The East-German connection

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At Cranston High School East, there’s a lot of German going on.

Signs in the hallways advertise an after school club which touts learning about Germany and its language and culture.

Meanwhile, just down the road at the University of Rhode Island, the International Engineering Program (IEP), a five-year, dual degree program in which students major in an engineering or business discipline and a foreign language and then study abroad for a full year their fourth year, attracts a large number of students each year, many of whom study German and travel abroad to Germany. Recently, the students in the German club at East and students in the IEP program at URI had the opportunity to connect, due to the efforts of East’s Business/Special Educator Baerbel (Barbara) Tully and URI’s German professor, Niko Tracksdorf.

Tracksdorf and four of his IEP students, Brenno Ribeiro, Mkrtich Arslanyan, Catherine Cronin, and Alison Otto, spent two hours at Cranston East in the media center, showcasing their respective mechanical and electrical engineering programs and their experiences living abroad in Germany for a year each, while they went to school for the first half of that year and worked in internship programs for the second half of that year.

A visual presentation was running as the East students filled the media center, showcasing images and highlights from Germany as seen from above. Tracksdorf began the session completely in German, running it as if he would be running his German 101 classes, to show the students that it’s not as difficult to begin learning German as students might think. He greeted every single student with a handshake and spoke to them in German, stating “I am,” and his name in German, and having them repeat the introduction and state theirs as well, as a means of showing them how to introduce themselves if they were in Germany.

He then split the class into four groups, having them count off in German and handed out softballs that the students could toss back and forth between the members of their groups, practicing names and introductions as they did.

“Now you can introduce yourselves in Germany, whether on a train or in a supermarket,” he told the students.

Continuing the session in an interactive manner, Tracksdorf then had the students use their phones to participate in an activity as they watched various images shown on the screen and then had to log in on their phones as to whether or not they thought the person, place or thing shown was from America or from Germany. As the group went over the answers in the end, the students were surprised to find out just how many things such as aspirin and ketchup or places such as Trader Joe’s or Crate and Barrel had originated in Germany, and that people such as Bruce Willis and Sandra Bullock had very strong German roots.

“I want you to leave here having learned something, that some things that may seem obviously German or obviously Chinese, may not be so,” he said.

The four URI IEP students then began their portion of the presentation, sharing their experiences of their year in Germany with the group. They showed photos from their year abroad and talked in depth about their job experiences, housing experiences, and the many, many opportunities they had for travel beyond Germany. Tully also described her own experiences with her native country and some of its attractions and celebrations, such as Oktoberfest, which she described as a 16-day celebration that includes rollercoasters, food, drink, and traditional dress.

The students described Wiehnachtsmarkt, a Christmas market that takes places for one month at a time, in many locations throughout Germany.

“As a student you can travel to all of the markets,” said Cronin. “They have mugs at each one and people collect the mugs. There are vendors and shopping and spiced wine and waffles with Nutella.”

The students described favorite travel experiences within Germany such as trips to Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Munich. They also described their other travel experiences such as trips on a high-speed train to Paris or visits to Prague, Bratislava, Lucerne, London, Venice, Ireland, Edinburgh, Rome and Barcelona. In addition to the benefits of visiting new places, all of the students agreed that meeting new friends abroad and learning how to be independent in a new place were invaluable benefits to their experiences as well.

“Getting lost is the best part of all,” said Arslanyan. “You find so much cool stuff when you get lost.”

They encouraged the students at East to expand their horizons in college and to try new things they may not have considered before.

“Definitely put yourself out there and try new things,” said Cronin. “Make great memories. Find your favorite place. Find your niche.”

The URI students discussed their internships, which were at places like Porsche, IAU and ZF, and the students described some of the engineering work that they did there, as well as things like computer programming, project management and presentations, all being done in German.

“We were all competent enough in the language to get started, and to get around, but using it every day made us get more proficient while we were there,” said Cronin. “Every day you’re still learning. There are programs at URI before you go and there are programs at your host school to help you get ready and feel more competent.”

The students also noted that the German citizens were more anxious to practice their own English on the American students than they were to have the Americans speak to them in German.

The four students had nothing but rave reviews to share with the students at East and encouraged them to consider the IEP program at URI when the time came for college explorations and decisions.

“The classes are fun and interactive and although they’re challenging, you’re well-prepared,” said Tracksdorf. “We walk you through it step by step in order to get you where you want to be in this program, and yet we help you to be independent also. We want you to try things on your own, but if you need help we are right there to help you.”

He reminded the students that as high schoolers now, a place like Boston might seem far away, and a new place to explore, but he encouraged them to think even more globally.

“Europe and all the world is open to you now,” he said. “As you grow, your mentality changes and you begin to think about the worldwide, global community. Now, so much is global, we have an international mindset. Our URI students stand out because of their international experiences.”

He also encouraged students to consider combining interests in areas such as the humanities and art with STEM majors, and not to choose just one area of study but to combine several from across disciplines.

Tracksdorf also explained to the students that financial aid and scholarships exist which help students pay for tuition and for study abroad experiences, but he also reminded the students that their internships during the second part of the school year spent abroad are paid working experiences, not unpaid. Cranston East will be continuing their German club and hope to expand it in the future, as well as to make further connections with the URI IEP program in the future as well.

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