Cindy Bither
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Immersed In German Language and Culture

FullTextImage/img/@altPatricia Hardin pauses with the cadets at Sans Souci, the former summer palace of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, Germany, near Berlin. – Photo courtesy of Patricia Hardin.

Cadets Study Engineering and German and Stay with Host Families During Summer Program in Germany

LEXINGTON, Va., Aug. 13, 2014 – In one whirlwind month this summer, a group of 24 VMI cadets experienced life abroad in a way that very few college students do, when they traveled to Berlin, Germany, and stayed with host families there.

The trip, which has taken place each summer since 2011, is a joint undertaking of Col. Jon Michael Hardin, professor of mechanical engineering, and his wife, Patricia Hardin, who serves as program director for the trip. Of the cadets who went on this year’s trip, 18 were mechanical engineering majors, while six were students of the German language. The group left the United States on May 19 and returned on June 19.

As in years past, the mechanical engineering cadets spent their mornings in two classes taught by Col. Hardin: dynamics, a traditional engineering course, and global engineering, a civilizations and cultures core course developed by Hardin that focuses on global trends in engineering in both the United States and the European Union.

“It’s very difficult for engineering cadets to go abroad,” noted Hardin. Engineers must take sequential courses, he explained, and if an engineering major goes abroad, it’s likely that he or she will fall behind in the curriculum. Because of this, Hardin developed both the curricula and the trip to meet cadets’ needs.

Singling out the global engineering course for special praise was Cadet John Merten ’16, a mechanical engineering major making his first trip to Germany. “[The global engineering course] cannot be taught back in the States as effectively as it was in Germany,” he wrote in an email, “[and] the new knowledge I have of the importance of cultural competency in an international work place could be of considerable value later on in my career.”

The cadets studying the language, meanwhile, took morning classes at an accredited German language school in Berlin, where they were taught by German professors – and like the engineering cadets, they went home to German-speaking households each evening.

Although he’d been studying German since middle school, Cadet Tom Moriarty ’17 said that it is this immersion that gave his language skills the boost they needed.

“Before the trip, I had always been somewhat timid when speaking German because I didn’t know at what level I knew the language,” Moriarty explained in an email. “From the trip, I gained a new confidence in my German speaking abilities, as well as learning new vocabulary, picking up the accent more, and learning some idioms and slang.”

Merten, meanwhile, recalled his host family with warmth – especially considering that when he stepped on the plane to leave the United States, he was already missing his own family back home in North Palm Beach, Fla., and he wasn’t sure how well he’d adapt to life abroad.

Those doubts turned out to be totally unwarranted. “[My host family] had the same dinner table conversations as I would have with my folks back home,” wrote Merten. “My host mom had the same concerns on whether I, or my host brother or sister, were dressed warm enough for the weather. My host brother and sister even argued over the same things that I would with my sister. I built a great relationship with them and still am in good contact with them.”

It’s that linguistic and cultural immersion that gives the VMI program its strength, Col. Hardin noted, plus the fact that the program is faculty-led. American students abroad in dorms “form little islands of Americanism,” the mechanical engineering professor noted, whereas staying with host families forces them to grapple with a new language and culture head-on.

Likewise, the relationship he and his wife, who has taught German at VMI and works in the Center for Undergraduate Research, already have with the cadets makes it easy and comfortable for the cadets to raise questions and challenge assumptions. “We have a dialogue about what they’re seeing and what they’re experiencing,” he said.

This year’s trip was packed with sights and experiences, ranging from the chillingly infamous Buchenwald concentration camp to the magnificent Baroque city of Dresden, heavily damaged in World War II but still a major art and cultural center in Germany. Ten of the cadets also took an optional weekend trip to the Black Forest region of Germany and the Alsace region of France.

Throughout the trip, all cadets went on afternoon excursions, some geared toward the engineering cadets and some toward those studying the language. For the engineers, there were guided tours of factories belonging to such corporate luminaries as Rolls Royce, BMW, and Siemens, while the language students were exposed to Cold War Germany through a trip to the Stasi Prison Hohenschönhausen, a secret state police prison in former East Berlin that once housed prisoners who opposed the Communist regime.

Other excursions, such as that to the Reichstag, the seat of the German government, were intended for the cultural benefit of all cadets, said Patricia Hardin.

The cadets also met the U.S. ambassador to Germany, John B. Emerson. Hardin explained that the cadets have met the current ambassador each year since 2011, thanks to an inside VMI connection: Theresa Dowling, wife of Lt. Col. Timothy Dowling, associate professor of history, works at the U.S. ambassador’s office in Berlin.

Col. Hardin recalled that Emerson not only took the time to meet with the cadets and talk about his role and goals, but he also had a member of his staff speak with them about possible internship opportunities at the embassy.

“We are definitely going to follow through with that,” said Hardin of the internship opportunities. “It really lets [the cadets] become aware of all of the opportunities out there in the world and the fact that they are doable.” He added that he wants the cadets to come away with an attitude of, “Don’t limit yourself. Look far and wide and see what’s out there.”

The cadets, it seems, are glad that they took that opportunity to look. “Before going to Berlin I knew next to nothing about Germany or German culture other than what I had seen in World War II movies,” wrote Merten.

“Living and eating every day with a German family was an invaluable and unforgettable experience.”

Moriarty concurred, writing, “I genuinely felt like a member of [the host family]. I know that if I were to go back to Berlin, they would welcome me once again into their home as a member of their family.”

– Mary Price