Students Experience Democracy in Action in Germany
Fourteen Kent State University students recently traveled to Germany for a three-week education-abroad program. The students gained cultural, democratic and social experiences while learning a little bit more about themselves in the process.
Associate Professor of History Richard Steigmann-Gall, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of Political Science Mark Cassell, Ph.D., have both been to Germany before. Both did their graduate work there, and Cassell was born in Frankfurt. After becoming colleagues at Kent State in 2000, they realized that they had first met in Berlin back in 1995.
“It was my first time going with an education-abroad program, and it was a total success,” Steigmann-Gall said. “The students loved the balance between a rigorous intellectual itinerary emphasizing German politics and history, and also the ability to see some fascinating sights in their downtime.”
“One of the most amazing things about traveling abroad is that you get to understand how the things we take for granted in the United States could be done differently,” Cassell said.
Matthew Williams, German translation major, said that the trip gave him a new outlook on life, which has helped him set new goals for himself.
“I took away from the experience great friendships, a wellspring of knowledge, beautiful memories, stories and purpose,” he said.
Students experienced democracy in action when they saw protesters rally against the European Central Bank’s (ECB) austerity measures. The bank’s headquarters is located in Frankfurt.
“The protests were very interesting for the students,” Steigmann-Gall said. “I think for them to experience the health and vitality of democracy abroad was a very eye-opening experience.”
While the students did not take part in the protests, they found it fascinating to witness and were able to see for themselves the differences in Germany’s democracy in comparison to the United States. A day after the protests, the students were briefed by a representative of the ECB for 90 minutes in a room on the 36th floor of the bank where its board of directors set interest rate policies for Europe.
“To be at the ECB at the very moment when Europe is in crisis was remarkable,” Cassell said. “We also had a number of moving experiences centered on the history of Jewish people in Germany.”
In addition to visiting several ancient synagogues that survived the Nazi period, the group toured the city of Erfurt and experienced what Jewish life in the 13th century was like. They also visited Sachsenhausen, the Nazi concentration camp located outside Berlin.
“The experience of touring such a horrific place profoundly affected everyone in the group,” Cassell said.
The group also was briefed by one of the longest-serving members of the German parliament, Hans-Ulrich Klose, Ph.D., who attended high school in the United States in the 1950s. He talked about a range of issues, including the Greek debt crisis, immigration and German-U.S. relations, and entertained questions from the students. After the talk, the group was escorted underneath the buildings through a tunnel and into the Reichstag, the German parliament, where they saw a session of parliament in action, and toured the glass dome of the Reichstag.
Rachel Smith, Russian translation major, said the architecture, history and language is what appealed to her the most during her time in Germany. Smith had been planning the trip for a while and was excited to experience a different culture.
“I have experienced another culture firsthand,” she said. “That is always something that is invaluable.”
With the success of this trip to Germany, Steigmann-Gall hopes that there will be more experiences to come for interested students.
“I hope the students discover what is different, as well as what is similar, between themselves and the people of other countries,” Steigmann-Gall said. “They came away with a better understanding of the great drama of German history and politics, and how the Germans have not just overcome the lows of their past, but are making a huge contribution to meeting the challenges of today.”
Kent State’s education-abroad program offers students an affordable way to experience different cultures, while enhancing their education with valuable, real-world experience.