History Majors Reflect on Study Abroad in Germany

From the desks of Dana Jarrard, Monica Burney, and Clara Mattheessen:

In May of 2015 Dr. Sace Elder and Dr. Christiane Eydt-Beebe led five undergraduate students and one graduate student on a three-week study abroad to Germany. The students ranged from seasoned globetrotters to those who had never been out of the Midwest. Along the way the group experienced history as they never had. Three of these students share their experiences with us.


Students in Salzburg, Germany. Photo Credit: Clara Mattheessen.

Clara Mattheessen:

Students at Brandenburg Gate. Photo Credit: Dr. Elder.

Students at Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany. Photo Credit: Dr. Elder.

“When learning about World War II in many history classes the topics focus mainly on the home fronts, the battle fronts, the pre-war situation and a brief synopsis on the post-war world. In the study abroad program History in the New Germany we covered much more than the actual war. We discussed memory culture and the differences between Eastern German, Western German, and reunified German memory culture regarding the World War II period. I learned more about German history by being there than just taking a class on it. I took HIS 2500 and World War I with Dr. Elder earlier in the school year and hearing of all of these places really came alive when we visited them instead of just hearing about them. Visiting Germany opened up an experience that wasn’t possible in traditional classroom settings here at Eastern Illinois.

“The academic portion of the trip was rigorous and enlightening but the bonds between the students and professors were more impressive. The six students and the two professors ultimately became a family. A family I would have never had if I wouldn’t have went. I know I can count on Dr. Elder or Dr. Eydt-Beebe for a great conversation or advice on life after graduation. Even through the trip we have returned home we still talk to each other on campus, laugh at our inside jokes (RIP Slug), and help each other through our classes. We became a support group and a family.”

Monica Burney:

“It is truly impossible to sum up this course with just a few sentences. While the course plan on paper states that the goal is to learn about how the Nazi past is remembered in Germany, the truth is that students who are lucky enough to take part in it come to learn so much more. Tours of the concentration camps of Sachsenhausen and Dachau show students one of the most tragic aspects of human history. To stand in the crematorium at Dachau is an unbelievably surreal experience for people who have spent years studying the Holocaust. Suddenly the stories of the camps are made even more real. On the other side of the spectrum students are able to see the beauty of humanity and the world itself. Seeing the university that Sophie and Hans Scholl attended makes their sacrifices even more touching.

Dr. Eydt-Beebe and Dr. Elder in the Alps.

Dr. Eydt-Beebe and Dr. Elder in the Alps. Photo Credit: Clara Mattheessen.

Likewise, a trip to the Bavarian Alps will give visitors a breathtaking view of the world around them. Balance in that effect is the key to this trip. Even though the subject matter is often heartbreaking, the professors who lead the trip ensure that a dark mood doesn’t overtake the group. Evenings are spent relaxing and exploring with fellow students and professors,all of whom eventually come to feel like family, admiring the beauty that is Germany. So, if anyone who is reading this is interested in taking part in next summer’s program I urge you to throw caution to the wind and take the plunge. Make sure to eat all the pastries you want, get to know your group members, eat at every gelato stand in sight, and most importantly take this once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about Germany and its people.”

Dana Jarrard:

“Television personality Andrew Zimmern once said “Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you.” The faculty-led study abroad trip gave students the opportunity to learn to become travelers instead of tourists. Germany is so multicultural that our group experienced German, Indian, Brazilian, Russian, and a multitude of other cultures and subcultures many had never been exposed to. I was surprised at how quickly Berlin and Munich began to feel like second homes and I crossed over from tourist to traveler. This was achieved by the combination of faculty involvement in orienting us to the cities and then allowing us to strike out on our own.

“As a graduate student I consider myself very well read in German history, but nothing prepared me for the type of learning that takes place when you are physically in a site of historical memory. Whether it was medieval Nüremberg, the Nazi Part Rally Grounds, or the Berlin Wall I consistently felt a stronger connection and greater understanding of the past than I ever experienced inside a classroom.

“The selected readings and daily discussions enhanced the experience of visiting these historic places. It is one thing to read about the Holocaust from a distance than to read about it and a couple of hours later stand in a dark room surrounded by letters written by Jewish victims to their friends and family. We were asked to write daily journals of our experiences and these entries helped us all process through the somber moments we experienced. Through these journals and our discussions every one of became more self-aware and open to new experiences.

“Perhaps most importantly we saw Germany beyond the Nazis. While the country’s twentieth century past is still a haunting legacy the German people are resolved to not let such atrocities happen again. This trip transcended the Nazi past; learning how Germany remembers its own turbulent history opened up debates about how the United States could learn to deal with its own history of violence and racism that has been so heavily repressed.”

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