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In the Spotlight: Sophia Cheng

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There is a common motivational saying that goes along the lines of “it's the journey, not the destination that matters”. Every journey has its turns and curves. My journey is no exception. How I ended up in Germany working towards certification as an assistant manager for International and Wholesale Trade is not always clear to me. One thing that I do know, is that the German Studies program at Michigan State University opened a door for me that I didn't even know existed.

In the small town where I come from in southern New Mexico, a daughter of a Peruvian-Chinese and a Mexican immigrant, the decision to learn German as a foreign language was not understood. Everyone either took Spanish or French. Only the quirky students or those who had German relatives took the third option. At the time, I only wanted to learn German to be like my older sisters, who could talk to each other without having to worry about my brothers listening in. 4 years of grammar lessons and the occasional Lebkuchenhaus later, I was on my way to Michigan State University to pursue a science degree and hopefully a German minor, for I had learned to love the German language. 

During my freshman year, I went to the Study Abroad Fair (just like everyone else) and there I learned of the Academic Year in Freiburg program. I couldn't afford it at the time and I didn't have enough space in my schedule for more German courses since my science courses took up so much time. I managed to take two great semesters before my studies in Biochemistry took over and I focused more on my more scientific endeavors. 

As chance would have it, I was contacted a few semesters later by my former 201 TA, a German Studies graduate student, asking if I could help out with an after-school program, “German for Kids”. Eager for a new perspective, I happily volunteered. “German for Kids” soon became a highlight in my week and eventually led to a career change. I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to make it work, but I knew it was going to be worth it. Shortly thereafter I left for one month with the Teaching Internship in Germany program, also through the German Department, and lived in a tiny village south of Stuttgart while shadowing a student teacher. Four weeks went by in a blink of an eye and I couldn't wait to go back. Upon my return, I signed up for the AYF Program. I boarded the plane for an 11-month stay with a plan for the next couple of years: I would be open to everything around me and use this chance to improve my understanding of the culture and the language of a country that I could not explain my fascination for. What I didn't plan for was the discoveries about myself as a person and my perspective on the world around me that would change forever.

I decided to stay after the first 11 months, to continue discovering truths about myself, and to hopefully find my place in the world. Perhaps I could have left after my two-year stay. But roots had begun to grow, strong and deep into the country and culture that I had began to identify with, to understand. What was supposed to be a glimpse into another way of life is now my way of life

After two years of AYF, I completed all the requirements for a degree in German from MSU and I was able to graduate. I took all the experiences and language skills that I had acquired and applied to do a Traineeship for Assistant Business Management in International and Wholesale Trade.

I continue to live and work in Freiburg. I am completing my training at a lighting design company. I spend my days working and learning in German. I go home to my shared flat where we discuss the lows and highs of our days, in German. My dreams are a strange mix of the two languages that I speak, with a few scenes in Spanish thrown in for variety. 

I wouldn't be here where I am today, living and working in Germany, without the MSU German Program, their study abroad programs and their amazing teaching staff. At every step of my uncertain journey, the professors at MSU and Ulrich Struve (AYF Associate Director) gave me their support and advice. Never was I told that I couldn't do what I was planning on doing and always had a door open for me. In a few short months, I will be ready to join the German workforce and I can't wait for the next step in my journey.

Previously in the Spotlight: 

Krsna.jpgKrsna Santos: "Umm, it's complicated" is usually the response I give when people ask me "Where are you from?" For many it's a harmless question, they can say "I'm from Virginia, I'm from Detroit, I'm from Germany," but for me it's the thing that makes me have to give a mini-autobiography. It goes something like "I'm from Detroit, but my whole family is from Brazil. So I'm from all over." And that's only the start of it. My name is also Krsna Santos. "So are you Indian?" "Wait, you aren't Indian?" "Actually, my fiancé thought you were Indian!" is just a sampling of what people think when they see my name. My favorite was a math professor who thought I was from Goa, a part of India colonized by the Portuguese. That makes sense, because I am actually a Brazilian with an Indian name. The real explanation for my name, however, is that my parents were practicing Hinduism when I was born, and so I was named by a Hindu priest.

