Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Why SAIS Bologna? One student's answer

Lisa Heinrich attended SAIS Bologna in 2010-11 and then SAIS DC before graduating this past May. She enrolled at SAIS shortly after finishing her undergraduate studies and so is proof that while many SAIS students work before matriculating, not all do.

Before starting SAIS, Lisa had worked for an online magazine and radio in Germany and also on a documentary about Germans in Georgia. Now she is working for Oxford Analytica.

We asked Lisa to discuss her transitions, first to the U.S. academic system, then to SAIS DC from SAIS Bologna.

During my last year of bachelor’s studies at the University of Bremen, I started thinking about MA programs.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to try to get into an English-language program and to be forced to think, write and speak in English. Although my English was already strong, I felt more comfortable expressing myself in German.

Because I aimed to work in international relations, I wanted to be able to write and speak in English without having to ponder at length. Now, two years later, I can say I have just about succeeded – almost at the expense of my German. But that’s another story.

Lisa at SAIS graduation in May
Why SAIS Bologna?

As a non-U.S. national I had to decide which SAIS campus to apply to – for non-Americans, the DC and Bologna campuses have different application processes. I chose the Bologna campus for several reasons.

First, I had spent my Erasmus semester in Bologna and fallen in love with the city. During my first stint in Bologna I had spent a lot of time with the SAIS crowd and seen first-hand what a great experience it is, especially the mix of nationalities and the community feeling, what some call “the SAIS bubble”.

From a practical standpoint, because I was in the midst of writing my bachelor’s thesis during the application period, I did not have time to take the GRE, which is not required by SAIS Bologna.

Also, I was hopeful I would land financial aid at SAIS Bologna, which has an extensive network of donors, many of them loyal alumni including large numbers of Germans.

Being from Germany, where education is largely free, the monetary factor was clearly important to me as it is for many Europeans. But SAIS was very supportive in that respect, and Germans enjoy many opportunities to receive aid from generous German institutions.

Just about everyone who studies at SAIS Bologna will tell you they spent the best year of their lives in Bologna. Being a cynic, I was sure this was a marketing tool. Best year of their lives? That sounded a bit too much for me.

But now that I have spent a year at SAIS Bologna, I can say with confidence that it is true – at least up to now. If I had to do it all over again, I would pick SAIS Bologna over any other school.


Adapting to the U.S. academic system was a bit difficult at the beginning but totally manageable. There can be a lot of busy work, and I must admit that sometimes I thought to myself: “This is silly and repetitive. Why do they make me do all of this?” But learning to manage a busy schedule has proven very helpful in my new job.

On a SAIS field trip
I was also freaked out that “C” was a failing grade in the U.S. system and that you have only ONE try. In Germany, if you fail an exam (or just didn’t feel like taking it and didn’t show up), you’ll always have a second, third, fourth try without any negative consequences.

But my scholarship at SAIS required that I not fail a single class. If I failed two, I would get kicked out. I admit that freaked me out.


My transfer to DC was fairly smooth. Luckily my roommate was already there over the summer, so he looked for apartments. But choosing classes was not that easy in DC, where there is a wide range of courses. Often several courses that interested me overlapped.

The atmosphere is very different in DC than in Bologna. That is not to say that Bologna is better, but it’s different. DC offers an impressive array of speakers and also interesting people you can meet during luncheon talks all over the city.

Things are not as cozy and you have to work hard to manage to keep your friendships from Bologna alive because DC is bigger, people have friends outside of SAIS and everyone is busier with networking, job hunting and internships.

So the transfer can be harder for non-Americans than it is for Americans, who after all are returning home whereas we have to adapt to a new way of life in a new city and new country. There is less of a comforting community than in Bologna. But you get used to it very quickly, and it is important to expand your horizons and meet the DC students as well because they can be a great asset when it comes to fun things to do in town!

Last but definitely not least, what is special about SAIS is the great support recent graduates get from alumni. I am a prime example of someone who has benefited from what some call “the SAIS mafia”.

Two weeks after graduation I received a job offer from Oxford Analytica, a company I had been introduced to through a SAIS alum – also a bolognese. Thanks to her, I have found my dream job. The help from alumni is just amazing, particularly for the bolognesi, who stick together for generations.

The shared experience of SAIS Bologna creates a very special bond, and a fellow bolognese will always lend a helping hand.