Michael Hristakopoulos Travels to Germany to Study Culture, Politics and Education — Faculty Highlight

Intrigued by German culture, politics and education, Michael Hristakopoulos, associate professor, political science, recently embarked on a journey to Germany via the Goethe-Institute’s Transatlantic Outreach Program. Michael was one of 100 selected applicants to travel to Germany on the two-week, all expenses-paid study tour, which took place from Friday, June 9 through Saturday, June 24, 2017. Below you’ll find a personal reflection of Michael’s experiences.

By Michael Hristakopoulos, Associate Professor, Political Science

The Goethe-Institute is a worldwide cultural association founded by the German government that promotes the appreciation of German culture across the world. Each year, the institute and its affiliate program send small cohorts of educators on a rigorous but highly rewarding study tour of the country in order to supplement their educational practice or research. On their journey, applicants visit numerous towns and cities, interact with German people, government and academic institutions, and enjoy excellent accommodations. Because the selection process is quite competitive and difficult, I was deeply honored to be chosen and am eager to share my thoughts with anyone interested in this opportunity.

Although I encourage my colleagues to apply, applicants must understand that the Goethe-Institute’s Transatlantic Outreach Program is not a vacation, and certainly not for the faint of heart. While I was treated very well in terms of travel, food and lodging during this multi-week experience, each day featured a long — and mandatory — itinerary. A typical 12-hour day would include several miles of walking and appointments with university research staff, corporate leaders and museum curators. There was little time to deviate from the daily schedule, and intellectual effort was required between appointments as well.

In spite of the stringent duties associated with the program, the purpose of this opportunity was never lost on the participants or program coordinators. The educators selected ranged from college professors all the way to middle-school teachers, and each was immersed in a diligent study of the culture, language and practices of their host country. Many of the participants worked on developing lesson plans or research materials during daytime conferences and excursions, while some simply took notes and photographs for reflection later. More importantly, the coordinators were extraordinarily accommodating to our professional and academic interests. When I proposed interest in the Bundesrat, one of Germany’s legislative bodies, and the country’s unique vocational-school system, the program coordinators reached deep into their network of connections to personally supply me with relevant experiences and useful contacts.

In fact, each travel tour is specifically planned with the professional interests of participants in mind. In the American Government and International Relations courses I teach at Valencia College, I like to take a comparative perspective, which contrasts the structure of American political institutions with those around the world. Germany can be a great point of comparison with America as, while both are federal states, one is a presidential republic and the other is parliamentary. Figuring out how I could incorporate this comparative approach into my Valencia curricula served as the basis for several discussions and appointments.

We started in Frankfurt, moving to Fulda, Geisa, Hamburg, Braunschweig and, finally, Berlin. The group stayed in each destination between three and five days, taking in much of the local flavor of each city and region. Geisa was a small, rustic town. At dusk, the quiet of nature settled in, and residents made their way home early. Berlin, of course, was an extraordinary metropolis where every turn revealed some monument or wonder of 20th century history. One cannot really generalize the German people or their country, each region is as different as New York is to Nebraska.

Local schools and universities were another frequent stop, and I got to speak with many German educators about their pedagogic theory and practice. In Germany, traditional higher education at a college or university is not expected nor encouraged for everyone. As grade-schoolers, Germans are sorted by national qualifying examinations into one of several categories: Hauptschule prepares students for vocational work, Realschule provides a broader skill base for students who do not intend to go to university and Gymnasium prepares students for longer careers in academic life. A consistent strength that German educators highlighted in their model was the weight that participation scores, often 60 percent of course credit, had on student engagement. However, the difficulty in switching careers after finishing school in a tiered-and-tracked system was a drawback. The German model could end up costing students a lot of time and re-education if they intended to make a major professional shift later in life.

Now that it is over, I am eager to bring a new perspective on culture, education and politics to my students. I believe that one of the best ways we can learn is by seeking out contrast. If our minds are built up of concepts, then a wide base of experiences can help us divide up experience and conceptualize in new ways. Traveling through Germany with the Goethe-Institute allowed me to immerse myself in a different life, revealing I had discovered some new preferences and reinforcing some of my old ones.

I hope I can also share my thoughts on Germany and the Goethe-Institute Transatlantic Outreach Program with any of my Valencia colleagues who are interested. Please contact me with any questions about the experience or how you can apply – the experience is truly wunderbar! You can reach me at mhristakopoulos@valenciacollege.edu.

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