Why am I mentioning all of this when speaking about learning German? Because it all started with me wanting to know more about who I am and where I'm from. I began learning German, because of my family in Brazil. My grandfather Abel's family migrated from Germany to the south of Brazil in the 1830s. Despite many marriages to Brazilians with a Portuguese background, German was spoken on that side of my family until World War II. During that war, printing in German was forbidden and speaking German became a taboo in Brazil. So my great grandmother was the last person to speak the language. Since I could not visit my grandfather, a flight too Brazil was and remains too expensive, I decided to take up German to build a connection with him and his history. I may not have been able to see him, but maybe by learning the language his parents spoke, I could get to know him.

I stuck with German through high school — only remembering that "Under the Sea" in German is still an incredible song — and continued it in college. Because my undergrad German professors showed so much earnest interest in supporting and mentoring me, I decided to make German my major. Ultimately in the Summer of 2008 I was getting ready to leave for a year abroad in Munich.  That same Summer my grandfather died, with my only memory of him being a picture I have of us together from 1991: my first time abroad. My second time abroad would also be because of him. I'm sorry to tell you, but all the clichés about studying abroad are true. It will change your life, you will make incredible friends, you will get to know yourself better, and yes, it probably will be the best year of your life. I didn't want to believe it either, but it's true!

But what I want to focus on here is how learning a language, and going abroad, helped me better know myself. Growing up I always thought I was 100% American. Maybe as the only member of my family that did not grow up in Brazil, the idea of identifying as Brazilian seemed strange to me. As a young "rebel" I even said I didn't like Brazilian music! I mean, have you heard Bossa Nova? What is there not to like? With that then confidently American identity, I went abroad. Going abroad is in many ways about getting used to, and getting to know, how other people live and what is important to them. You learn another culture and another set of values. Germans, for example, are big fans of following the rules. Most of them will not cross a street if there is not a cross walk light. I've stood so many times torn between wanting to fit in and thinking "But everyone, let's cross! There's not even any cars coming!" I was split between knowing one culture, American culture, and wanting to learn and be comfortable in another one, German culture.

After a year abroad I returned to the US with the knowledge of two cultures and the ability to compare them. For the first time in my life I could see the US with a new perspective, to critique it.  All the sudden Americans felt very distant to me. Living on my own in the US I began missing the affectionate nature of Brazilian people, the generosity, the genuine concern for others they have. More and more that felt like home to me. Brazilian music, Brazilian food, it felt like the place I belonged. To this day spending time with Brazilians feel like being with family to me. I left feeling American, and returned, with the ability to see American anew, and realized that did not quite fit. Of course, I'm not the only one. Heinrich Heine's bittersweet poetry about Germany, while in political exile in France, resonated with my feeling of not being in entirely the right place or culture. Turkish-German writer Safer Şenocak also wrote about having his feet on two coasts, and being torn as he tried to step forward. That's a feeling me, and the German rappers of color I research, share. Being from many cultures — German, Brazilian, American, Turkish, Japanese — we all strive to find a language, a space where we entirely are, while being pulled in many directions by our multinational identities.

So, who am I? The son of a Brazilian woman who came here without a high school degree and unable to speak English. A son who got to see the world, who got to spend a Summer researching German hip-hop in Berlin. A son who gets to do what he loves with people who support him at every turn. I mean this sincerely, without learning German none of that would have been possible. Learning is a language isn't a luxury, it isn't something just for travel, it's a process of knowing yourself and knowing others deeply. It gives you opportunities to see things in entirely new ways, to challenge fundamentally how you see the world. So, yes, who I am is still complicated, but studying German gave me the language and space to finally define myself.

