What’s in a name? For Jahleel Johnson, the question is a bit complicated, but his time in Germany as a fellow with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals program is helping him find answers. From his early days in Berlin, where he lived with a Turkish-German host family, Johnson quickly found that his name was a convenient icebreaker for meaningful conversation with Muslim Germans.
“It might not sound like a big deal, but it means a lot — people taking a liking to my name and always telling me what my name means in Arabic,” says Johnson, a political science major in the College of Arts and Sciences and a student in the South Carolina Honors College. “In the U.S., people are always like, ‘What kind of name is Jahleel?’ Being over here is really what allowed me to have an interest in the Middle East.”
Johnson will be leaving Germany with a burgeoning interest in Islam and Middle Eastern policy, but it’s not what brought him there. He’s been fascinated by international politics since reading Hillary Clinton’s memoir about her tenure as secretary of state, and that interest led him to majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations. His participation in the six-week Charles B. Rangel Summer Enrichment Program, which provides opportunities to learn from and interact with foreign affairs professionals, sealed the deal.
With his interest in international relations and proficiency in German, study abroad was a natural next step. And Germany was a natural destination. The country found a special place in his heart after he traveled there with an exchange program in 2018.
There’s where the State Department’s Congress-Bundestag program comes in. Funded by the German Bundestag and the U.S. State Department, the program brings young Germans and young Americans together to spend one year in each other’s countries, studying, interning and living with hosts in a cultural immersion program.
As part of the program, Johnson spent two months of intensive language training in Cologne, followed by four classes last fall at Humboldt University in Berlin, a preeminent European institution that once boasted Albert Einstein as a professor. From German university life, Johnson transitioned into the final stage of the program, which involves volunteer work and internships until June.
He volunteers at a local church day care and interns with the Evangelical Working Group, part of Germany’s Christian Democratic Party. It’s been a transformative, hands-on opportunity for Johnson, giving him an insider view of German politics, a robust understanding of voters’ complex attitudes, and skills that will benefit a future political career.
“This will prepare me to work in South Carolina,” he says.
It’s also provided an opportunity for personal reflection and growth.
“For so long, I felt like I had to put on a show,” Johnson says. “My hobbies and learning German seemed a bit peculiar, but being over here has allowed me to be more comfortable in who I am. I take more pride in my name now. I stopped caring about what people think, because I realize that now that I’m able to be myself, people appreciate that.”
From discussing religion with his Muslim host dad to having a lively politics conversation with a stranger in Munich during Oktoberfest, the interpersonal element of studying abroad is confirming Johnson’s conviction that international relations is the right field for him. Through National Fellowships and Scholar Programs, he has applied for the Critical Language Scholarship for Turkey and hopes to spend the coming year living and learning abroad.
Johnson is quick to give credit to the university for its role in shaping his journey.
“I really love the German department at USC. They prepared me with everything that would be valuable to going abroad in a German-speaking country,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been successfully equipped, and I really do thank my German instructors and professors at USC.”
Read more about Jahleel Johnson and the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals program, or find out more about the national fellowships process at USC.