Apr 27, 2017

My experience at Bard College - Fulbright like a diamond

By Anna Engelmann

Student at the Technische Universität Dresden
Fulbright German Language Teaching Assistant at Bard College, Annandale On Hudson, NY

August 14, 2016, summer: I was sitting at the airport in Dresden, Germany. Five minutes before that, I said goodbye to my beloved family and passed the security checkpoint. I sat there, staring out of the window, watching the planes take off. The upcoming flight made me nervous and the tears on my cheeks had not quite dried out, yet. I asked myself why I was going to do that and, suddenly, I felt an increasing need to get up and run, run back to the people I love because I was terrified and unconfident about this big adventure.

My host institution in the U.S.: Bard College, NY
Anna Engelmann (Willis Tower, Chicago, IL)

Now, seven months later, I know exactly why I did it. After all this time I am so grateful for this extraordinary experience and I am sure I will remember every single moment for the rest of my life. Obviously, Bard College, my host institution, made a major contribution to my life-changing year as I was able to work with the most engaged and dedicated students I could imagine, as well as the most welcoming and open-minded campus I have ever encountered. I did not expect that amount of interest in my native language to begin with, especially in the U.S., but I quickly realized how well established the German language program is here at that rather small college in upstate New York. The students at Bard are not just dedicated to their studies, but are also an immensely united community although it was noticable that this campus is by far much more diverse than my university campus at home. I have a feeling that living on campus in the middle of nowhere with approximately 1200 potential classmates can shape the life of the students to a great extent where college is not just a part but rather becomes the center of your life, whether the students like it or not.

As far as I am concerned this sense of community and unity has a great impact on one’s success in learning a language because the possibilities of getting in contact with fellow speakers are much bigger than at larger universities. Therefore, it was a pleasure to talk to my students in class but also during lunch and dinner while enjoying our meal and I truly believe that having a native speaker integrated into the campus life raises, even more, the effort to speak and practice the language. Being embedded in the campus life by living in an original dorm and eating together with the students in the cafeteria also provided me with the unique insight into the American higher education system and allowed me to feel like an actual student rather than a stranger from a foreign country. I was able to take a look into an authentic classroom and listen to people's opinions from which I will for sure benefit throughout my entire personal career as a teacher later on. Additionally, by taking four classes at Bard, I was able to experience the differences in the system compared to that in Germany. Classes are smaller, professors are in a constant interaction with their students and create a demanding but enjoyable classroom atmosphere and, what I found most interesting was that students can explore their interests as well as strengths and weaknesses over the first two years of studying before they decide for a major rather than already signing up for a specific program when applying. In my opinion, this helps them find their way before they commit to a certain course of studies and, therefore, avoids drop-outs and frequent changes of studies. Thus, I have to say that the previous prejudices that I had about the American educational system were overthrown and replaced by a rather appreciative impression of it by the end of the year.

Impressions from the Bard College campus

Another great benefit of being a Fulbright teaching assistant is that you get to know so many people from all over the world. Starting with the gathering in Berlin, I got to know all my fellow Germans who took part in the program alongside with me. I immediately gained new friends and connections which we were able to keep throughout the entire programm. We visited each other, traveled together and I am glad we are also planning on meeting each other in our home countries. Various orientations throughout the year as well as social networks created this huge community of Fulbrighters all over the country who were sharing their ups and downs with people who are in the same situation and might be going through similar hardships. For example in Wasington D.C., people gave presentations about their first semester and we discussed personal issues as well as teaching techniques and numerous other topics openly and in a very comfortable atmosphere. Moreover, I did not just meet great people through Fulbright. I was also lucky to share my house at Bard College with 8 other lovely Foreign Language Assistants who taught Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and French. We were all having an amazing time and we developed close friendships which I think is an indispensable gift for all of us. I believe that it was not just a one-year job for me but a life-shaping experience.

My roommates at Bard College - from 8 different countries

Nevertheless, teaching your native language in a country thus far from your own includes another role that I had to become aware of: the role of a cultural ambassador for Germany. One might ask oneself what that actually means and especially since I had trouble giving a concrete definition to a form of mass culture that all German people would share, I became more aware of my own country and its people. Furthermore, I realized how easy it is to build up stereotypes and although I consider myself a very open-minded person I became aware of how deeply embedded those (often misinterpreted) concepts of other cultures are within our society. I, thus, was more careful painting a picture of the German people and our habits because I believe most of it are somewhat more peculiar to regions rather than the whole country. Specifically, I definitely did not want to further contribute to the idea of Germans eating “Bratwurst” and “Sauerkraut” all the time while being dressed in “Dirndls” and “Lederhosen”. Although this might be a considerable part of Bavarian culture, I do not at all relate to it coming from Dresden,Saxony. Therefore, I tried to share with my students aspects of my personal life, history and experiences as well as particularities from my region which were embraced greatly by everyone and raised a growing interest in visiting the country and exploring its diversity. Teaching my native language to lots of curious, dedicated students was the greatest challenge I have ever faced but it was also the most life-changing experience I have ever gained.

Learning about different cultures at the mid-year conference

Last but not least what I have noticed to be the most significant change in my personality was due to my nonstop questioning of everything that surrounded me, first, as a German cultural ambassador and, then, as a global citizen. Listening to people coming from developing countries whose primary concern is the pure survival of themselves and their families raised my consciousness about foreign countries and pointed my attention to the benefits and advantadges that I have as a German citizen. It shaped my cultural awareness as well as my insight into our global world and I am grateful to all the people that I met who engaged in hours-long conversations about society, nationality, politics, but also just what it means to be a young person trying to set up a life plan and pursue personal goals. Moreover, I more and more have the impression of a greater extent of maturity, i.e. a much broader understanding of things and a greater awareness so to speak.

In summary, those past months have been the most valuable adventure in my life so far and I am grateful to everyone who contributed to this unforgettable time. I will try to pass on some of the lessons that I learned and bring this knowledge, this awareness, this fascination of learning about our world back to my home country to make a difference. And as we carried our mantra “Fulbright like a Diamond” from the summer orientation to the mid-term conference in D.C. and further throughout the year, I will keep that in my heart and memories as I am now part of the extraordinary Fulbright family of people all over the world.

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