LSPU hall photo.jpgPia Banzhaf: Before I even could read, a page in my children’s encyclopedia brimming with drawings of inventions for the exploration of the deep sea captured my imagination. The image included submersibles of all kinds, the Bathysphere, the diving bell, as well as all manner of diving suits. I remember looking at this image countless times and deciding that–one day–I would become a deep sea diver. What I did not factor in at the time was the water aspect. I was not what we call a “Wasserratte” in German, someone who loves swimming. Quite the contrary in fact. Once I discovered that side of deep sea exploration by the age of eight, I abandoned my early career ambitions.

It took me the rest of my life to realize that the drawing that set my imagination on fire transcended the exploration of the watery world. It was a metaphor for exploration in general, or research as we could call it. Growing up in a plurilingual and -cultural family in, at the time, a sea of a monolingual and –cultural society in Germany, my interests seem to naturally have developed around culture and language. I grew up in Essen, the heart of the Ruhr area, but culturally I lived between my father’s country upbringing in the Eifel region and my mother’s expatriate world under the Eiffel tower. Between all family members we spoke German with an Eifel accent and English, French, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Russian, and Italian. It was in the metro in Paris when I discovered that there were other people like us, that there was a tribe we could belong to, a tribe happily living in the in-between and it appears that I continue to be on the lookout for these interstitial spaces.

During my studies in Germany, where I majored in comparative cultural anthropology of textiles and linguistics, I was introduced to the physiology of language and when–during my graduate studies–I discovered that there was such a thing as cognitive approaches to literature, I dove right in. I am mostly interested in understanding how literature and art achieve their effects. This approach has allowed me to bring my love of literature and my interest in cognitive processes together and even to expand into theatre and performance analysis and practice.

 Currently, I am training my search lights onto the cognitive processes involved in the perception of inanimate objects like puppets. Asia and Africa are known for their long tradition in puppet theatre, and while not as old, puppetry arts have a long tradition in Europe, too. Anecdotal evidence even has it that Goethe, who was very fond of puppet theatre, was inspired to explore the Faust material after attending a Dr. Faustus marionette play at the age of nineteen. Germany continues to have its fair share of outstanding, innovative puppetry artists and puppet theatres. Some claim that puppet theatre is experiencing a sort of renaissance. In light of the proliferation of robots, androids, cyborgs, and the posthuman in general, the question of what it means to be human, has come to the fore again and studying puppets is, as odd as it may seem, a productive way of engaging in this question. While this research does not seem to tie into German studies in obvious ways, it is grounded in the knowledge of the field of aesthetics and phenomenology, which were pioneered by German thinkers and I feel lucky to be able to access their writings in the original. 

So, to everyone out there, on the fence about studying German, I want to say: “Tauchen Sie ein!” It is going to be an adventure.


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Thomas Wilkins: Although the majority of my classmates in my German courses were pursuing degrees in languages, the arts, or education, I was a minority earning a minor in German while working toward a degree in biology and a career in medicine. While many choose to take German because it aligns with their studies or career path, I sought to obtain a minor in German studies because of my fascination in learning different cultures. After visiting 11 countries (and with plans to explore 3 more in the coming months), I consider traveling to be one of my most important hobbies. My first major international trip, which started my passion for international travel, was to Germany. Just after completing my first year of studying German in high school, I spent several weeks in Germany and was fascinated by the history and culture. I loved exploring the similarities and contrasts present in Germany compared to what I had grown up experiencing in the U.S. Since then, I have traveled to much of Europe, parts of South America, as well as to Southeast Asia, and continue to have a deep passion for exploring different countries and cultures.

