Sydney Democracy Initiative grants two students a Berlin learning experience

20 July 2012

Imagine what it would be like to study at the most prestigious institutions for humanities in the world. Then envisage experiencing one of Europe's most vibrant cities in the process. Two postgraduate students from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences did just that thanks to a Berlin travel scholarship from the Sydney Democracy Initiative.

Colombina Schaeffer from the Department of Government and International Relations was awarded a scholarship to study at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences, and Huon Curtis from the Department of Political Economy experienced life at Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin fur Sozialforschung (WZB), both in Humbolt, Germany.

Only 35 such scholarships are awarded throughout the world yearly, and Professor of Politics and Director of the Sydney Democracy Initiative John Keane, attributes these two recent University of Sydney placements to a growing relationship with the two institutions based on our strong standing in the humanities, and the high caliber of our research students.

"Our Faculty/University's developing link with Berlin provides opportunities for our best and brightest postgraduate social science students to spend three months pursuing their research in a cosmopolitan, historic city, a vibrant metropolis shaped by world-class intellectual traditions," says Professor Keane.

Allowed the opportunity to experience any of the classes on offer in these institutions, attend conferences in Berlin and other parts of Europe and have free time to help shape their dissertations, Colombina and Huon found the experience to be enriching to say the least.

In their own words…


PhD Candidate researching environmental movements in Chile

Colombina Shaeffer
Colombina Shaeffer outside Humboldt University in Berlin

Thanks to the generous funding provided by the Sydney Democracy Initiative, I had the amazing opportunity to spend three months at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS) at the Humboldt University. These three months were a magnificent opportunity to broaden my horizons regarding academia, research and my specific research field.

Berlin is an amazing and unique city, a kind of contemporary cultural capital of Europe. While being there, you constantly have the feeling that almost anything, especially in terms of life-style choices, is possible. There is always something going on in Berlin. It is also located at the centre of Europe, whereas you can easily access other places of interest.

The Berlin Doctoral Fellowship provided me with the necessary time to advance in the research and writing of an important part of my PhD project. In addition, I could explore the vast opportunities provided by the BGSS and Humboldt University.

Workshops, seminars, colloquiums, short courses, and much more, were a great way to get a sense of what kind of research is conducted in Germany and how. Further, Berlin was also the perfect gateway to travel to conferences, such as one I attended about social movements at King's College London, and to meet with different academics based in Europe.

Germany is also famous for something that a researcher interested in activism and environmental movements cannot miss: the Green movement and party. Being in Berlin was also a great opportunity to explore, on the ground, this crucial historical political development.


PhD candidate researching international finance with a focus on the history of economics thought

Huon Curtis
"Berlin is a city where past and present seem connected," says Huon Curtis

My time in Berlin is nearly finished. Studying for a time here in Berlin has been an amazing chance to focus on my studies on international finance while living in the eye of the storm of the European crisis.

I was awarded the Sydney Democracy Initiative - Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB) Collaboration Fellowship earlier this year. This award provided me with the means to spend three months at the Berlin Social Science Research Centre (WZB). I arrived at the beginning of May to find that I had a little office with a pleasant view of the courtyard in an old Court house building. A myth that I've heard here, is that the entrance way was once used in one of Alfred Hitchcock's first silent films, which film exactly has been lost from collective memory. But it would be easy to imagine a 1920s silent film star descending the grand staircase, having the door opened by a cordial porter, and drifting down the Reichpietschufer beside the canal.

Berlin is a city where past and present seem connected in a way that at first is difficult to articulate. Here, it makes for a strange sort of poetry that Turkish kids jump from diving board into a crumbling cement swimming pool designed by Albert Speer for the 1936 Olympics. Or, that many Germans spend warm summer afternoons flying kites on the Templehof airfield. Templehof airport is another remnant from the Nazi period, which, during the years of division between East and West, and the context of the Berlin airlift, represented for West Berliners hope and possibility for adventure and the prospect that Berlin had not been forgotten.

This week I have been attending a series of seminars organized between the WZB and the Berlin Graduate School of Social Science based at Humboldt university. I was struck by a piece of advice that Dr. Craig Calhoun from New York University had for the graduate students there. He said 'What are you doing with your research that enables you to question your initial starting point?" This seems to reflect the seeming circular nature of writing a PhD dissertation, but it gave me an inkling of the task for the final stage of my PhD.

Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of your first instincts as your mind wanders through a mountain of material, but often your first instincts are the most profound, even if they are simple. And one of the tasks is to discover why it is that your first thought popped in to your mind (this takes 4 years to do). There have been too many rich intellectual experiences that I have had in Berlin.

Every graduate student should think seriously about spending time overseas to broaden their intellectual armory (an added bonus is that the beers here are very, very cheap!).

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208, 044 561 056

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