Freshmen journey to Germany and Poland for immersive World War II education

Created: May 3, 2018
Last Updated: December 19, 2019

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WASHINGTON, PA (May 3, 2018)—Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) first year students had a new opportunity to explore a topic they thought they were familiar with.

Students in the German Film Course taught by Michael Shaughnessy, Ph.D., traveled to Germany and Poland, including a trip to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, to witness what they’d studied in the classroom. The sixteen students examined how Germans deal with their complex history through the study of memorials, museums, and centers dedicated to the study of the Holocaust. Alumni gifts supported travel funding.

“We wanted to get students abroad in their first year and let them have that international experience so they can then share their experience with others throughout their college education,” Dr. Shaughnessy said. “Taking students from a classroom setting and getting them in an international setting to apply what they’re learning is a really incredible thing W&J is doing.”

Getting out into the field was an important opportunity for the students, who were all nominated by their advisors and W&J professors to take the special topic course.

“When we got this email [about being nominated for the course]…I thought, ‘How great would it be to take a semester-long class that has this hands-on, field work component to it?’ I knew prior to coming to college, that’s what I wanted to do,” said Adriana Rodriguez-Ruiz, who is currently considering designing her own thematic major in Urban Planning.

Adriana and her peers seized the opportunity, and they found the trip to be life-changing. Visiting sites they had only ever read about or seen in films completely altered the way they understand the history surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.

“Honestly, there are movies that everyone knows, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, that you watch and you feel sympathy for the victims, but being there…is a totally different feeling,” said Kenny Jimenez, a history major with a minor in Latin American studies and special education. “It started to make me realize more about how conflicted Germany is, and how unique every country is.”

Gaining that understand came from a comprehensive study of artifacts in Munich, Germany, and Krakow, Poland. The students discovered new names in history they hadn’t discussed before, met with citizens of each country to hear their perspectives, and even learned more about their own personal histories, as was the case with history major Samantha Kramer, who has relatives that had been held at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

“It was really hard for me to go there, but it was also very important for me. It was the first time anyone in my immediate family had gone there,” she said. “It was almost a spiritual experience for me to connect with that part of my family history and to be able to go there and realize the truth of what happened.”

After returning to the College, the students are ready to share what they’ve learned and encourage their peers to venture out into the world for immersive learning experiences like the one they had in Germany and Poland.

“Going abroad is something that really does change your life. It takes you out of the small world that a lot of students live in today and it opens the world up for you,” said Ty Bedillion, who is on the 3-2 engineering major track. “You’re not just thinking about Washington, Pennsylvania, anymore when things happen—it’s the entire world.”

About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.

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