Feature News

Alumna advocates for international experiences even after graduation

Oct 16, 2018

With help from North Central College, Emily Labedz ’15 took her affinity for the German language with her right to the source. The experience changed her significantly and shaped her plans for the rest of her life. Now she wants to make sure North Central students know what a great position they are in to have their own transformative journey abroad.

Labedz returned to campus in October to speak with students of Gregory Wolf, Dennis and Jean Bauman Professor in the Humanities and professor of German, modern and classical languages. She shared her experiences with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX), a prominent fellowship program in Germany in which she took part. Wolf calls it, “One of the most prestigious fellowships a North Central student has ever won.”

CBYX is a public diplomacy initiative sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Americans and Germans ages 18 to 24 spend a year in one another’s country doing intensive language study, taking undergraduate and graduate courses, and completing internships.

Wolf identified the fellowship as a good opportunity for Labedz to pursue after graduating with a degree in sociology and German. “I distinctly remember Dr. Wolf saying that he knew how passionate I was about German and didn't want me to leave it behind,” Labedz said. “He thought the program was a great fit since it allowed me to gain professional experience that would be relevant to where I wanted to go with my career.”

Professor Gregory Wolf and Emily Labedz after Labedz spoke to Wolf's German class at North Central College.

Gregory Wolf and Emily Labedz

While in Germany, Labedz took courses at Heidelberg University, on topics like the sociology of “burnout syndrome,” the sociological effects of the media, and an economics course on supply and demand and its impact on the environment.

In addition to her classes, Labedz interned at a library, a marketing office, a summer camp and a sustainability program. Her work included consulting with Evangelical churches in the Heidelberg area on using more environmentally friendly practices.

The fellowship helped Labedz acquire important professional training, expand her knowledge base and make useful international connections.

“In a broad sense, the fellowship was critical for networking, as I have contacts all over the world now in all professional fields as well as the network of State Department exchange program alumni,” she said. “No matter what direction I choose, I know there is someone in that field ready to give me a hand and vice versa.”

Labedz not only experienced the culture of Germany, but really studied it and noted the differences from the United States.

“The biggest difference that was really emphasized in our pre-departure material was how direct Germans are,” said Labedz. “There is no passive aggressive emailing, nervous smiling or roundabout ways of asking anything, which definitely made me stand out. Another difference that I very much wish the U.S. would get behind is environmentalism. Germans have three to five trash cans for everything; they also bike most everywhere and most houses have high efficiency washing machines and smaller refrigerators because they buy their groceries fresh more often.

“Germans’ work-life balance is also much more in check, despite their insistence that they work too much.”

Labedz lived with a host family, but they treated her as an adult and expected her to make her own choices with her time. Program coordinators frequently reminded her she was a representative of the State Department, and as such was expected to act in a manner that would reflect well on the United States.

Thankfully, Labedz felt well-equipped for the fellowship thanks to her time at North Central. “After four years with Dr. Wolf I had the cultural, historical and political knowledge to understand what I was getting into,” said Labedz. “The rigorous academic programs prepared me for the stress of the fellowship and strengthened my drive to get the most out of the experience.

“I knew I could handle the challenges, and I was positive that in the end I would come out with a whole new sense of self as long as I put in the effort.”

Labedz has used the experience in Germany to bring her plans into focus. “Currently, I am in marketing and event planning at a homeless shelter in north suburban Cook County—exactly what I intended to do after this fellowship,” Labedz said. “In the future, I'd like to go to graduate school—in Germany, of course, it's free—and get my master's so I can work in human rights at the United Nations or for the State Department managing programs like CBYX.”

Owing to her great experience, Labedz sees a lot of value in programs of this kind. “I passionately suggest everyone do some kind of experience abroad,” said Labedz. “Interning or going to school abroad is especially beneficial because you learn different workplace values, education methods and perspectives on your own culture, which can be challenging, but in the best way.

“What you get out of one of these programs is all up to you and I strongly believe North Central students are some of the best qualified to take part in them.”