In July 2017, seven West Chester University students attended a two-week course in Germany. The course was led by Professor Martin Kaiser of the Gustav Stresemann Institute, with assistance from West Chester professors Frauke Schnell and Marwan Kreidie.
The topic of the seminars was the question, “What Keeps Society Together?” The course was a mix of formal and informal discussions with guided teaching by Professor Kaiser. In addition, field visits to witness diversity in action were a strong component of the course.
For some, it was their first time experiencing a new culture firsthand. This was a good thing because a second goal of the course was diversity training. The students got to meet young people from different backgrounds, including a man, Utkur from Uzbekistan, and a Turkish woman, Aisal, who was working on her Ph.D. Several German students attended the seminars as well. Right behind the institute was a convent, which the group visited and met some of the women.
In addition to the classroom activities held at the main building in the picturesque small town of Bad Bevensen, named after the prominent spa center, Professor Kaiser organized trips to Hamburg and Berlin. Hamburg is a busy port city which is known for being the place where the popular rock group, The Beatles, first gained recognition. In Hamburg, the tour group visited a mosque and a non-governmental organization, called Dock Europe. Dock Europe is committed to helping resettle refugees and incorporate them into German society.
For the last part of the course, the group visited Berlin, the capital and largest city in Germany. In Berlin, the students were tasked with taking pictures of diversity in action. It was not very difficult since the city, and the neighborhoods visited, like Neukolln, had a strong immigrant presence. It was easy to see people from different cultures mixing and talking. Students saw some important landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building, home to the German parliament. They visited the American embassy, located adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, and met with Michelle Logsdon, a career Foreign Service officer.
Professor Kaiser gave a guided tour of the remains of the Berlin Wall. Built in 1961, the official government line was that it was a defensive barrier for East Berlin. However, the real purpose of the wall was to block immigration to West Berlin and then to West Germany, where economic conditions were better. Dramatically, it was destroyed in 1989, freeing travel between two parts of the city. Two years later, West and East Germany officially merged. Now there is a memorial to the people who were killed attempting to flee from one half of the city to the other.
The course was very popular with the students. It was very educational, but there was a fun dimension as well. It is important to reflect on societal cohesion and try to create a more diverse society, rather than relying on prejudiced beliefs.
Jeffrey Hodgson is a fourth-year political science major. He can be reached at JH826940@wcupa.edu.