Though I have had a growing interest in traveling and learning about different languages and cultures, my main area of study was in the sciences. I have had a strong desire to become a physician since my early years in middle school, and after being accepted into the Osteopathic Medical Scholars program and to the Lyman Briggs Residential College, I chose to complete my premedical curriculum at Michigan State University. After four years at MSU obtaining my degree in Biology and earning my minor in German Language, the blood flowing through my veins was too green to consider going anywhere else and I continued my medical education at Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. I completed my first two years of preclinical studies at the campus in East Lansing and moved to Traverse City to complete my final two years of clinical rotations at Munson Medical Center (while proceeding to hike, kayak, and snowshoe all of my free time through Northern Michigan). Having recently graduated from medical school, I have now accepted a residency position in Chicago to spend the next 3 years completing my training to enter a career in Family Medicine.

Although it has been several years since my time in East Lansing, German language and culture as well as my studies at MSU continue to play a large role in my life. I have maintained many friendships and connections from my time in the German Program, and consider one of my German professors to now be one of my closest friends. In Chicago, I frequently encounter people from a multitude of diverse international backgrounds and believe my studies in German language and in different cultures have allowed me to better connect with the many people I meet on a daily basis. I also continue to seek new opportunities abroad and believe I will always have an insatiable interest in exploring different countries and learning more about their traditions and history. And while I did not grow up in East Lansing and am currently living afar, I will always consider MSU to be a familiar home. Go Green and Go White!

Theresa Schenker.jpgTheresa Schenker: Ever since I can remember I wanted to become a teacher. It is no surprise perhaps - coming from a family of teachers - that my passion was always for pedagogy. Both my grandparents and my father were teachers for many years. In addition to teaching, my second passion has been for learning languages and discovering cultures. Through TV shows, films, music, and everything I heard about the USA, the English language and the American culture have fascinated me for years. When I had the chance to spend a year in Oregon for my junior year of high school, my love for languages and foreign cultures solidified and it was an easy decision when it came time to apply to college to choose a teacher education program. I originally wanted to become a teacher for German and English as a foreign language for high schools in Germany. During my M.A. program I had the chance to participate in an exchange program between my university in Jena, Germany and Michigan State University for one semester. In 2004, I attended MSU and taught German 101. It was the first time I had taught my native language to non-native speakers and I loved it from the start. I was thrilled when I was accepted into the PhD program for German Studies at MSU after I had completed my M.A. in Germany. 

I have only the fondest memories of my PhD education at MSU. The program was comprehensive and prepared me extraordinarily well for an academic career. At MSU I was able to not only develop my pedagogical skills by teaching a variety of German classes, I was also able to work with the Community Language School to teach German for Kids and Teenagers classes and even develop a new program "German for Pre-Schoolers". The German for kids summer camps were another part of my time at MSU that I enjoyed immensely. The experiences of working with such diverse age groups truly helped me gain a better understanding of how languages are learned and ultimately shaped my research interest in second language acquisition. I began researching how students learn German, not just in the traditional classroom, but through virtual exchanges. My interest in this area goes back to my own experiences of learning English. Back then, I had an American pen pal and I remember how much I was always looking forward to receiving a new letter in the mail. I learned so many new words from my pen pal, and now at MSU I began to research how these types of exchanges - now in the form of electronic partnerships through e-mail or videoconferences - can impact second language acquisition. 

After completing my PhD at MSU I took a position at Yale University as Language Program Director and Lector of German. Having the chance to teach German at all levels, design new classes, create the entire curriculum, advise undergraduates, as well as train graduate assistants to teach German, makes this position diverse, exciting, and very rewarding. I have enjoyed working at Yale very much for the last four years, have further developed my research into second language acquisition through telecollaboration, and have also become involved with study abroad. My graduate education at MSU couldn't have prepared me better for my job, and I am grateful for all the mentoring and training I received there. I am enjoying my time at Yale tremendously and am very happy that I was able to turn my passion into my career.


