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Growth Opportunities

As has been noted throughout the year, it’s been really hard to get out and get involved in what’s happening in the world. Add to this my tendency to not avail myself to many of the educational opportunities offered by various international organizations, and it would have been easy to miss out on a lot of knowledge. However, I can safely say that I learned more about German culture and history this semester than any other, in large part through the efforts of the OU German Club.

            This was the first semester in which I took two German courses – German Literature and Film (focusing on the 20th century) and Business German. These two courses helped keep me apprised of upcoming German Club events while also providing educational about various facets of German culture. In Business German we were provided the opportunity to read Max Weber in the original German as well as analysis done by Konrad Adenauer on the “salaried masses.” It was fascinating German philosophical (and economic) thought that has gone on to transform the world. Further, German Literature and Film exposed me to some of the primary German artistic movements of the 20th century and provided me with a lot of context surrounding Germany’s process of overcoming their Nazi past.

Besides the classroom instruction, the German Club events provided numerous opportunities to examine various other facets of German culture. The first event I attended was a forum on internships in Germany. As I interned with the State Department earlier this year, I was invited to share my experiences, as did another student who had participated in a remote internship over the summer. The short story is this: if you can intern in Germany, you probably should.

            The German Club brought in an outside speaker for the second event I attended this semester – a discussion on the history and current state of gaming in Germany. This lecture was fascinating, for several reasons. First, the discussion included lots of interesting information about some of my favorite modern board games. For example, I hadn’t known that my favorite board game of all time, Settlers of Catan, was created in Germany. Second, the speaker discussed the evolution of board games from simple entertainment commodities to a form of artistic expression in their own right and the accompanying push by game developers for recognition. I had never thought about the process and difficulties of bringing new games to market, and I didn’t realize that for most of gaming history, game developers did not receive much popular credit for their work. Finally, the discussion ended by noting one of the largest trends in computer games in Germany: agricultural simulations. In these games, players (frequently living in urban areas) simply drive farm equipment (harvesters, tractors, etc.). This trend is notably ironic given Germany’s long history of war games.  

            Although my course-load prohibited me from attending all the events I found interesting, two other events deserve honorable mentions. One event was a lecture covering one of the continuing challenges of German reunification – legal uncertainties regarding the proper ownership of houses in former East Germany. Another was a bake-along event for the traditional Viennese cookie, Vanillekipferl. (Although I didn’t attend this event, I did bake some Vanillekipferl, and they were fantastic. Would highly recommend.) In short, The OU German Club provided many high-quality opportunities for myself and other students to expand their knowledge of German culture and history, and I’m excited about continuing my involvement in events that they host.

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A Technological Triumph

In spite of all the darkness in the world in 2020, one recent, inspiring example of international is the cooperation between BioNTech (a German biomedical firm) and Pfizer (a United States biotech company) have jointly created the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved for emergency use by the FDA. Obviously, these are not the only firms who have acted to create a COVID-19 vaccine – Moderna (another US firm) has also created a vaccine now being deployed, and other multi-national firms (e.g. Astrazeneca, partnering with Oxford University) are also in the process of creating a vaccine.

            The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is particularly noteworthy because it highlights what can be accomplished through international cooperation. As noted, while this partnership is not unique, it first demonstrates that international cooperation can produce remarkable results. More impressive than being the first vaccine to receive approval by the FDA is the creation of any effective vaccine within 9 months of starting. I’ll confess that nine months ago whenever a COVID-19 vaccine was first discussed, the prospect that one could begin deployment before 2021 seemed preposterous. And yet it was accomplished; and that deserves recognition.

While the creation of a vaccine is a testament to the incredible results possible from international cooperation, effective dispersal of the vaccine is also going to require tightly coordinated efforts from governments around the world. COVID-19, although it has impacted some nations more than others, is not the problem of a single nation; it’s a truly international challenge. Indeed, as international travel picks up, if COVID-19 remains a substantive problem for any nation, it will also remain a problem for all nations; as was evidenced earlier this year, COVID-19 won’t just remain in one place. Clearly then, dispersal of the vaccine will require coordinated international efforts to ensure that all nations have access to the resources required to surmount the challenge provoked by COVID-19. Certainly, COVID-19 has not always (or even mostly) brought out the best in us. But I hope that as we look back at the dispersal of the vaccine (and hopefully at COVID-19 as well), we can see the tremendous potential of coordinated international efforts.

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Life in the Matrix

            I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that COVID-19 has changed, and will continue to change, the world. These changes are too numerous to exhaustively cover in a single post, so I’ll simply note the one that stands out most in my mind. COVID-19 has, in ways not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall, divided country from country. This division – seen primarily in travel bans – can be seen as a macrocosm of the pandemic-mitigation measures implemented across the world.

            Although I have lived in Oklahoma for the past four months where social distancing measures and mask mandates are, at best, loosely applied, I’ve still noticed that I’ve felt more isolated in previous years. Attending classes on Zoom and doing homework in my house (or more specifically, my bedroom) made it easier to separate from the outside world. My world just felt small, constrained, and isolated. It was so easy to forget that there’s a whole world outside of my bubble. This isolation – or at least separation – from the ‘rest of the world’ extended to my connection with other countries. Although international news was much more common than in “normal” times, the world outside of Oklahoma (and on a larger scale, the US) seemed much farther removed. Nations aren’t just a plane flight away. Rather than a “community of nations” – which has arguably never really existed – the world seems more starkly divided into its disparate parts. The world (certainly the accessible world) just seems smaller.

These isolating effects of COVID-19 aren’t just constrained to individuals – they’ve been seen in international relations in ways that seem unique in my lifetime. It was shocking earlier this year when Poland, the Czech Republic, and ultimately most European nations closed their borders to others in the EU (and naturally, the rest of the world). Indeed, only this week, France has closed access to UK citizens after a new, and more contagious, strain of COVID-19 emerged in Great Britain. These aren’t warring nations – these are allies. The closures aren’t due to strained international relations – it’s in the interests of public health.

Now, I don’t have anything new to add to the discussion of pandemic mitigation measures. I don’t know what the right answers are – I don’t think that widespread (or universal) shutdowns are the solution, but ignoring the problem seems riddled with errors of judgment as well. One idea seems critical, whether it’s considered on an individual, societal, or international level: going in alone is destined for failure. I lived the first half (or ten weeks) of my fall semester trying to succeed alone – in part driven by pandemic cautions. In mild terms, it blew up in my face. Across society – whether one looks at the United States or other nations around the world – COVID-19 has laid bare deep-seated divides. As already noted, nations have erected barriers against allied nations in hitherto (in my experience) unexperienced ways. I concede that barriers might have to be temporarily enforced between nations; however, it’s critical that we (as nations) not create an island, insulated and independent from all others. Fundamentally, that’s not representative of how the world works. While each citizen might possess limited power to influence policy, we can (at a minimum) remain informed of events from around the world, act when we can to alleviate the sufferings of others, and refuse to (mentally) sequester ourselves at a time when (physical) sequestration is required. We must not resign ourselves to the blue pill, to a matrix of our own creation.

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