After spending his first year in the Strategic Studies program at SAIS Bologna, Sebastian Dannhoff moved to Berlin, Germany for a summer internship with The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). A departure from his business background, working for the think tank ultimately shaped Sebastian’s concentration and unveiled the rewards and particularities of nonprofit work.
Originally from Dusseldorf, Germany, Sebastian speaks fondly of life in Berlin and shares advice for students hoping to build careers in the capital.
Tell us about your position at the German Marshall Fund.
I was a Berlin Program Intern in the second largest office the fund has after Washington, D.C.. The GMF works on transatlantic issues like US-European relations, migration, NATO and security, but the Berlin Program mainly focuses on holding events and expanding the constituency of the organization. I was responsible for a target group analysis, so my job was to sift through event data— number of invitees, the invitees’ sector, time of day, topic of event, etc.—and then analyze it and put it all in a comprehensive presentation for the management. I went beyond just data analysis and suggested things that could be improved or done differently in the organization.
My priorities for the summer were being in Berlin to network and seeing whether the think tank atmosphere was for me. If you’re German and you want to go into politics, chances are you’ll end up in Berlin at some point.
What kind of events were you organizing?
There’s a whole different range, from small, off-the-record meetings to large, public events. The most interesting one I saw had 150 people in attendance and was about Trump, the new conservatism and how to understand American politics from a European perspective. We invited German and American stakeholders, including Michael Stumo, an American economist who strongly supports Trump’s economic policies.
From an economic perspective, Germans are flabbergasted by Trump, so we tried to get Trump supporters to give a better understanding of his policies. The goal was to get European and German politicians, journalists and professors discussing the topic and devising ways to work with his policies.
There was also a very interesting event with Lecia Brooks talking about racial tension and diversity in the U.S. and the resurgence of nationalism.
What was the most challenging aspect of your internship?
The most difficult things were due to my background. All of the internships I’ve had before were in business or finance, so this was the first time that I worked in a think tank and nonprofit. The internships I did before had a bottom line, a tangible result and profit figures. I could pat myself on the back when those were good. In a think tank, the results are much more distant. You put together an event and you feel good about it, but what comes of it in the short- or medium-term? An event might affect policy one year down the road, or a paper that your organization puts out might influence new legislation later on. There’s no instant gratification and you need endurance to see your work through, because what you spent days and days on might not immediately translate into tangible results.
What was life like in Berlin?
Berlin is such a cool city. All the multiculturalism translates to a really interesting nightlife. In Berlin we call the different parts of the city kieze and every different kiez is like its own city.
There’s something for everyone. If you want to go party on Tuesday at 1 p.m. in Berlin, you can. There’s every kind of restaurant you could possibly imagine and weird twists on every bar. The city also has posh and nice areas if everything becomes too much. You can take public transit outside the city into more scenic, natural areas.
The one thing I tell people is that Berlin is not Germany. Berlin is its own thing. You can hop on the subway, hear six languages and none of them are German. People love it, but don’t take it as your standard of what Germany is like.
Were there any SAIS classes that proved helpful during your internship?
During my internship, I wasn’t doing research that was thematically related to my concentration, but I got to attend events that concerned themselves with NATO or the Bundeswehr. Those events confirmed that I chose to go into the right field, because they were the things I found most interesting.
The experience probably pushed me more towards geopolitical and geostrategy courses as opposed to the more nitty-gritty operational, tactical analysis. Whereas after my first year in Bologna I was fascinated by all the tactics and policies, I came to realize that I have to prioritize issues that I’ll be working on later in life.