LingLang 279- Schuster-Craig scaled.jpgJohanna Schuster-Craig: My name is very German. My American parents named me “Yo-hanna,” and have always used the European pronunciation.  When I was a small child, I remember often hearing other Americans ask where my name came from – what nationality is that? Who are you named after? Where are you from? How do you spell it? I seem to remember my parents always saying, “It’s a German name.” To them, that sentence seemed to be explanation enough.

When I was in the sixth grade, I bought my first German textbook. It had a yellow and brown cover, cost about eight dollars at the Hawley-Cooke bookstore, and was called “German: How to Speak and Write It.” If my name was German, then I was going to get to the bottom of this German stuff. I spent a couple months as a tween alternating between painting my nails and repeating simple phonetic sentences like, “Hans ist der Vater von Peter und Gretl.” “Die Karte kostet sechs Mark.” Luckily, when I changed schools in seventh grade, I signed up for a German class with Frau Tomlovic. After that, I was hooked. I took German classes through the 12th grade, and then went to Germany for a gap year on a Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange scholarship, where I went to Gymnasium and lived with a host family outside of Hamburg.

Because of that early abroad experience, I viewed German back then as a skill rather than a discipline. I was obsessed with theater in high school, and studied theater at the University of Michigan when I returned. I kept up with my German at U of M, mostly thanks to professors’ encouragement, but always thought of it as a side interest. It wasn’t until I contemplated returning to graduate school that a friend and colleague at U of M suggested I try German. It was the best fit for my skill set at that time, and opened up a lot of opportunities for me.

I now write on German politics and culture, and have found many interesting ways to combine all of my interests. After living in Germany on and off for several years, I finally feel like my name is a reflection of my cultural identity. I teach courses on German drama, and conducted fieldwork with an organization in Berlin that uses theatrical role plays to pursue political and social goals. I sometimes blog about performance art and YouTube stars, using my performance background to support my analysis. There are so many ways to use German to support your career goals and interests. Ultimately it’s up to you to shape your own path in creative ways – and that applies no matter what your name is.


Sarah Scarbrough: During my first few weeks here at MSU, after telling people my major, I got a lot of “oh… interesting,” in response. But as the weeks progressed and my peers struggled through assignments and exams, cursing their studies and programs, I realized something that changed my outlook on my “interesting” major: I absolutely love what I’m doing. I was very discouraged by people saying, “German? Well, what are you going to do with that?” Now I can confidently say, “whatever I want.” Anything. Everything. My time studying in the German department has made me realize that I will never curse my degree, I will never regret paying tuition to learn about German culture, language and history because love it. My degree has opened so many doors and I can take my studies into a plethora of careers. After sifting through all of my options, I chose to expand my focus from just Germany to all of Europe as I pursue a European Studies Master’s Degree at the Freie Universität in Berlin this fall. While spending part of my summer in Germany last year, I took the weekends to explore other European nations and I fell in love with their social connections and cultural practices. While each nation is very unique and different, the same sense of pride and progress rings true in all the European countries that I had the opportunity to spend time in. Studying a culture and language does so much more than let you understand concepts; it lets you become a part of a lifestyle. Being able to understand the country’s native language allows you to take off your “tourist” hat and partake in the culture. As I finish my degree at MSU, I am very excited and beyond prepared to take on my next adventure in Germany. I look forward to fulfilling my dream of transitioning from “tourist” to “inhabitant.”

GohlkePicture.JPGJenny Gohlke: Goethe's Faust, that is how it all started. Maybe. In fact, I do not remember when exactly I came to love German Literature so much. Books have always been fascinating to me. And I usually spent my free time reading one after the other. It then was my High School teacher - German and philosophy - who made me aware of all the hidden wisdom and universal ideas and problems that can be found in Classical German Literature. And it is here, where I humbly decided that I need to know everything there is about German Literature and Philosophy.

