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SUNY Cortland students spend week in Germany

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SUNY Cortland students recently spent a week in Germany at a Universität Potsdam (UP) Summer School, focused on teaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The U.N.’s goals promote a more ecologically sound, peaceful and equitable world, explained Gigi Peterson, the associate professor of history who guided the Cortland students through their end-of-summer international foray.

“We wanted the students to step outside a U.S. cultural box, and also challenge assumptions that the way education happens in the U.S. is the way it happens everywhere,” Peterson said.

The “Drachen” [Dragons] team joined German partners in a mini-course, the “Engaging Global Citizenship Study Group,” which explored history, culture and identity.

The concept of a global citizen, Peterson said, requires curiosity and a nonjudgmental attitude toward peoples and cultures beyond one’s own. It also involves inquiry, critical thinking, avoiding faulty assumptions, and informed action to better the world. The study group emphasized these issues, especially as they affect the teaching-learning dynamic. The overall experience allowed participants to expand their views of other cultures and critically reflect upon their own.

“International travel, especially if you don’t have control of the language, can be unsettling, and that can be a good thing.” Peterson said. “To be outside of an easy, comfortable environment can help one gain insights and sensitivity. Some of our students had not traveled abroad before, and so this trip in itself was a wonderful opportunity.”

Before their time in Germany, history and anthropology majors Darren Heigel and Evan Morse took part in a virtual exchange with Universität Potsdam students during Peterson’s spring 2022 Rethinking Migration History class. They drew many new insights from the in-person experiences.

“I realized that language does change the way you think,” Morse noted. “When speaking only one language you are stuck within a certain prose and order of thinking. The ability to switch languages displayed by international students was endearing.”

“My biggest takeaway is seeing global citizenship in action,” Heigel said. “To create the next generation of global citizens, we must be them. Being welcomed so warmly to Germany, and the friendships I made there, really showed me that something like global citizenship is possible. With cooperation like we experienced at the summer school, the sky truly is the limit.”

Ariel White ’22, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in digital media and graphic design, saw her earlier plans to study abroad ruined by the COVID pandemic. So she jumped at a chance to continue her practice of German, to explore different cultures and histories and to grow as an artist. White was able to apply her drawing skills to a collaborative presentation in the summer school.

History and social studies major Raymond Pagano, who completed his student teaching in May, was able to make his second trip to Germany as an aspiring social studies teacher.

“My future classroom will definitely have SDG elements planted within lessons,” Pagano said. “Teaching the next generation of students to become global citizens will help us create plans for the betterment of the planet and future generations to come.”

Two of Peterson’s former students, now working social studies teachers, joined the group as guest instructors. Caitlin Goodwin ’11 in McGraw (N.Y.) Middle School and Taylor Weigand ’10 at Binghamton (N.Y.) High School consistently host and mentor teacher candidates enrolled in SUNY Cortland’s Adolescence Education Social Studies Program (SST) program, and over the past two years they participated in online exchanges with UP classes. They were excited to contribute to the Summer School, and Peterson described working with them and other colleagues at Potsdam as a “dream team.” Goodwin was also recently named the 2022 New York State History Teacher of the Year.

Most of the German students were preparing to teach English as a foreign language, and about U.S. culture and history as part of that mission. They appreciated the SUNY Cortland guests.

“Your way of teaching and making connections helped me understand that I need to think about culture and language in a historical way to really understand it,” wrote one German teacher candidate.

Another valued how Goodwin and Weigand “always gave us insights into their classrooms and shared different teaching approaches with us. A lot of this I can take as a positive example for my teaching practice in the future.”

The trip had roots in Peterson’s previous work. Beginning in 2014, she taught courses on migration at Cortland and at Fulda University in Germany, her first step in international teaching. That experience and a fortuitous introduction by John Suarez, SUNY Cortland’s director of the Institute for Civic Engagement, led to a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) project with UP partners in Spring 2020. Peterson’s migration history students worked in teams with students from three other countries, while her own collaboration with UP’s Professor Britta Freitag-Hild deepened.

Over the next semesters they embedded virtual exchange options into their classes in history, social studies teaching, and English-language teaching (Freitag-Hild’s specialty), and they co-planned many elements of the summer school experience. Freitag-Hild played a leading role in landing a major grant from Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, or German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and developing the 2022 Summer School that it helped fund. The two professors are now working on articles for a volume that Universität Potsdam will publish.

Much credit, Peterson said, is due to SUNY Cortland’s International Programs Office and its staff, including Mary Schlarb, assistant vice provost for student achievement and senior international officer, and Hugh Anderson. They supported the trip and helped obtain SUNY approval and insurance coverage. Peterson also expressed gratitude to her department for supporting migration history courses at the core of this initial collaboration, and to additional colleagues who have promoted international linkages.

“Potsdam is interested in student exchanges, faculty exchanges or possibly faculty guest lecturers,” Peterson noted.

“We’re hoping to continue the partnership between our two campuses.”