Each summer, for the past 50 years, Michigan State University students have made a small city in Europe’s Rhine Valley their home. They travel to Mayen, Germany, for five weeks to study the German language while immersing themselves in the local culture through one of the longest-running study abroad programs offered by MSU.
Over its half-century history, the German Language and Culture in Mayen Program has influenced the lives and careers of hundreds of students, giving them unique insights into the German language and culture through faculty-led instruction and the total immersion of living with host families. Likewise, the presence of American students in this small German city has created a powerful bond between the students and Mayen residents — a bond that has continued to grow with each passing year.
“Mayen was an amazing, life-changing experience that encouraged me to keep going with my German and spread the love of German to others,” said Kelly Wooters, who twice participated in the Mayen study abroad program (1998 and 1999) and graduated with a B.A. in German from MSU. “From a personal experience, it was the people I met and the contacts that I still have that was unbelievably life-changing and impactful.”
“Mayen was an amazing, life-changing experience that encouraged me to keep going with my German and spread the love of German to others.”Kelly Wooters, 1998 and 1999 Mayen study abroad student
In honor of its 50th anniversary, a special anniversary trip to Mayen is planned for June 2023 and a fundraising campaign was launched to support student scholarships for the summer study abroad program. The scholarships will help ensure that students have access to all the incredible experiences offered by the Mayen program, with the goal of making it more affordable so that any interested student can spend five life-changing weeks in this beautiful German community.
Mayen Community Support
The Mayen study abroad program began in the summer of 1973, founded by Kurt Schild, who at that time was a German Professor at MSU that had immigrated to the United States from the Mayen, Germany, region. However, the location of this study abroad program moved around in its early years before finally settling in Mayen in the 1980s. This small city of about 22,000 people proved to be uniquely suited to the needs of the program.
“The program has been successful because it’s a small town where this group of American students comes every single summer. For five weeks, they populate city streets and live in homes throughout the town,” said Liz Mittman, Associate Professor of German, who has led the program three times in the past decade. “We get written up in the local newspaper every single year, there’s always an official photographer who comes and takes a picture of us in front of the town hall, and there’s a little write-up about who’s leading the group, what they’re doing, and how long the program has existed. They really pay attention to us. We’re kind of built into the town and, because of that, the students are welcomed really warmly and are treated very generously by their host families.”
“We’re kind of built into the town and, because of that, the students are welcomed really warmly and are treated very generously by their host families.”Liz Mittman, Associate Professor of German
In addition, the Mayen government offers unprecedented support to the program, helping program directors like Mittman plan the trip. Professor Emeritus Tom Lovik, who retired from MSU in May 2019, served as Director of the Mayen Program for 12 years. He notes that, from an organizational perspective, the assistance provided by the local city government reflects an important aspect of the relationship between MSU and Mayen.
“In talking to other program directors, they spend a lot of time on the phone trying to nail down housing and whatnot. We’ve been spared that headache because of the support we get from the Mayen government,” Lovik said. “They really appreciate the fact that a big American university is sending students over every year and that our affiliation with them has sort of put them on the map.”
Host Families a Key to Success
An important factor in the program’s success and longevity is the participation of its host families, some of whom have opened their homes to students for decades. Each student is placed with a local family that is aligned with their interests and personality.
“The host families are critical. They spend time with the students, and they’re not obligated to, but they do so much more above and beyond what we ask,” Lovik said. “They provide breakfast for the students, and it’s not uncommon for them to invite the students for coffee and cake at various times, and to drive them through the area. A lot of the families really want to show the students the local area and go to great lengths to make themselves available for the students.”
Jutta Zimmermann, a retired dental surgeon, has hosted students for the past 25 years. Her parents also hosted students, beginning in the early days of the program. She and her husband, Axel Zimmermann, are active members of the local Rotary Club, which often hosts students for drinks, food, and conversation. She explains that the role of host families in the program is something that depends on the students. Over the years, she has hosted a range of people, from extremely shy students who want to work alone to outgoing students interested in practicing German with her and seeing the country.
