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Keeping an Even Kiel in Northern Germany: Alum Benjamin O'Connor (BA 2011) travels to Germany on Fulbright

Submitted by Stephanie N. Welch on February 22, 2016 - 2:50pm
O'Connor KN Zeitung
Benjamin O'Connor KN Zeitung

Germanics Alum Benjamin O'Connor (BA 2011) discusses his time in Germany after receiving Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) award.

My decision to major in Germanics, having switched from health sciences, marked an empowering recognition of my own unique strengths and growing trust in myself and my abilities. I’d been wondering if all of the swearing auf Deutsch that I had done in Chemistry and Biology could lead to something more, so I took a leap of faith and turned my focus to German. I began volunteering and substitute teaching in German language classes at Seattle Prep High School, an experience that, accompanied by my sterling education from the University of Washington, eventually earned me a Fulbright teaching grant.

Arriving in Kiel, Germany, I felt mostly self-conscious about my German speaking ability, but it turned out to be my English speaking that opened a lot of doors for me. At Regionales Berufsbildungszentrum Technik Kiel, I wasn’t expected to teach English grammar, but teachers were pleased when I creatively used the Spice Girls and the Barenaked Ladies to explain the conditional tense. Students started making lesson requests, one of which was a personal highlight: The Rise and Fall of Detroit/Robocop. Following a presentation I gave on Irish sports, I was interviewed by a journalist and landed myself in the local newspaper. I certainly enjoyed the modest notoriety I gained as “Herr. Jr. ambassador, U.S. Boy, Benjamin O’Connor,” but what I treasured most about teaching were the abundant opportunities to be creative on the job while also learning a lot about myself. I learned and I taught; they learned and I was taught.

In contrast to popular opinion, the most encouraging sign that I was approaching fluency wasn’t when I started dreaming in German, but rather when I began to make puns. In my off hours, I discovered the perfect icebreaker at parties and at the family functions that I had weaseled my way into - asking people to teach me local colloquialisms and sayings and reciting the ones I had already learned. Though this did lead me to become more confident in my fluency, I quickly learned that I needed to create a second list for the less polite idioms (Jedes Böhnchen gibt ein Tönchen or, Every little bean makes a little sound, for example).

A personal goal of mine while abroad was to volunteer in a hospital, hopefully combining my curiosity about a career in nursing with the language of love (German, obviously). There is a word for volunteer in German, but it is often met with confusion and questions such as, “why would you want to work for no money?”  Knowing the non-currency value of helping those in need, I joined the Grüne Damen (green ladies), a group of mostly retired women similar to candy stripers. Thursday mornings with the ladies quickly became my favorite part of the week. A beard and a Damen Kittel (women’s frock) earned me a comparison to Conchita Wurst and a lot of laughter. I felt good, like a regular Patch Adams.

As a result of being recruited into my school’s European projects department, I was able to take part in free and paid trips to 5 different European countries. I gained a tremendous amount of experience in applying for grants, translating, and working on curriculum development. Towards the end of my time in Kiel, I considered extending my stay with my own Euro project. Due to my own experiences as a newcomer in Germany, I hoped to create a curriculum for educating Germans about their new neighbors, classmates and coworkers: the many refugees and immigrants arriving daily. While I ultimately decided it was best to return home, at least for now, my European passport is pending (luck of the Irish), and I’m on track to return to Germany again. This time around, I plan to pursue my master’s degree and continue to give back to a culture that significantly expanded both my perspectives on the world and on myself.  

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