Going back to right here. From JYM to Evergreen in 20 years
20 years ago, just two days before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, a new group of JYM students arrived in Munich for their study abroad year. This tragic, pivotal moment in American, even world, history had quite an impact, making for a rough start to the year. Despite lasting effects, it didn’t damper the amazing JYM experience that followed.
Ben Robinson (JYM 2001-02) of Rutgers University is a member of that class now celebrating its 20th anniversary! Since JYM, Ben was a Fulbright at the University of Hamburg, earned an MBA at NYU Stern, taught English in Japan, and is currently working in the greater Philadelphia area in digital platform development. He recently started his own company called Evergreen, which focuses on digital marketing management for small businesses, law firms, and government agencies. This highly successful, well-traveled and well-versed alum took time to write for JYM on how he got his start in many of his current endeavors while on the program in Munich! Twenty years later he still taps into the JYM experience wherever he goes and whatever he does.
I knew I had to go back – At 14 I joined a homestay program through my junior high school that brought me to Lübeck for two weeks of dizzying novelty and looming anxiety. The most mundane routines became a fascination—” Black coffee and cheese for breakfast?”—while the most innocuous interactions overwhelmed me with uncertainty—” Also, wie war’s denn heute in der Schule?”
On the surface, it was obvious that my American life was not much different from the German life of my host family, yet every aspect of the German version packed twice as much raw energy. I was not merely enjoying breakfast, I was enjoying breakfast in a different time zone, in a different language, in a different state of mind.
How could I feel such electricity every day for two weeks and simply return home? No, I knew I had to go back to Germany, and about five years later, I saw the perfect opportunity in JYM.
I arrived in Munich on September 9, 2001. Two days later I was walking through the subway and saw the front page of an evening newspaper. Breaking news, shocking images. I had departed America from Newark International Airport, and naturally, I had glimpsed the profile of New York City on the horizon, beginning with the prominent Twin Towers. Now the
German version of my life packed even more raw energy. It no longer was the amusing adventure of Lübeck at 14, but instead the sharp awareness of distance from home, of my identity as an American living overseas, and of the volatility of a national crisis with global consequences. I felt relief and gratitude for the emergency meeting in the JYM office that reinforced our commitment to physical security and that simultaneously encouraged our emotional perseverance, despite the risk. Take precautions, but carry on.
Herr Söder, Bernhard Bittl, Lena Bittl, Sommer Forschner, and the other outstanding staff members at JYM taught me to harness the energy. We had limited time in this precious state of heightened cognition and emotion, so we learned to pay attention to everything and find meaning everywhere.
For example, we kept lists of language questions for discussion at the start of each German class with Bernhard Bittl, often based on weekend excursions across Bavaria with its intriguing, sometimes incomprehensible deviations from Hochdeutsch.
Bernhard was adamant about giving each question its due attention, even if it meant less time for the curricular lesson of the day. The message to us was twofold. First, our personal experiences would elevate JYM to a vivid, enduring memory. Certainly, the curriculum offered background information and helpful context, but ultimately it was our application of that curriculum during our everyday living that lent it deep significance. Second, there was an expectation of curiosity. Why else did we come to Munich? What better way to spend the year here?
Was it really possible to arrive in Bernhard’s class after the weekend in this Millionendorf and its rich surroundings with zero questions, linguistic or otherwise? We learned from Bernhard that more attention to the environment yielded more questions, which he patiently addressed before each lesson to increase our momentum in this virtuous cycle. As a result of our explorations, we built relationships with other students, nearby business owners, and longtime Munich residents, often navigating discussions fraught with risk, such as US politics post 9/11.
I recall with especial poignancy the subtle, then stark shift in sentiment toward Americans and our government. Truly moving sympathy immediately after the attack in the US gave way to withering critique during the counterattack in the Middle East. Stitching a Canadian flag to our backpacks became a viable strategy to avoid harassment during trips. Back in the classroom, a topic as benign as peanut butter became a shibboleth for patriotism. Was this universal foodstuff a sincere attempt at humanitarian aid for Iraqi civilians, or rather cultural insensitivity and symbol of our profound misunderstanding of the war?
Our time with JYM came and went in a flash, yet we directed that entire year of radiant energy into a surge of growth. A decade later JYM alumni surely began to hear trendy words such as “mindfulness”, “flow”, and “grit”. Had we not practiced precisely these concepts from 2001 through 2002 in Munich?
As I began other adventures, I continued to harness the abundant raw energy around me, striving to remain aware every single day of my limited time and to use that time for intense mental and emotional growth. I studied at the university in Hamburg, where I drew upon my language training at JYM. I taught English in a Japanese village, where I practiced flexibility at the next level of intensity. I also built digital products in New York City, where I channeled Herr Söder and his International Society of Decidedly Odd Fellows.
Have you not heard of it?
Well, it was a website far ahead of its time in 2001. Avant-garde. The cutting edge!
We built it together with nothing more than his office desktop, HTML, and an ISDN modem. It was a lesson in resourcefulness, to be sure, but more importantly an example of thinking “outside of the box”. Once again, such phrases would become popular years later, especially at companies in New York City, but I already was far beyond any standard technology framework, thanks to Herr Söder and his inspirational website.
I left the city after 12 years of hustle for the idyllic farmlands of South Jersey but carried with me the JYM spirit of irreverent creativity. Here I built another website in the style of Decidedly Odd Fellows, this time named Evergreen after my own small technology consultancy. As Herr Söder was fond of saying about the prospects for his website in a world full of uncertainty, “Schau’ ma mal”. Indeed, Evergreen is an homage to that sentiment. Let’s see what comes next, 20 years after that perfect opportunity in Germany.
Each of the above experiences since graduation from JYM ultimately was an attempt to go back to Germany in the fundamental sense of experiencing constant fascinating novelty. That beautiful, singular study abroad program helped me make the most of my subsequent adventures through repetitions of adaptation to unfamiliar environments; but even more profoundly, JYM helped me understand that really there is no going back to Lübeck, Munich, or anywhere else in Germany, only turning attention again and again to the environment around me right now, where everything already sparks with electricity, if I just plug into it.
Bernhard may be amused to know that I still keep daily lists of questions about English words, constellations in the sky, birds in my backyard, and all other mysterious phenomena in my immediate Umwelt.
Also JYMer, wie war’s denn heute, wo auch immer ihr seid?