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How One Idealist Used a Fellowship to Live and Work in Germany

How One Idealist Used a Fellowship to Live and Work in Germany

At Idealist Careers, we frequently hear from job seekers who are looking to find not only employment, but a brand-new (to them) location to call home, too. Yes, many of you have shared with us your dreams of landing jobs throughout Europe, the far East, and sub-Saharan Africa. So when we had the opportunity to chat with Kari Foss, an alumna of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s BUKA program, we jumped right on it! Read on below for a peek into Kari’s experience living and working in Germany- and how she got there!

Hi Kari, thanks for speaking with us today. I understand you just moved to Frankfurt!

I’m actually in London right now, working on a project. I work as a US lawyer at Fragomen, which provides immigration advisory and other services globally. Immigration is the sole focus of our practice, and I specifically work on US immigration. I work in the Germany office based in Frankfurt. I had previously been living in Hamburg, but I just moved to Frankfurt.

What are your favorite parts of living and working in Germany? 

I honestly love that the people here understand work/life balance 100%. I have 28 vacation days a year that I have to take. There’s no feeling guilty if you take two or three weeks off to go to Greece or Bali or something- it’s expected.

In Germany, the work culture is to go to work and just work. You don’t go on Facebook. You come in from 9 to 6, and you take your lunch break but you just get to your work, are focused, and then you’re strict about when it’s time to go home at 6pm.

There’s a strong work ethic and it’s a strong, growing economy, yet they really enjoy their free time. I don’t want to say it’s more laid back (than in the US) but my law firm is a global one and I see the US attorneys working under more stresses in the US than I experience here.

I also really enjoy the fact that everything is so close together. I can travel two hours and I’m in Brussels, or I’m in Paris in only an hour. It’s nice to be in a completely different area, a different culture, and experience different food and a different climate... and you can do it in a weekend!

So you remained in Germany after completely your BUKA Program fellowship. What inspired you to pursue a fellowship in Germany, and then to find a permanent position and stay?

I grew up in Austin, TX, went to school in Minnesota, and went to law school in South Dakota (my parents had moved there). I knew I wanted to be close to family eventually, but I felt like I just needed to get out for a bit and maybe come back later.

Through the BUKA Program, I found a way explore that didn’t put me back some steps in my career, and I could use my law degree. It was a great opportunity to take the year, study, and improve my language skills.

I was interested in this program specifically since I studied abroad in Germany as an undergraduate. It’s a program of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. One of the missions of the program is to submerge you into German culture- which is a good thing when you want to do a cross cultural analysis. There’s also a whole lot of networking opportunities (more about that in a little bit!).

Over time I realized I enjoy living in Europe and I really enjoy the German culture. When I studied abroad as a junior, I was in the eastern part of the country, and even though it’s only two hours away, it’s very different. Now after about five or six years living here, it really feels like home to me.

How did you discover the program?

It was pretty much a Google search. After law school, I was looking for fellowships in Germany and other countries abroad. Many of the other programs had language requirements, and while I do speak German it’s not a requirement for the BUKA program.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do after law school but I knew I wasn’t enjoying the types of law I was exposed to during my studies: family law, criminal law, or tax. While I knew I wanted to go abroad, I also knew I didn’t want to teach English. I had minored in German and since I studied abroad in Germany as an undergrad I was familiar with living in the country. I wanted to use my degree in some way, and this fellowship allowed for varied research topics.

As I had previously lived in Germany for over a year, I knew more of the German culture than my other colleagues. It was a little easier for me, I think, since I already went through the ups and downs of a different culture. I knew how the bureaucracy system works.

In what ways did you expect the program to support your professional development?

In the BUKA program, I was working and researching at a law school with a professor, who was also a partner at a large German law firm, so I knew that there was a possible gateway to a job. The program is pretty comprehensive with networking opportunities. Also, while you’re in the program, they allow you do to up to two months study abroad as Month External Scholar. I did my month in Brussels to understand lobbying on trade issues. It’s an opportunity for your research to be broadened. It’s paid for by the program and you are even given extra money so you can reserve your apartment in Germany. It’s evident that the Humboldt Foundation is really invested in you, your career, and your project.

