Ruth Bieber-Stanley ’21 has German ancestors and relatives on both sides of her family, but never learned to speak German as a child. Today, not only does she know the language, but uses it to have an even deeper connection with her heritage.
“Learning German was a way to connect with a culture that intrigued me,” says Bieber-Stanley, a resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I think learning a language is a way to access a culture and that’s what leads to cultural understanding.”
Although Bieber-Stanley was also able to take advantage of a study abroad experience in Germany, her time there was cut short due to the pandemic. She hopes her recent Fulbright Fellowship will grant her a second chance.
The Fulbright Fellowship provides the opportunity for United States students to serve in professional placements in foreign government ministries or institutions to gain hands-on public sector experience in participating foreign countries. Bieber-Stanley, a psychology and German major with a linguistics concentration, will be in Germany for 10 months, where she will teach English in a school setting while volunteering with refugee aid organizations and or children and family services, depending on her placement location.
Besides becoming more fluent in German, Bieber-Stanley hopes to come away from her experience with perspective on how other countries handle issues such as education, social welfare, elections, and refugee resettlement. She also hopes to challenge herself to live in a place where she will be a complete stranger.
“My goal is to become a psychotherapist working with adolescents,” she says. “Part of what was so appealing about the Fulbright was the opportunity to really get to know a community and work and form relationships with people very different from myself, which I consider a crucial skill as a hopeful future clinician.
“I picked Germany specifically because of my German heritage, but also because I’m really fascinated by German culture and by Germany’s history as a formerly divided and reunified country. In my senior German seminar we talked a lot about what it means to come to terms with a problematic past and how cultural identity is reformed after conflict and division. I think our country is at a major crossroads right now, and I hope that spending time in Germany with Germans could give me perspective about how I can foster positive change in my own country.”
Bieber-Stanley started taking German language classes during her first year at Oberlin College and developed a love for its intricacies, including its grammar. “It feels like a fun puzzle to me,” she says. “German is also quirky. It has so many fun features that are so generative. The language has a lot of cool concepts and words that don’t really exist in English, which I love. For example, the word “Waldeinsamkeit” describes the feeling of being alone in a large forest contemplating the smallness of your being among old trees, a concept with which I particularly resonate.”
Some of the German classes at Oberlin that have added to Bieber-Stanley’s interest in the language include an Expressionist German course and poetry translation workshop in the comparative literature department, where she translated contemporary German poetry, some of which she recently presented at the Jed Deppman Translation Symposium. Bieber-Stanley also took a class with Oberlin’s Max Kade German Writer in Residence Nora Gomringer in 2019. Gomringer, an accomplished German poet, held weekly classes where she shared her work, the work of others, and the German culture.
Students who would like to learn German, but are too intimidated to pursue it should just try it, says Bieber-Stanley. “The German classes at Oberlin are so fast paced, so fun, and so rewarding. Participate in department events, watch German films and series, and listen to German music. If that isn’t enough, learning German to travel is also a great incentive. Germany is a wonderful place. The natural landscape is beautiful, the arts are so privileged, and so many cities are full of European fairy-tale charm. That, and the bread is like, really good. I was nervous to learn German, too, but it’s brought me so much and I would not be here today if I hadn’t decided to enroll in German 101 as a first-year student.”
After completing her Fulbright Fellowship, Bieber-Stanley plans to pursue a master’s degree in clinical social work and potentially a PhD in counseling psychology.
Bieber-Stanley is also a member of the Oberlin College Tau Lambda chapter of Delta Phi Alpha, the national German honor society, and the Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society.
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