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September 8, 2011

German Grads Win Fulbright Grants to Teach English

Two recent Wheaton grads are enjoying their own alumni reunion in Germany this week.

Fulbright scholars Eileen Sleesman, who graduated from Wheaton in May, and Kristine Solo, a 2010 graduate who is currently studying for an M.A. in Teaching from the Wheaton College Graduate School, are in Germany for the orientation program that will prepare them for a year of teaching in the country.

Sleesman and Solo are two of three recent Wheaton graduates who were awarded English Teaching Assistantships by the Fulbright program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. A third, Marjorie Brumm, is teaching in Indonesia. The three Fulbright winners will teach English during the academic year.

Dr. Clint Shaffer, Associate Professor of German and chair of the foreign languages department, says the students’ interest in the Fulbright program reflects a common trait he sees among his students.

“Wheaton students are service-minded,” he says. “No matter what their major is, or what their interests are, they want to engage with the world.”

Additionally, he says, the German grads’assistantships highlight an area of success for the foreign languages department. “We’re trying to get them to the highest level of proficiency in the language, as quickly as we can,” he says. “My main goal is for our students to be able to live as fully as possible in two worlds—too look through American culture through the eyes of German culture, and to exist in that other culture long-term and feel comfortable,” he says.

Sleesman, who majored in anthropology and minored in German, will teach in Freiburg, in the state of Baden-Württemberg. While in Germany, she plans to expand an ethnographic study of Turkish people in Germany she began while studying in the country last year.

“I want to further learn about issues and opinions regarding immigration and migration in the German context,” Sleesman says. “I will be researching immigrant communities, identity formation, and ideas of homeland. This topic is pertinent in Germany, but what I learn also can have great application in the United States.”

Sleesman is one of 20 ETA awardees in Germany selected to be part of the Teaching Assistant Diversity Program. She will be placed in a school with a large number of students from immigrant backgrounds.

Sleesman believes that improving her proficiency in German while sharing her language and culture will enable her to carry out the Fulbright mission of promoting mutual understanding and cultural exchange.

“As a student of anthropology, I understand how important language is in shaping who we are and our culture,” she says. “My Wheaton experience always reinforced the value and necessity of cross-cultural experience and language learning. Without proficiency on more than a functional level, we have little hope of truly relating to and working with one another. Germany offers much to the world, and I desire to learn from the people, participate in their society, and experience what distinguishes them.”

Solo, who graduated from Wheaton as a German and Spanish major in 2010, is currently a student in Wheaton’s M.A. in Teaching program.

She will be an assistant teacher in a public school in Oldenburg, Niedersachsen during the academic year. She will also do collect information to help her compare the German and North American education systems. She plans to interview students and faculty about their experiences as part of the research for her thesis.

“I’m particularly interested in devising a plan that could help improve the educational system in the U.S.,” Solo says. “Hopefully, the German education system can lend some insight to the weaker areas of the American system.”

Like Sleesman, Solo hopes to improve her German language skills not only through her time in the classroom, but also through the experience of living in a new culture.

“My husband and I are hoping to live with a host family, so we can be immersed in German culture,” Solo says. “I’m anticipating gaining a new perspective on what it feels like to be an immigrant, and I plan on applying the lessons of that experience to my teaching, as well.”

Before taking a class with Shaffer during her freshman year, Solo had never studied the language.

“Dr. Shaffer is hands-down the most influential person for me at Wheaton,” she says. “His expertise in German and teaching methodology are inspiring to me as a young German teacher.”

In the future, Solo hopes to promote the importance of German education.

“My understanding is that many schools are closing their German departments—some to make room for Mandarin, and others because of budget cuts. I have such a passion for German and deeply desire to reverse this trend,” she says. “This experience will help me inspire students to take German classes.”

For Solo, her study in Germany comes with an extra opportunity: the chance to train in dressage, or competitive horseback riding, in a country known for Olympic excellence in the sport. Solo, who has competed in dressage at the national level, hopes that her training there will allow her to pursue a dream of competing in the Olympics.

She says that her Wheaton experience has proven pivotal not just for her Fulbright adventure, but also for the ones she hopes to have in the future.

“My time at Wheaton is priceless, and I feel equipped to embark on this trip and many others throughout my life,” Solo says.“The scope of the classes at Wheaton and the accessibility of the professors make Wheaton distinct.”