What other programs did you apply to?

I applied to Fulbright but you need your institution’s support and the person who headed the application process at my law school didn’t think my research topic satisfied the requirements. I made changes so that she would accept it, changes that, looking back, I wasn’t really happy with. I submitted the application and wasn’t accepted.

It all worked out though because I got accepted to the BUKA program, with the project and idea I had originally worked on and felt confident in. When I compared the BUKA program to the Fulbright I saw that I received more funding and I had many more opportunities.

The BUKA selection process takes longer but they actually send you to Germany for the final interview. There were a lot of applicants, but every issue and topic has a chance. I applied in August 2015, and I didn’t hear back until early April 2016. Even though it was a year’s wait, it was worth it. They paid for all our expenses and travel arrangements in May. They did interviews, took us on a boat ride and a city tour of Bonn. Basically, even if you didn’t get selected in the end, you got a taste of Germany.

After I was accepted in the Spring of the following year, I was sent (with the other participants) on a 2-week excursion around Germany. We went to 14 different cities and almost all the German states. We visited major companies- Deutsche Bahn, Volkswagen- and were introduced to the CEOs. We had one month of serious networking in October. You go to all these meetings dealing with your project’s topic but then you also go to other meetings dealing with the issues other Fellows were working on.

We had a lot of people working on refugee issues, so we went to many non-profits, such as GIZ; we went to different churches and cathedrals learning about the different aspects of German, Gothic, and Roman architecture. We were meeting and networking with all these people.

I didn’t know anything about those other subjects, but I got to learn about them. I think this is a key factor that sets the BUKA program apart. The Humboldt Foundation really wants to invest in all aspects of your learning and your submersion into the German culture. This definitely helped me at my job in Fragomen. I am a US lawyer and I work mostly with German lawyers. Understanding different aspects of Germany, whether it’s the architecture, insurance companies, politics and refugee issues, I have a better understanding of my German colleagues and the place where I call home. 

How did you make your decision to accept the BUKA program?

I had work offers back home, I just didn’t want them! I honestly didn’t want them. I appreciate South Dakota, but I just don’t want to live there. All my internships were in small towns in South Dakota, which is great for people who want to live there. So I had something to lean back on, but I was hedging my bets going after something else, and it wound up working out. The BUKA program was the best fit for me, in terms of what they offered.

Which of your previous experiences do you think contributed to your being selected for the program?

Understanding and appreciating different cultures is a big one. Even though it’s in Western Europe, it is different. People assume it’s “America-lite”. They think that it’s so easy to come over (and assimilate).

During the interview process, some people were coming off like they knew all about the way things were done by Germans- “oh, Germans do this; Germans do that”- but it was really based on assumptions. The were not presenting themselves in a way that demonstrated that they really knew the cultural differences.

My previous experience in Germany was good but my project idea- antitrust and trade issues- was kind of a hot topic at the moment. I would say that there’s many topics that are dealing with hot topics about Germany and the US. You can make every single industry a hot topic. People doing public policy on housing, migrants, journalism, and education. I know some educators who did the program, and someone with a Ph.D. in Chemistry. There’s a lot of options, but to stand out, your proposed research really has to be a topic of the now.

What differences have you noticed about living and working in Germany?

Living here, I see that they just have rules that they follow. They don’t cross the street when the light’s red. They just will not, even if there is no one in the road and it's 2 am in the morning and no one is near you. When I first came here, as an American, I felt we are free to do as we want and not have to follow the rules, but living here, I have learned to respect their mentality. In regards to crossing the street only on green, their reasoning is that children follow adults. If adults are running in the street on red, children will follow. Word to the wise: Don't ever cross the street on red in front of German children with their parents nearby; you will be scolded in front of everyone.

Also, the German tradition is to be very punctual and very direct, but always honest and I think that’s their top value. Being polite by saying a”‘white lie” is almost worse. If they don’t like the food you cook when they come to your house, they will tell you (nicely, but they will tell you). So even if they don’t like something, they don’t cover it up. I’m so used to it now that when I come to London it seems like people are way too passive.

