Author Archives: Lucy Yates

Failed Presentations and Confusing Communications – Lucy

I was sixteen. It was my first class presentation for German and I had memorized half the words, with no note cards to help me with the other half of the words. My slides on my presentation were set to switch after 30 seconds, as imposed by my teacher Mr. Eickhoff, and as soon as the presentation began, it quickly went downhill. As I struggled to remember the words I had not committed to memory, the slides continued to change, and soon I just stopped talking, standing in front of my class silent as the presentation cycled on. I imagine it was very painful to watch. Mr. Eickhoff allowed me to try again a week later, and I, desperately trying to avoid the same mortifying experience, practiced my presentation dozens of times. I ended up getting an A. 

Two years later I was in Berlin, Germany on a summer abroad program, standing in front of another class. This time, I was ready. My words weren’t memorized, instead, I had a general idea of what I wanted to say and a larger working vocabulary to pull from. And so I stood in front of the class and I did exactly what I couldn’t do two years before; I came up with half of my words on the spot. Not because I hadn’t prepared (though I definitely had been more interested

Sightseeing in Berlin

in visiting the Brandenburg Tor then doing my homework the day before), but because I knew enough of the language to phrase my sentences based on the moment. And it went wonderfully. After I thanked my class for their Aufmerksamkeit (attention), I returned to my seat and all I could think was: I just presented in German. No sweat. And if I could present in a foreign language, a language that I wasn’t even fluent in, then I could accomplish anything in my native language. 

Or at least, I have a newfound confidence in my communication skills. I’ve been in front of a room full of people, overwhelmed and stressed out, and I’ve choked before. And from that experience, I’ve learned how to recognize my weaknesses and improve myself. I’ve gained the confidence I need to command a room and the humility to recognize where I need improvements, which in the workplace can make me a vital team player and introspective worker. 

Class presentations are just one of the many character-building experiences language learning provides. Immersive language settings, such as living with a host family in a small Bavarian town when I was 15, have pushed me to be more flexible and adaptable to unknown experiences. In Straubing, Germany, I stayed with a girl my age, Angie, and her family. At the time, I spoke not a word of German, though Angie’s family spoke in such a thick Bavarian dialect I may not have been able to understand them anyway. Angie spoke English well, but she often didn’t tell me what plans we had for the day. Thus, I was constantly being thrust into new situations without preparation. One day we woke up and she announced we were going

With Angie’s family on a random adventure

to a music festival in Munich. We got on the train and I realized it was a two hour train ride. 

Staying with Angie taught me how to roll with the punches, but also, it emphasized to me the importance of communication. It wouldn’t have been difficult for Angie to tell me our plans; she

did speak English after all. She would tell her friends, who were with us, in Bavarian dialect, but neglect to tell me and by effect, I felt very excluded and isolated. By keeping others in the loop on details and plans, it fosters a sense of community and acceptance; something which is very important in a formal workplace.

 Dedicating my time to learning German, Spanish, or even that one class I took in Latin, has improved my human relations skill set exponentially. Each experience builds on the last, whether it be choking on a presentation, taking random two-hour train rides to Munich, feeling isolated by others’ lack of communication, or one of the numerous other experiences that have equipped me to thrive in a formal work setting.

The Merits of Shredding Paper for a Non-Profit – Lucy Yates

“Humanity in Action seeks to ensure that its programs challenge the thoughts of everyone, including those who challenge society…The power of the reformer is that he or she changes things; the danger of the reformer is self-righteousness. For every ounce of diligence we devote to correcting the inequalities of society and the world, we must devote twice as much energy correcting ourselves.”

Please respond to the challenges presented in this quote, referencing your passions and aspirations. How does this insight inform your motivation to join Humanity in Action?

When I was sixteen, I started volunteering at an after school program for the children of refugees. The program was small, held in a little house with a larger outside play area for the kids and only two women running the show. I would help the kids with their homework, and then toss them onto my back and run around the playground as more tried to catch me. I would leave the after school program tired and sweaty – but happy. I was putting time and physical effort into volunteering and seeing the immediate effects of my work – the more I showed up, the more the kids recognized me and the bigger the hugs I received.

Then, in the summer, I worked at their summer camp program. During this time, church groups flocked to the little house to play with the kids. I would come some days and there would be almost as many volunteers as children – and some of the volunteers were children. My presence wasn’t necessary. They had twenty other adults looking out for them. Why was I there then? To make myself feel better? To make myself feel like I was making a difference? When people asked what I was doing with my summer, it felt pretty great to say “Oh, I’m volunteering with refugee children.” 

But that wasn’t the only reason I was there. I wanted to become involved locally improving the lives of refugees and immigrant communities.

The school in which I volunteered as the front desk administrator

I shifted my focus. It was still very important for these kids to have adults to look after them and help them with their homework, but there were plenty of people on the case. I started volunteering as the front desk administrator at a refugee girls’ school. I buzzed people in, took calls, copied papers, and graded assignments. Then, the following year, I volunteered at a non-profit supporting refugee and immigrant women who had experienced domestic violence and sexual abuse. I sorted donations and shredded paper.

It can feel a lot smaller than playing with kids. But it is just as important. This kind of office work supports refugee and immigrant communities just as playing with kids does. And it teaches me practical skills that I can use when I eventually work for an NGO or non-profit so I can better help these communities flourish in the long run.

I want more than anything to be engaged in local refugee and immigrant communities and this was my introduction; playing with kids. But there is more to be done. It’s possible for people to have a bigger, systemic impact if they’re willing to put in the time. 

