Up Close and Personal

After watching the refugee crisis from afar, UM student Ian Strahn was able to cover it on the ground

By Christian Kiemele, Nelson Weller Intern

Tell us about yourself.

 I grew up in Bozeman, and I never had any intention of staying in state for college. I ended up getting a scholarship at UM so I decided to go here. I’m actually really happy that I did that, because this experience has been amazing. I’m a senior this year with a political science and German double-major.

Ian StrahnLast summer you covered the Syrian refugee crisis in Berlin through a trip sponsored by the UM School of Journalism. What made you decide to go on the trip, and what was your experience like?

I’m a member of the Davidson Honors College and the Franke Global Leadership Initiative, which I’ve really enjoyed. When I won the GLI scholarship this last spring, it allowed me to go to Germany with the Journalism trip. I have a real interest in Germany and what’s going on over there, specifically with the refugee crisis. As a poly-sci major, I was focused on the rise of the right-wing in Germany, the political extremism that’s grown as a result of the refugee crisis there. We spent quite a while doing research as a group, and then we would break off to cover our individual stories. I was also able to do an internship with a station in Germany called VDF, which is one of two major broadcasting stations in Germany, after the group had left the country.

Why were you drawn to Germany?

My family is originally from Germany on my dad’s side, so I’ve always had a predisposition to Germany because of that. I was also just really interested by the history there; I think it’s one of the most diverse cultures in the world. My sophomore year of college I actually lived in Europe and taught English at a school in Germany and studied in Austria. So I had a lot of connections there already, but because of my interest in political science I became very invested in this refugee issue. Germany’s kind of become the central point of all that, so this opportunity gave me the chance to do the kind of professional work I’d always wanted to do in almost every aspect.

What was it like covering the refugee crisis?

I think it helped that I had lived there already and was familiar with the culture. It was a totally different world, dealing with the refugee issue. It’s completely alien to most of us in the western world, both their culture and their situation. I don’t think any of us can know what it feels like to be a refugee. A lot of the people who are coming over as refugees are our age, which was totally eye-opening that they could be in your position just as easily as you could be in theirs. Dealing with that was really eye-opening.

It was really hard at times too. There were practical problems with translation, cultural barriers we hadn’t anticipated. There was just this whole new way you had to handle yourself around people. Part of my discomfort was that I wasn’t super confident in my journalistic skill, since I didn’t have a whole lot of experience, which was a different way I had to handle myself professionally.

How does this experience tie in with your long-term goals?

Well, I haven’t excluded doing journalism professionally, so I learned a lot about the industry. I also learned so much about German and Syrian culture, and about German politics. Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve been working on a couple of research projects with faculty on campus on the country’s right-wing movements.

One of my career goals in life is to do some kind of humanitarian work somewhere to make a difference with individual people. I got a good look at all the obstacles you face in that profession.

We also had to raise a ton of money to go, which was a great experience in fundraising work.

How did your scholarship impact your experience?

There’s no way I would’ve been able to afford this experience without it. I’m as much of a poor college student as anyone else, just doing my best to make it by. So there’s no way I would’ve been able to do this kind of international research otherwise.

Do you have a UM story you'd like to share? We'd love to hear it! Share it with us today.