

Hi everyone, I’m Charlotte, 26, from Germany. I’m a second-year MPP student with a concentration in Policy Analysis and focus on Technology Policy. In 2019 when I was deciding where to go to grad school, I ultimately decided on Hertie for two main reasons:

I was looking for a chance to pursue an interdisciplinary master’s that would still allow me to narrow my focus after finding my niche interest. Hertie promised (and delivered!) exactly that: a rather broad first year with the foundations of statistics, economics, law and the policy process, combined with the possibility to tailor a highly individualised curriculum in the second year. Second, I was set on spending all or some of my graduate experience abroad, and Hertie’s multiple partnerships with renowned universities all over the globe convinced me to finally pick Berlin. As you can tell, my decision to study abroad highly influenced which grad school I picked (“reverse causality”, a nerd would say).

After I was selected as a Fulbright Scholar and given a full study grant for the 2020/21 term, I applied to several partner schools in the US – in my opinion one of the most nourishing and inspiring environments to study technology policy. It’s also one of the most different compared to Germany or the EU in terms of regulatory policy, entrepreneurial spirit and intrinsic understanding of privacy or data protection.

Originally, the dual degree with Columbia University was my top choice, but when Duke accepted me first, my intuition told me to reassess (gut feeling is important, everyone!) and I found that indeed, Duke was the better fit for me, both academically as well as personally: Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy ranks 6th for Policy Analysis in the US, and I knew I could build a highly interdisciplinary schedule since Duke allows cross-registration across its different schools. Plus, after a year of studying in metropolitan Berlin, I was looking for a smaller community. Duke, its breathtaking campus and the surrounding town did its fair share of convincing.

Spring had sprung in Durham. Duke’s Campus has many beautiful cherry blossom trees.

I absolutely loved my Duke experience. Even though circumstances were anything but normal, everyone (ranging from professors, fellow classmates, and student coordinators to off-campus friends or acquaintances) did their best to make the experience as real and rewarding as possible. I was able to build a very individualised curriculum – one, I would argue, unique at Duke: As a Public Policy Student I took one Policy class (National Security and Privacy Technology), one class at the Duke Law School (Frontier Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Law), and a Master of Interdisciplinary Data Science class (Unifying Data Science). I was extremely happy and proud to find that my education at the University of Mannheim (undergrad) and the Hertie School had prepared me more than sufficiently for my studies at Duke. The Data Science class required a justification, proof of qualification and the professor’s permission from every non-Data Science student, and my Stats and R programming courses at Hertie had given me the adequate skill set not only to attend but also to excel in the class and finish with an A+.

Generally, the classes complemented my studies in the MPP programme extremely well, as they provided me with new contexts, approaches and very different perspectives – I forgot how many times my Belgian friend Sylvia and I got into heated discussions with our American classmates on issues that both sides thought they had a good (and frankly, normative) understanding of. My policy and law classes also gave me a US-centric perspective on privacy, data protection, national security, or autonomy – which I could not have gotten in Europe. Both classes laid a great foundation for classic American case law. I learned about the different amendments and got a feeling for Americans’ intrinsic self-awareness and motivation in the realm of technology policy – something I value highly for my future endeavours. I hope to write my thesis in the context of comparative legislation on technology policy in the US and the EU.

What was struck me, generally, was how engaged, inspiring, and proactive everyone at Duke was. Fellow classmates were reliable and enthusiastic, both in and outside the classroom. I remember how my one friend, Sam, left some soup in front of my door when I was sick in bed after my second shot against COVID-19 – even though she only knew me from Zoom. All the coffee talks I had with multiple professors were incredibly motivating, and all of them treated me more like a peer than “just a student”. My Duke professors went above and beyond to ensure we felt mentally supported and stable enough during the pandemic. I value their respect and real support dearly.

This is Rubenstein Library on West Campus.

Apart from pure academics, Duke is a vibrant place to be. Studying in one of the many beautiful libraries (I usually went to Rubenstein or Lilly) or outside in the sunshine on a spring day on West Campus simply hits differently. Walking around the Hogwarts-esque campus in the early morning or at night was a unique feeling and one I am thankful I got to experience. Campus life at Duke is special and fun, and even during COVID I sensed community all over campus. I attended Zumba after class and went to plant pop-up sale events. And everyone (yes, everyone) wears Duke merch. What’s also surprising was how crazy good the food was (and how many different options you have!): Indian, Mexican, poke bowls, Italian, BBQ, crepes, ice cream, iced coffee, smoothies, breakfast... I mean, Duke Dining is award-winning and has more than 45 restaurants and cafés – do I need to say more?

When COVID-19 allowed it, the Sanford School organized a couple of outdoor social events for us. One time we painted pots on West Campus and all got to take a little succulent home.

Being on campus made me very happy. And while Duke is even more work than Hertie, I felt at ease studying all these long hours because it was always in the context of beautiful surroundings, moments, and positive experiences. I also really enjoyed living in Durham. I was lucky to find an apartment close to East Campus and was able to walk most places. Durham citizens are friendly and open people, and while North Carolina turned red in the Presidential Election, Durham is very progressive, democratic, and forward-thinking. Obviously, because of COVID, travelling was restricted, so I mostly stayed close to or in Durham during my exchange. I liked going for runs or long walks (where I often ran into cardinal birds or deer), visiting my favourite café (Cocoa Cinnamon), donut place (Monuts) or popsicle shop (LocoPops) and strolling around campus or the Duke Gardens with friends. Duke also has many great restaurants that opened in spring. One of my favourites is VinRouge, a great French restaurant near East Campus.

This was my last night at Durham, when I had dinner with my friend Nikkie at VinRouge – the lovely French place near East Campus. You need to get a charcuterie!

I would like to thank Dr. Christine Reh and Duke’s Genille and Annalisa with all my heart for helping me attend my exchange semester amidst COVID-19 uncertainties. As mentioned, studying abroad was essential for me, and I am incredibly grateful I was able to move to Durham in spring 2021 to attend Duke in real life and not only virtually.

I’m currently continuing my education at Duke as a Visiting Scholar, auditing classes remotely and working with my law professor on research related to artificial intelligence. I’m very glad and thankful to remain a “Blue Devil” for now, while also being a Hertian. I would advise all my fellow Hertie students going abroad to be as open, enthusiastic, and proactive as possible. If you love what you’re doing, you radiate that, and if you talk to people and show up for yourself, amazing things happen. I got the Visiting Scholar position because I approached people about my research interests, asked as many questions as possible and put myself out there. Apart from academic achievements, studying abroad allowed me to build meaningful connections and to engage in stimulating discussions with amazing people, both on and off campus. Even though it’s been only 5 months and despite COVID-19, Durham, Duke and its people certainly have become a home to me.

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