I can change things. I can start organizations, form committees, fund raise for causes. I just have to keep pushing myself, to look for opportunities which may not seem immediately fun or gratifying, to learn the skills I need to support those who have enacted change, to enact change myself. So instead of playing with the kids whenever it works for my schedule, I can be the one running the after school program, devoting that time and effort day in and day out. 

Buggy in Berlin: Lucy

 I never thought I’d have to google translate the word for nit to explain to a German woman how I’d unintentionally infected her home with lice, but there I was, doing just that. 

I’d been working at a kids’ summer camp in Clarkston, Georgia; carrying this kid and that kid on my back around the playground. Not surprisingly, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the sweet children gave me lice.

A picnic overlooking the Bavarian countryside with Angie and her parents

It was nearly a month later when I realized, and by that time I was in Straubing, Germany; a 

remote town in the Bavarian countryside. I was visiting my friend Angie, who I’d met two years before when my high school did an exchange program. Her mom searched my head quickly, and declared that I just had dandruff; Angie acting as translator throughout.

I knew I had lice. I knew it. In two days I was leaving Angie’s family to go to Berlin for a month long study abroad program, so instead of trying to argue with Angie’s mom – who did not speak good English and I did not speak German – I let it go. I would figure it out in Berlin. 

My Berlin host mom was named Monteserrat and she and her nineteen year old daughter Dena were heavenly. Monteserrat also didn’t speak much English while Dena did, but our dynamic was entirely opposite of that of Angie and her mother. We all spoke German; always, with few exceptions. At first, my German was shaky; I wasn’t confident in my abilities and it took me awhile to pull the words I knew from my memory. 

Still, Monteserrat was patient and encouraging. Even when I admitted my lice problem with poor German, she kept her cool, which is more than I could’ve said for myself if I had been in her shoes. 

Monteserrat and me on a day trip to Pfaueninsel – Peacock Island

Throughout the month, after I got rid of the lice, of course, continually speaking German caused my confidence to grow exponentially. Repeating the same sentence structures, and hearing them returned, drilled them into my memory. I was also taking German classes during the program which assisted my success, but they in no way compared to communicating with my host family. I realized that I could take as many German (or Spanish, or any other language) classes as possible, but nothing would educate better than immersing myself in the culture of my target language. Out in the world, problems are thrown at you which no practiced class conversation can prepare you for – like confessing a lice infestation. Yes, it was stressful, but my language skills are stronger for it. I’m stronger for it. 

As well, study abroad experiences can offer students more than just the opportunity to immerse themselves in their target language. With Angie and her family, I didn’t speak any German. I should have, and I missed out on that chance to push myself. Nonetheless, Angie and her family showed me a culture different from my own, which sparked my interest. From there, my excitement to learn more German, to visit again, to learn more about other languages and other cultures skyrocketed.

Study abroad takes foreign language students out of the classroom and into the community, where they can struggle to communicate and experience cultural differences, to expand their language skills and their knowledge of the greater world.

Okay but how did I get here?

It was September 2018 and I was at the top of a steep hill; the city of Heidelberg spread before me. Beside me were thirty other students, all of us brought together by a two week German education program. 

A boy from our group leaned over to another girl and began to tell her – in Spanish – how the buildings spread across the hilltops reminded him of home – Quito, Ecuador. I listened to Mathias describe Quito to Mariona and when he was done, I grinned at them. I had understood! Not perfectly, but still. I knew they were talking about Quito. Which was something, considering I thought I’d lost all of my Spanish vocabulary when I stopped taking it sophomore year of high school. 

with my friends Mariona and Angela, who I met studying German in Heidelberg

Mariona laughed, “You speak Spanish?” But I didn’t – not really. I could barely form a sentence. Still, here I was, thousands of miles away from my former classrooms, trying to learn German, and realizing I could generally understand an Ecuadorian teenager explaining the landscape of his home city to a Catalan med student.

Okay but… how did I even get here? On a hilltop in Germany, deciphering the details of a Spanish conversation? What? Lucy? Huh?

There’s a very long answer to this question – how a year before I’d decided to take a gap year, how I’d arrived in Vienna to au-pair and realized my host family was… um… the worst. Then somehow I created an escape plan and ran away to do a German program. Well, okay, I didn’t actually run away, I told the family – the mom yelled at me which made me feel great – I stayed a week in Vienna on my own and then took a bus to Heidelberg. Kind of like running away though.

It had all happened so quickly that when I asked myself, “how did I get here?” I was too physically exhausted to really consider how it could have happened any other way.

But thinking back on it, I realize how it all happened. It wasn’t because my au-pair host family ended up being insane. It wasn’t because my mom wouldn’t let me come home until I had a positive experience. It wasn’t even because I’d worked two years at a restaurant to afford these last minute travels. It was because I studied languages.

Why did I even want to take a gap year? Because I wanted to be fluent in German. Why did I want to be fluent in German? Because I’d studied in Berlin the summer before and

Quito in all her glory

fallen in love with the city. Why did I study in Berlin? Because I’d started taking German my freshman year of high school. And because of German, here I was learning Spanish again. 

Learning a language has brought me to so many unexpected places, like that hilltop in Heidelberg, and it continues to, as my experiences build on each other, one after another. 

And that is what a liberal arts education is all about – broadening your horizons and gaining knowledge from every pretty place there’s knowledge to be taken from, especially the places you wouldn’t expect.


Hi everybody! My name is Lucy Yates and I’m a first year student at Emory. I’m from Atlanta, Georgia, but I’ve spent a lot of summers and a gap year travelling around the world. I am currently studying Spanish, and hope to continue studying German at Emory. As of now, I’m thinking of majoring in Linguistics and History.