On the morning of my birthday, a few weeks after Cultural Vistas accepted me to their Germany internship program, I received an email notifying me that they had sent an application on my behalf to three different institutions. I expected a few more weeks of anxious waiting; just because the program saw me as a viable candidate did not mean these institutions — German institutions, they have high standards — would see me as such. But later that evening, a representative of one of these institutions replied, immediately accepting me and granting me an internship position at the Lifespan Developmental Neuroscience department at the Technische Universität Dresden. This representative is the chair of the department, Prof. Shu-Chen Li. Of course, I could spent the majority of this post talking about her academic contributions and success — but every good professor has those credentials, so I will focus on what I noticed to be remarkable about my experience with her.
In the US, there is this notion of the significance of age difference in professional settings. From what I understand, it is usually somewhat awkward for a supervisor to be very involved in the life of someone who works under them. In Germany, socializing at work is a little different. Americans are often under the impression that Germans are all work and no play: the truth is, Germans like having fun as well. They just believe that work and fun should stay separate. This, I think, is a pretty good standard to have. When there is a clear boundary between work and social life, it makes the social aspect more enjoyable.
But I, of course, did not completely understand this at the time — so I was rather surprised when Dr. Li offered to let me stay at her own home in Berlin for a few days as I attended the program orientation before taking me with her to Dresden. In the past when I’ve met with a new supervisor, it’s always been a handshake and a few formal questions and maybe some discussion about some of my hobbies. The evening after Dr. Li and her husband picked me up from my hotel, the first thing they did after dropping off my things at their home was take me out to dinner at a local Biergarten. There was some talk of my academic and professional interests, but for the most part we talked about our personal interests and the differences between life in Germany and the US. This hospitality, for me, was unprecedented. The only other times I have been treated this was as a guest was by relatives or family friends.
After I arrived in Dresden, I spoke with some of the graduate students working in the department about how I came about this internship opportunity. I mentioned to them that Dr. Li was a big reason why I was able to come to Germany in the first place. They were not surprised: Dr. Li, they said, was very good at making connections and finding opportunities for both students and the department. This is a skill that I myself am greatly lacking in; the word “networking” is both intimidating and irritating to me.
But now, it occurs to me that establishing a connection with someone does not have to center around formality and mediocre small talk. It can be as simple as an act of generosity: going out of one’s way to make sure the other party has the best experience one can provide. Sometimes it means simply providing an opportunity for communication and learning. Certainly, my trip to Germany would not have happened if it were not for Dr. Li. She has provided me with a great opportunity, a fantastic first-time experience outside of the classroom, from which I have learned things that will help me further my own professional goals.
All in all, I think the email accepting me to the internship position at TU Dresden was one of the best birthday gifts I ever received.