“Area studies programs are undergoing a lot questions, especially in our era of globalization,” says Ashwin Manthripragada, visiting assistant professor of German Area Studies (GAS). “We’re forced to ask: what defines German Area Studies? How do we as a department make ourselves known and relevant?”
To address these questions head-on, Manthripragada and Eric Klaus, associate professor and chair the GAS program, have focused the program’s curriculum around the nature of German identity in 21st century. This development — which melds German language learning with historical, social, literary, economic and political contexts — has taken a variety of forms, from academic and social events on campus, to experiential learning opportunities for students and alums, to an expanding GAS abroad presence.
These new facets are helping “integrate German culture into the fabric of the campus community,” Klaus says. “We’re very excited.”
Klaus notes the success of recent graduates who have pursued their love of German language and culture beyond HWS, like Silene Binkerd-Dale ’12, who earned a Fulbright Award to Tübingen; Luke Connolly ’15, who will soon begin an internship at the American Embassy in Berlin; Stephen Enos ’15, a rising graduate student in physics in Dresden this fall; Lizzy Kniffin ’15, soon to be an au pair for a German family in Frankfurt; and Devan Mizzoni ’13, a Fulbright alternate who is now attending the University of Vienna.
Each of these graduates spent time abroad in Germany as students through the Blocker Fellowship, which, thanks to the generosity of Julius G. Blocker ’53, provides support to HWS students who participate in one of the Colleges’ study abroad programs in Germany.
“Julius Blocker went on a Fulbright to Germany, which was, in his own words, a ‘life-changing experience.’ That’s the backbone of much of what we’re doing now,” Klaus explains.” Our initiatives in international opportunities and in bringing culture to campus reflect this credo — life-changing experiences.”
“Without the Blocker Fellowship I never would have decided to move to a German-speaking country,” says Mizzoni, who spent the spring of 2012 studying in Berlin, immersing herself in the language and the culture. “The experiences I had in my semester abroad almost completely determined my decision to move here after graduation. I returned to campus for my senior year and tried very hard to improve my German. I knew that I wanted to become fluent in it, and I also knew that would not be possible without living in a German-speaking country. It was a big leap of faith coming here — I’m ambitious and a planner, so moving to a country where I knew no one was a huge risk, but it has paid off in more ways than I could’ve imagined.”
For Connolly, who majored in political science with a double-minor in economics and international relations, “The Blocker Fellowship was essential to both my academic career and future career plans. It provided me with the financial assistance I needed in order to study abroad–an experience which directly influenced my career plans through creating a desire to return to Germany or work with the country in some capacity. Also, the project I did for the Blocker Showcase provided me with a way to compare and contrast an aspect of our cultures. I’m very thankful for the Fellowship and the opportunity that it gave me.”
The Blocker Showcase, in which returning Blocker Fellows present their experience to their classmates, highlights for current students “the fantastic opportunities to study abroad in Germany,” says Kniffin, an international relations major and German minor who spent a full year abroad as a Blocker Fellow. “There are a variety of abroad sites within Germany, and generous funding at their fingertips. The Blocker Fellowship gave me the wings I need to strive towards a future and a career that is fitting for me. Those 11 months in Bremen, and one in Berlin, not only exposed me to a global world, but also set me on a specific path.”
For Kniffin — who has been “hooked and fascinated by both the language and culture” since childhood, when a family friend visited from Germany — the experience abroad piqued not only her long-term plans but her immediate interest in developing her connection with Germany and German culture.
A Growing Community on Campus
When Kniffin and Kathryn Gallagher ’15 returned to HWS after studying in Bremen, they founded the German Club with the help of Manthripragada and the HWS Fulbright language assistant Alexander Schaary.
“We wanted to give back to HWS for providing that opportunity, and to get other students interested in any part of the German experience by starting a club,” Kniffin says.
