Finding Identity and Belonging: My Experience as an Outlier in Berlin

This past spring break I participated in O’Neill’s week-long study abroad program in Berlin, Germany. Our course exposed us to the economic restructuring Berlin underwent from the aftermath of World War II that turned its economy from stagnant into a competitive global powerhouse. Through infrastructural innovation, entrepreneurship, technological advancements, and a great deal of resilience, Germany successfully re-emerged in what became known as the “Great German Turnaround.”

However, this class only accounted for half the significance of the program. As I quickly discovered, my experience in Berlin would be anything but typical. Being the only Jewish student in a group of 23 people, I found myself both navigating a landscape rich with history haunted by the echoes of the past and grappling with my own sense of belonging in a city marked by the scars of the Holocaust. In drafting this piece, I hope to shed light on the common yet overlooked experience of involvement in unique group dynamics where one’s identity doesn’t match – a frequent occurrence in the American workforce. 

As I walked through the Murdered Jews of Europe memorial, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and the haunting remnants of the SS headquarters, I found myself overcome by a profound sense of solitude. Each step felt weighted with the collective memory of millions of lives lost. At the memorial, the stark concrete slabs seemed to stretch endlessly, a testament to the enormity of the genocide. In Sachsenhausen, the barbed wire fences and desolate barracks bore witness to unimaginable suffering and cruelty. I couldn’t help but wonder, are my peers perceiving these sites with the same guilt, anger, sadness, and hopelessness as I am? Do they feel a personal connection to the stories of survival and loss that resonate within these spaces? 

While the answer to these questions may have been a “no” for some of my peers, their curiosity and empathy sparked meaningful conversations, enriching our understanding of the diverse perspectives and personal connections to history that each of us has to offer. This, I believe, is the key to approaching such situations. 

When your identity doesn’t align with the identity of the rest of the group, a delicate balance of self-awareness and resilience is vital. In discussing how this issue pertains to the workforce, open communication, adaptability, and education are three initiatives a company can, and should, champion to ensure their employees feel included. When partaking in the job hunt, ensure your company has implemented diversity, equity, and inclusion programs that advocate for policies and practices that promote fairness and respect for all individuals.

In both personal and professional settings, it’s crucial to prioritize authenticity while also seeking common ground with others. Embracing your uniqueness is empowering as it allows you to bring diverse perspectives and insights to the table. Nevertheless, it’s equally important to actively engage with your peers, fostering open dialogue and mutual understanding. Building connections based on shared interests, values, and goals can help bridge gaps and foster a sense of belonging within the group. I am immensely grateful for the many lessons I gained as a student and as a Jew in my Berlin study abroad program.

By Sydney Glickman
Sydney Glickman Peer Educator