By Carol Kerbaugh

The German American Conference is a valuable platform for leaders in academia, business, society, and politics to engage with passionate students on U.S.-German relations. 

More than 700 participants descended onto the Harvard Kennedy School campus October 27-29 for the student-led German American Conference to have a meaningful exchange about transatlantic issues. Now in its 15th year, the conference has become a valuable platform for leaders in academia, business, society, and politics to engage with passionate students on U.S.-German relations.

“The German American Conference focuses on transatlantic relations between the U.S. and Germany, but also between the U.S. and the European Union,” explains Liudmyla Kurnosikova MPA 2025, who co-chaired this year’s conference.

“We’re not only focused on Germany, but on the relationship we share,” adds Thilo Kerkhoff MPP 2025, who co-headed the conference’s events team. “The United States and Germany have a very close, long-standing friendship. This conference is a great platform to foster an exchange of ideas between Europe, Germany, and the United States on timely issues.”

headshot of Thilo Kerkhoff

“This conference is a great platform to foster an exchange of ideas between Europe, Germany, and the United States on timely issues.”

Thilo Kerkhoff MPP 2025
Globe


Senior leaders from Europe and the U.S. took part in the three-day event. Karen Donfried, Belfer Center senior fellow and former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, gave the keynote address, “Transatlantic Ties: Exploring the State of the Friendship,” along with Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook MPA 2010, executive vice president and senior advisor of Bertelsmann Stiftung; and Oliver Schmolke, vice chief of staff for the Office of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Other prominent speakers included Andreas Michaelis, German ambassador to the United States; Nicola Beer, vice president and member of the European Parliament; Wolfgang Schmidt, head of the German Federal Chancellery and federal minister for special tasks; and Hans-Paul Bürkner, managing director and global chair emeritus of Boston Consulting Group.

“It’s rare to have the opportunity to bring so many topics you care about to a larger audience,” says Sebastian Berns MPA/ID 2024, also a conference co-chair. Berns was particularly interested in programming related to decarbonization and climate policy, challenges to democracy in Europe and the U.S., and on a more personal level, electronic music.

headshot of Sebastian Berns

“It’s rare to have the opportunity to bring so many topics you care about to a larger audience.”

Sebastian Berns MPA/ID 2024
Globe

Kurnosikova ensured that the war in Ukraine was featured prominently during the conference—from discussions about a peaceful resolution to the conflict to Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction. The subject matter is personal—she’s from Ukraine and has family there.

“We wanted participants to look beyond the current issues into the future,” says Kurnosikova. The underlying theme of this year’s conference, she explains, was “Think Beyond.”

headshot of Liudmyla Kurnosikova

“We wanted participants to look beyond the current issues into the future.”

Liudmyla Kurnosikova MPA 2025
Globe

“We tried to experiment with the different speakers we brought in,” Kurnosikova elaborates. “For example, we had musician and artist Christian Löffler join us. We wanted to think outside the box of what is typically happening at a conference at a university.”

In addition to panel discussions and keynote addresses, participants could meet with conference speakers during informal coffee chats to discuss issues and ideas directly with key leaders and thinkers. Conference organizers estimate some 200 conversations took place.

Kurnosikova, Kerkhoff, and Berns—who are all McCloy Fellows—were among the many students who coordinated the conference’s programming and logistics, from planning the agenda and inviting speakers, to working with HKS administrators and promoting the conference to attract participants.

“It’s amazing how it worked out in the end,” Berns reflects. “We worked hard to ensure there was a good flow of events throughout the agenda that incorporated content that appealed to a wide-ranging audience.”

A Harvard alumna who attended the conference told Kerkhoff the weekend was inspiring.

“She said to me there’s all this talk about how it’s difficult to foster change among Gen Z and millennials,” Kerkhoff recalls, “but she was inspired seeing a crowd of young American and German students engaged and committed to solving the pressing issues of our time. That was the best result we could hope for—that people would walk away Sunday afternoon inspired by the potential of transatlantic relations and our shared values.”

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