“Once that happened there’s been a more ongoing presence of German culture,” Manthripragada says of the German Club’s founding. “It’s part of the backbone of making ourselves more present. There’s a sense of community — something about being small and this process of expanding makes you aware that our program is very alive.”
To capitalize on this vitality, the GAS program has developed other opportunities, like the German Area Symposium, to promote intellectual collaboration between HWS and other GAS programs in the area.
With a focus on identity in the 21st century, the first Symposium, which took place on campus in April, brought together scholars and students from the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium, which shares resources and ideas as they delve into topical issues regarding the sustainable success of higher education institutions.
“We used this connection to reach out to our colleagues in German Area Studies and invite them to participate in a full day of events,” says Klaus.
The Symposium featured “a lively discussion” with a keynote address by Hobart Dean Eugen Baer P’95, P’97, who gave a “compelling talk with a philosophical take on identity that drew upon Buddhist and Hindu and Western thought, to bridge the idea of identity in 21st century Europe, which is as much a philosophical question as a human rights issue,” Manthripragada says. “The talk got a lot of positive student response, and helped show that German Area Studies is connected to nearly every aspect of our campus.”
Also framing the discussion of identity were poetry readings in German and a film-screening and talk by Christina Antonakos-Wallace, who founded “With Wings and Roots,” the name of a documentary film as well as a web and education project featuring the stories of children of immigrants reimagining belonging in Berlin and New York.
“It’s an incredible endeavor to describe the contemporary German situation of migration and migration patterns,” says Manthripragada. “It’s the untold experience of second generation migrants in Germany. The online platform is creating a long history of migration in Germany, which helps us rethink questions of essentialism in area studies programs in general.”
Exploring these questions and the experience of immigration, in both Berlin and New York, the Symposium drew students and faculty from a variety of departments and provided “a very direct opportunity to reflect on our own situation,” says Manthripragada. “Learning about other cultures through GAS is also a way to reflect on our own notions of immigration and identity in the U.S.”
In the summer of 2015, with the support of the Blocker Fund, the HWS GAS program is able for the first time to send students to University of Leipzig’s Summer Immersion Program, which allows HWS students to earn course credit over the summer while becoming more fluent and more culturally learned.
Taught by language instructors at the university’s Herder Institute, the program “is marvelous,” Klaus says.”I’m very excited about it. When they come back to campus, their German will be stronger, they will be better ambassadors for Blocker Fellowship, and will inspire students to take more German.”
Noting her cohort of recent graduates, who “have all been fully inspired by their time spent in Germany,” Kniffin recalls her time in the HWS GAS program as not only “an academic experience, but a social one filled with friendships and personal growth.”
For Connolly as well, the GAS program “provided me with so many opportunities to engage with German culture.” And after his experience abroad, he says, “I realized that I wanted to return to Germany and have a career path which incorporated my interest in the country with my studies of international relations/politics.”
Connolly will begin his internship at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin this fall in the Public Affairs section, which “promotes an understanding of U.S. political, economic, and social issues — explaining to German audiences both the current Administration’s foreign policy agenda and the complexities of U.S. society and culture.”
Mizzoni hopes to remain in Austria after she graduates from the program in Vienna, “where I could use my English and German to work with an international NGO or one of the many development related agencies in the city,” she says. “This city is really a hub for development cooperation, so it would be a really great experience working here.”
Kniffin begins her work as an au pair next month in Frankfurt, which she anticipates will help her “evaluate and home in on” where German fits in her long-term goals. “I’m interested in intercultural communication, ethics, and the non-profit sector,” she says. “I’ll soon be taking a right or left on the same path that began with the Blocker Fellowship, depending on what I am exposed to during this upcoming year and whether I begin a master’s or start out in the professional world.”
As the GAS program develops under the leadership of Klaus and Manthripragada and the close-knit community of current students, Kniffin is confident in the wonderful underclassmates “who saw the excitement we had and added something special. I know they will continue to pave the way.”
To learn more about the program visit the GAS homepage.