Trading places: UAA alumnus Kohl Keil heads to Germany with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program

by cmmyers  |   

Alumnus Kohl Keil, B.S. Mechanical Engineering '18, is the 12th UAA student awarded with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals award, and will leave in July to live abroad and study in Germany for a year. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

UAA alumnus Kohl Keil, B.S. Mechanical Engineering '18, has had a lifelong love of languages. Perhaps it was because his father was in the Navy, which meant his family moved a lot - he's lived in cities across the globe from Hong Kong to Anchorage. He recalls that in about fifth or sixth grade his mother introduced him to German. Now, he's been awarded the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX) for the 2019-2020 academic year. Keil is one of 75 recipients granted this prestigious award for a yearlong exchange in Germany, and the 12th UAA student to embark on this foreign language program.

"I've always liked learning languages and German was the one that I was farthest along in and I heard that [UAA] had a program," said Keil. He was still in high school when he went in to interview with Dr. Natasa Masanovic, UAA German professor and chair of the languages department. As a high school junior, he was placed in the 200-level German language courses. "I wouldn't consider myself fluent, but I'm hoping that by the time I get back that I will be pretty close, or fully fluent."

For him, the opportunity to participate in CBYX has been a long time coming. He's known about the scholarship exchange program since he was in high school when Dr. Masanovic first told him about it and encouraged him to apply when he was ready.

"She told me about this program a long time ago, it might have even been before my freshman year in college," said Keil, explaining that the Congress-Bundestag program has an emphasis on technical fields, and since he was leaning toward mechanical engineering, she thought he'd be a good fit. "The culture and language aspect was appealing too, so this has been on my radar for a long time."


For more than 35 years, CBYX has been offering young professionals ages 18-24 a fully-funded, yearlong cultural exchange program for 75 American and 75 German students. The program is broken into three parts, and for American students, includes a two-month intensive language program at a Carl Duisberg Centrum language school in either Cologne, Radolfzell or Saarbrücken, Germany. This eight-week intensive immersion program is designed to rapidly improve students' language, communication and written German skills, to prepare them for phases two and three of the program, which includes four months of study at a university and a six-month internship in the students' chosen field.

It's a big year and CBYX only picks the top students and young professionals from across the country.

"There were 500 applicants this year and they interviewed 150 of us," said Keil, who flew to Portland earlier this year for the final interview before being notified that he was chosen. "It was different, but it was nice to be able to walk around because I haven't been in a walking city since living in Hong Kong."

To apply for the program, Keil was required to have had internship experience, which he gained through five semesters at local telecommunications company GCI, where he currently works. In addition, he was required to provide letters of recommendation. He said his boss at GCI happily obliged, as did Dr. Masanovic.

"I also had to submit essays and they asked questions like, 'what are some of your personal and career goals?' Those sorts of things," said Keil.

Keil will be heading to Washington, D.C., July 29, his birthday, for an orientation with the other 75 CBYX recipients. This is when he'll learn what city he'll be living abroad in for the next year.

Trading in paychecks for lecture halls

Keil said he's excited about his trip overseas but has some mixed feeling about interrupting his new adult life. It's his first year as "non-student" and truth be told, he's liked not having to study in the evenings and on weekends. The prospect of diving into school again, in a completely different language, seems intimidating.

"I love my life here and am hoping to come back to that here, plus I have to give up my new job," Keil said. "While going here [to UAA] I completely blocked off all fun winter activities so that I could focus on school and now that I'm out of school I'm like, 'Yay, I can do fun winter things.' But I can postpone one more year of winter fun."

What Keil is most excited for is improving his language skills. His family is of German descent and so he's looking forward to connecting with his cultural heritage. To him, the everyday German culture is what's interesting to him, like going to the grocery store, walking the streets in town and just seeing how people interact. He imagines it will all be much different than in Alaska and other places he's lived.

"It will be interesting to see how the workplace is different," he said. "I work in a pretty relaxed office." Once Keil enters the final phase of the program, he hopes to find an internship program in HVAC, auto design or telecommunications.

Adventure time

Keil will spend an entire year abroad in Germany and although much of that time will be dedicated to learning the language, studying and working at his internship, Keil hopes to get some free time to explore his new surroundings.

"I really want to go backpacking in the Carpathians," he said. "If I don't get to do any other traveling while I'm there, that is the one thing that I would like to do." Keil said each year he tries to do one big backpacking trip, although school and a surgery last August has made squeezing in some of those bigger backpacking trips more difficult. Other bucket list activities include seeing the Kinder Dome Wall in Berlin and, in general, just touring around his new home away from home.

Keil said he has a lot to do before he flies to the East Coast in late July and knows the next four months will fly by. He's not sure what he expects for his year abroad, but is excited to up the ante on his German language skill and hopes to be close, if not fully fluent by the time he returns.

In the meantime, he's been going to Kaffeeklatsch, which meets every Friday at Black Cup to practice his German. He's also been studying for his upcoming Fundamentals of Engineering exam so he can have that ready to go on his resume when he returns.

"I think it's important for people to have balance, even if you think you don't have the time, make the time to stretch yourself in college to take some classes to find out what you're interested in," said Keil. "There are lots of opportunities out there and UAA is a great place to do it."

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement

Creative Commons License "Trading places: UAA alumnus Kohl Keil heads to Germany with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.