After High School, I completed my Bachelor in German Literature and Philosophy, and while doing so, I worked as a research and teaching assistant in the field of Philosophy of Mind. I began a Master's program in Philosophy, and spent two semesters taking classes at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Their German department, coincidentally, was in need of a German instructor, and where else, if not at a random garage sale, would you come to know about that open position and be invited to teach? So, while really enjoying my German teaching job and also advancing in my philosophy studies I realized that I had developed a particular set of questions and interests and that not Philosophy but the German Studies program at MSU was the unique place to pursue them. This program allows me to use and apply  my theoretical background to more pragmatic themes. My focus shifted from questions such as: "Is there an objective reality at all and how do we know?" to applied ones like: "How can we represent and mediate memory and experiences?" Very soon after the beginning of my PhD studies I focused my attention and research on questions about (im-)possibilities of representation and also on the formation process of Holocaust experiences, memories and feelings. I am glad that I finally found a way to combine my research interests as a scholar with my personal passion for deciphering the ways we experience the world.

Michigan State is not only a place for me to do research, though. I also have the opportunity to teach in the German program as well. I teach 200-level courses and it is a particularly rewarding experience to be the person myself now who helps students appreciate the power of language, literature, and culture (even though we do not read Goethe).

Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor... well, yes, at this point I might not have learned "everything there is", as it has been my plan in High School, but I am taking big steps in the right direction, and most importantly I am able to share my enthusiasm with other undergraduate and graduate students. I  also had/have the chance to present my research at several conferences such as the Untimeliness of Media Graduate Student Conference at the University of Pennsylvania, the Refugee Symposium here at MSU, and the Languages, Literatures and Cultures Conference at the University in Kentucky. I, too, was selected as a Humanities without Walls Fellow for this upcoming summer, where I will take part in a three-week workshop for pre-doctoral students in the humanities that will help me to prepare for my intended career in a Holocaust museum. 

I consider myself really lucky to be part of the German program here at MSU, and I cannot wait to see what else there is the future holds in store for me. 

unnamed.pngChristian Klein: No one ever asked my friends, who intended to study medicine or engineering, for the reasons of their choices. But I was always asked why I wanted to study German literature. My answer was one of irritation and defiance: Simply because I want to! I still think that this is a reasonable answer, but today I would add: Because literature deals with the three great questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? In other words: Literature explores the "conditio humana", what makes the human being a human being?  Literature asks how culture and society became the entity that shapes our life today. And literature outlines scenarios of what our life might look like in the future. And please tell me: what else would you expect from studying at a university? But at the beginning of my coursework in literary studies I had only a vague idea of this universality.
I started my studies in the very north of Germany, in Kiel, before I moved to Berlin in 1995 and continued at the Freie Universität. I lived there for eleven years, finished my studies, and did my Doctorate in Comparative Literature. My dissertation-project was a biography of the German author and playwright, painter and sculptor Ernst Penzoldt (1892-1955). In this context I started to focus on the history of German drama as well as the theory of biography, and as a consequence of these efforts I edited some volumes about theoretical questions concerning biographical research. My current fields of interest are contemporary German writers (like Marcel Beyer), comics and graphic novels, and recently I published a book that answers the question of how a book can become a cult book.
I knew quite early that I would like to continue my academic career, so I was very lucky when ­ right after receiving my "Dr. phil." ­ I got a job at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal, where I still work. But even if Wuppertal is much nicer than a lot of people think, I do enjoy teaching somewhere else now and then. That is why I was in Melbourne last springtime and taught at Monash University and why I am grateful to have the opportunity to work at MSU as a Max Kade Visiting Professor in such a great community of colleagues and students. Admittedly springtime in Australia is much balmier, but I am enjoying the time in Michigan a lot. I really like the combination of a small city, where you can reach everything by bike, with a large university (MSU has lots more students than the Freie Universität Berlin) with a lively campus life. I think I have settled in quite well already (thanks to all who welcomed me so warmly) ­ at least I already have a Spartans lanyard and folder. And because we Germans are well known for our ecological awareness, I can easily join in with the slogan "Go green!". ;-)