It also takes a longer time to establish a friendship. It could take ten years. You could be their buddy but they won’t call you a friend until you really establish a friendship. I guess to Americans, it doesn’t feel very welcoming. The way the locals see it is, “I don’t know you, why would I just invite you to my house?” They really have to know you and ultimately trust you. Once they are your friend though and you have gained their trust, they are your friend for life.

It can be done- you can make German friends, but it takes longer. Now that I’ve been here for a while, I have German friends but also my expat community.

So what is networking like in Germany- in what ways does it differ from the US?


Every time you network, it’s all about schedules. It’s scheduled into the professional experience. For example, in Germany the purpose of going to conferences is to learn. Point blank. Yes, you network as well, but they schedule in the networking time. They put it there so that you know that’s the time to share your business cards and talk to people. But other times, during the lectures, you don’t talk to people. You learn about what the presenter has to say.

Another important note is that you shouldn’t just give someone your card instantly. In Germany you want to get to know them first, figure out what they do and if it’s relevant to what you do. Then you decide whether to give them your card. Talk with them first. Don’t expect to just hand out cards when you meet people.

What are some other cultural differences you noticed?

I guess it is true that in Germany, they are very comfortable speaking about politics. A lot of people in Europe are well-versed in American politics, probably as much as we (Americans) are.

They will ask you a lot of questions and assume that you’ll know a lot about it. I’m comfortable doing that (as I have a political science background and am involved in domestic US politics) but I see other Americans who are not as comfortable with it. Let’s face it, in American culture, religion and politics are not topics you discuss when you don’t know someone. So if you come to Germany, don’t get offended when met with cultural differences like that- be more relaxed, or tell them directly you don’t want to talk about it.

I understand that in the BUKA program, you need to find your own host in Germany- how did you go about doing this?

You’re looking for a professional host, who will give you a desk in their office. It’s not someone who provides room and board. In fact, the BUKA program is very considerate of people’s living arrangement needs. They are considerate of people who are married and have children. They will provide funding for your spouse (and other dependents, if you have them) to come to Germany as well.

When I was looking for my host, I wrote up an abstract of my project plan and sent it to many people who were at law firms, and other institutes that are think tanks or educational in nature and/or had a law program. I also contacted bloggers who are campaigning for these issues I was discussing. I sent out emails and then called them to find out if I really wanted their attention.

It probably seems a little scary to call people and ask them to host you, but this program has a lot of prestige in Germany- it’s kind of the same reaction you’d have if you mentioned Harvard or Yale. Also, there is no cost to your host. They get a stipend by the program as well. Anything you need for research, you have to write to the Program to ask for the money.

I found my host through a law school, Bucerius Law School, the only private one law school in Germany. The professor I worked with was also a partner in one of the largest firms in Germany.

What advice would you give to other prospective BUKA applicants?

Believe in yourself and your project. And believe that your project can really create change. Think about the bigger picture. For example: In 5 years, what will your project do for relations between the US and Germany in general? How does Germany deal with subjects or topics differently than your home country? Is this better or worse? No matter how big, in five years can there be a solution?

In five years, what will your project mean to the world? If it’s a simple yes or no answer to the project, I don’t think it will survive the interview or even the first stage of the process. Aim to make an impact with this Program. The BUKA Program gives you the funding, the opportunities, and the time, You now have to be confident in yourself and your project and move it forward.

It’s amazing how many opportunities I had and I didn’t even realize it when I was in it. Just apply for it. Really go for it. The program is open to people who have graduated up to ten years past your most recent degree.

In my BUKA group, we had people of varying ages participating. I was one of the youngest. But no matter what age or state in life, it’s a completely different opportunity from working. You can focus on what you want in life. For people who want to study and are not sure what they want to do in terms of a job, a program like this gives space, time and money to really think about and figure out a direction for yourself.

What great advice, and a great pep talk! Thank you so much for speaking with us, today, Kari!


By Victoria Crispo

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