Students connect with German seniors in virtual exchange program

A 72-year-old German woman is busy in her Hamburg home making Christmas trinkets for the holiday packages she sends to friends and family every year. This year, Hannelore Schäfer will send a gift to Maisie Saganic, a journalism and political science student at Northeastern.

Maisie and Hannelore met at the start of the semester as part of a virtual intergenerational exchange program in her German Intermediate II class led by a teacher-teacher Caroline fuchs. Fuchs started the exchange program in the spring of 2021 after partnering with Freunde alter Menschen eV, an organization in Germany that coordinates visitor partnerships and social events for German seniors. At a time when many elderly people are isolated due to the pandemic, Fuchs believed the program could benefit both his students and the elderly community in Germany.

“It turned out that there were more interested Germans than students in my class,” says Fuchs. Right away, Fuchs extended the program to the Intermediate German I class with the help of her community partner Kerstin Hoffmann and colleagues in Germany, and part-time teacher from Northeastern, Sandra Ward.

Students participate in one-on-one video calls with older Germans living in Berlin or Hamburg, allowing them to practice their German skills and learn more about the culture. Germans have the opportunity to engage and teach young people while sharing some of their knowledge and life experience.

Photos by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Four times during the semester, students prepare a series of questions on German life, politics and history to use as touchstones during video calls with their German partners. Students are expected to speak German all the time, especially since older partners do not speak English, Fuchs says. The students then reflect on their virtual exchanges through posts on a discussion forum and a final project.

Students ask questions on a wide range of topics, including immigration and climate change, but also historical events. For example, many former Germans speak of the reunification of the country after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Some of them were in Berlin at the time,” says Fuchs. “It’s a topic that almost always comes up.”

Not all discussions are political. “A lot of times, seniors talk about their families or their hobbies, or just tell personal stories,” she says. For example, a student learned last spring that his interlocutor practiced tai chi and was able to watch some of his videos on YouTube.

These transcontinental video connections are just the latest development in decades-long efforts by Fuchs to find new ways to communicate with people in Germany and connect with the country. She left in 1991 to work as an au pair in Florida.

“When I first came here, there was no Skype,” she recalls. “My father was a lawyer, so he had access to a fax machine, so I sent him faxes. It was faster than sending letters.

Then, in 1999, while teaching German at the Institute for International Studies in Monterey in California, Fuchs established her first official virtual exchange program which put her students in touch with students from her alma. mater in Munich. Once again, the fax machine proved indispensable.

“My students typed emails to German students, but the internet was still in its infancy in Germany at the time,” she says. “The emails wouldn’t get through, so we were printing the emails and faxing them to Germany. ”

Now, thanks in part to the Service Learning Fellowship that Fuchs received from the Northeastern community-engaged teaching and research team, this virtual exchange program is a central part of the initiative. learning by the German program service.

“Since I did my first virtual exchange with students, the goal has been to have an authentic linguistic experience with speakers of the language,” she says. “Plus, it’s a way for me to stay in touch with my home country.

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