Lokela Alexander Minami (Double BA 2010, German and Political Science, cum laude, MA 2012 International Studies: Middle East)
“Was? Spinnst du?” Had my family members been able to speak German, that might have been their reaction when I confessed to them that I had chosen to major in Germanics. But since they only know that mutant cousin of German called “English,” I had to settle for something more like this: “Um, okay... So what exactly do you plan to do with that?” Which, granted, is a valid question in this utilitarian age of ours, and one that I’m sure many undergraduates are agonizing over at this very moment.
In my family’s defense, I have to admit that Germanics was a pretty unconventional choice for a person of no German ancestry who was born and raised in Hawaii. It was also never part of the original starry-eyed plan that I had sold them on, which was to study Political Science and then go to law school and become rich. (All together now, you know the lyrics—“And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky….”) But as a Prussian field marshal once said, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Since my battle plan required me to take one year of a foreign language, as ordered by the College of Arts and Sciences, I chose to satisfy that requirement by taking German.
I’m not sure what exactly possessed me to choose German, but I suspect that like many other non-heritage learners, I was strongly attracted to it out of a natural predilection for (1) having alles in Ordnung, for which German seemed somehow very fitting; and (2) spending the occasional Feierabend in the Biergarten (if you know what I mean), and everyone knows that German is the international language for that. I of course was also aware, and became even more aware over time, that knowledge of German conferred access to a whole Gesamtkunstwerk of Western cultural heritage, from philosophy and the sciences to literature and fine art. That awareness was only reinforced when I traveled with the Germanics Department to Vienna, Austria in the spring of 2008, where I became rapt by all the art and splendor of the former imperial capital (not to mention the Heurigen). The experience made such an impression on me that I decided then that I would go all-in and declare myself as a Germanics major.
I collected my degree in 2010, after much slogging through Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing, and afterward I stayed on at the University of Washington to get a master’s degree in Middle East Studies—yet another unconventional choice for a now German-speaking Native Hawaiian. But over my four years of studying both Germanics and International Relations as an undergraduate, I realized that my heart lay not so much in the law (or financial abundance) as in global affairs. And where better to test your mettle in that field than in the ever-shifting sands of the Middle East? So after two more years of Sitzfleisch and a brief interlude in revolution-torn Cairo (I thought it would be good fun to go and practice my Arabic), I collected my second degree and boldly set out to claim my place among the movers and shakers of the world.
Except—there had just been a Great Recession, and coffee shops and retail stores were teeming with employees who had even more diplomas than me. I too wandered the wilderness of Weltschmerz for a while, but eventually fortune smiled on me and spared me from any desperate deals with Mephisto, and I found myself in a job that couldn’t fit my passions and interests more perfectly.
I am now the Director of Operations at OneWorld Now!, an international education non-profit in Seattle that teaches after-school Arabic and Chinese language classes in the Seattle Public Schools. We also hold weekly youth leadership workshops, an annual youth-led global action conference, and intensive summer language camps, and we offer summer study abroad scholarships so that our students can take their newfound language and leadership skills and transform themselves into citizen diplomats in the Middle East and China. And best of all, because nearly all of our students come from underserved backgrounds, the program is almost entirely free.
So now you’re probably wondering how it is exactly that my degree in Germanics helped me soar to these lofty heights. I have two answers, one of them short (a college friend who spoke German recommended me for it), and one of them long. I’ll spare you the full version of the long answer, but the short version of the long answer is that learning how to speak German, as well as traveling to Germany and Austria, meant that I could no longer go about life pretending that I lived in a small, provincial world and that I was limited to making a difference only in my immediate physical surroundings. In other words, I could never un-realize that I, along with everyone else in the world, was part an interconnected global community, and that this community could only be strengthened by the empathy and understanding that is garnered through language-learning, travel, and people-to-people connections.
As the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. wrote, “A mind that is stretched by a new idea never shrinks back to its former dimensions.” The same is true of one’s sense of possibility in the world. Holmes also wrote a poem called “The Chambered Nautilus,” in which he lauded the eponymous sea creature for growing unrelentingly into an ever-widening shell, leaving behind the outgrown chambers of the past. Over my life, my chambers have grown from microscopic Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest and Europe, and now on to China and the Middle East. My ambitions and my sense of possibility have grown right alongside them, and that is a realization that I hope to recreate in the minds of the high school students in our program.
All right, enough with the flights of fancy. Kommen wir jetzt mal zu Potte. Here’s my career advice for students studying German (don’t worry, Germanics Department, you don’t have to endorse it—I claim full responsibility for it):
- Figure out what it is that you want to do with your life, and figure it out soon. Once you enter the job market, there are few things worse than drifting through eight hours of each day feeling like you’re living someone else’s dream. So close your eyes and ask yourself how you really want to spend your precious few decades on this planet, and start re-orienting everything in your life toward that vision.
- Then tell everyone you know about that vision. Because people know people, and the more you get your vision out there, the easier it will be for other people to help you make it a reality, or at least connect you with people who can. I owe almost all of my career advances to the help of various mentors (in both high and low places), many of whom I met as a student.
- If speaking German is going to be a part of that vision, then spend your every waking moment immersing yourself in German. In the end, you had better be able to speak German better than the Germans, and that means not only committing a lot of time and effort to the books, but it also means traveling to Germany or Austria as much as possible. There are enough German-speakers out there (including native German-speakers who speak better English than you) to make the competition beyond formidable, so you will have to build rock-solid German language credentials if you want to have a chance.
- Even if speaking German is not part of the end goal, German can still help you along your path. Seattle is überschwemmt with businesspeople who are of German heritage and/or have traveled to Germany, and they would love nothing more than to share their old Hofbräuhaus stories from the 1990s with you. Use it to your advantage in networking situations. I certainly have.
- Have something more to go on than just your German language skills. There are a lot of Seattle companies—big and small—that do business with Germany, and you might be of interest to them. But unless you plan to be a translator or an interpreter, foreign language proficiency is a side skill that serves to augment your primary marketable skills. Zum Beispiel, you can’t really help your tech start-up company land that big German investor unless you can actually explain how your product works on a technical level. So in order to build up those skills, it all goes back to that first thing I said about figuring out what it is you want to do with your life. Once you know that, then all the other intermediary steps toward building those necessary skills (like internships and part-time student jobs) will fall into place.
I could go on, but perhaps I’d better not. A big part of the adventure of life is finding things out for yourself. And that leads me to the thought that I’d like to leave you with, which is that you should forget the disillusionment and jaded pragmatism that recent economic events have infused among our generation and treat your life as an ongoing adventure whose end goal is to leave the world a better place than when we found it. Learning new languages and traveling the globe will help set you down that path and will help you to discover new solutions to the world’s ills. I have seen it happen in my own life, and I have seen it in the lives of the many highly motivated youth who have come through our program. So get out there and read your Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing. They will help you change the world.