“If they want to see something here, I will go with them and explain our history and our churches and our religion. I help them with what they want and what they need.”Jutta Zimmermann, host of Mayen study abroad students for 25 years
“I don’t tell them what to do. I just tell them what to do in the apartment,” Zimmermann said. “If they want, they can have breakfast with me. But if they want to sleep, they can sleep longer and have breakfast alone. Then they go to school. And when they come back, I’m here. We can talk, and we can go anywhere. I’m here to help. Sometimes they need medical help, and I go to the doctor with them. Sometimes they need just a big hug because they want to go home. If they want to see something here, I will go with them and explain our history, our churches, and our religion. I help them with what they want and what they need.”
Students who participate in the Mayen program often cite the host families as a key factor in their love for the program and discover that they must learn to communicate with their host families in order to make it through their study abroad experience.
“There’s a lot of truth to the benefits of getting outside your comfort zone and going abroad, seeing a different country, and struggling with a different language,” Lovik said. “It’s an eye-opener, and at the time, might be uncomfortable. But afterward, you look back and say, ‘gosh, that wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed that.'”
The kindness and patience of the host families help students feel comfortable with their living situation and command of the German language. This also creates a unique bond between the students and families with many graduates of the program continuing to write and visit their former host families long after their experience abroad.
“There’s a lot of truth to the benefits of getting outside your comfort zone and going abroad, seeing a different country, and struggling with a different language. It’s an eye-opener.”Tom Lovik, Professor Emeritus of German
“It’s really significant that many of the families have been with the program for many years,” Mittman said. “Often we find new families through those families, because they recommend their neighbors and friends, and it keeps regenerating that way.”
An Optimal Location
The location of the city itself is another reason the program has been successful. Students can easily travel to bigger cities within Germany as well as nearby countries including Belgium, France, The Netherlands, and Luxemburg.
During the 1985 Mayen program, David Scott, who has a B.A. in German from Michigan State University, met his wife, Vicky Scott, who also earned a B.A. in German from MSU. David Scott said he found the ease of travel to be one of the biggest highlights of his experience.
“It was really easy to get to places because their train system is so efficient,” he said. “I went to Paris. I went to Rome. And it was just a short train ride to those places, places I probably wouldn’t have gone. I also traveled all over Germany.”
Wooters, who now is an Adjunct Professor of German at Calvin University, also appreciated the ease of travel and the leeway the program gives its students to explore Europe.
“The travel, that freedom, and that independence, of being able to travel and find yourself, was incredible.”Kelly Wooters, 1998 and 1999 Mayen study abroad student
“The travel, that freedom, and that independence, of being able to travel and find yourself, was incredible,” she said. “I was from a town of 4,000, and it was my first time away like that. My fondest memories are of the city itself and the people. But some of the trips we took were pretty incredible, like going to Switzerland and being in the mountains, going hiking and paragliding.”
From new lifelong connections, newfound fluency in the German language, career benefits, and more, the Mayen program has proved life-changing for its students. Many look back on it fondly as the highlight of their college experience.
For David Scott, the program introduced him to his wife, brought him out of his comfort zone, and generated a greater fluency in the German language.
“I would recommend study abroad for any program, especially a foreign language,” he said. “That’s how you’re going to learn the language and the culture, just by being there and living it.”
The Mayen program also expands students’ worldviews in a way that isn’t possible to teach in a classroom.
“I would recommend study abroad for any program, especially a foreign language. That’s how you’re going to learn the language and the culture, just by being there and living it.”David Scott, 1985 Mayen study abroad student
“You want your students to go abroad and be immersed in another language and culture,” Mittman said. “They can connect with people they would never otherwise connect with and learn to see the world in a different way. You can’t teach that in textbooks. You can’t teach that in your classes. You can teach it abstractly, but it’s not the same.”
Studying abroad also does a lot for international understanding, which is important in today’s society.
“The way life is organized in Germany is not the way it’s organized here. There are a lot of things that we take for granted. And there are things that the Germans take for granted,” Lovik said. “When you can see both perspectives, it’s easier to see the advantages of one system over the other, and you begin to appreciate the differences out there in the world.”
“A lot of jobs today at big corporations require the ability to work with people from different cultures and students leave the program with that experience.”Tom Lovik, Professor Emeritus of German
The Mayen program also offers immeasurable benefits to participants’ post-college careers. Whenever Lovik reconnects with former students of the program, they mention that the program gave them an edge in securing their jobs. In a world that grows more global each day, experiencing a different culture is an important advantage for a career with a larger business.
“Students have come back and say they are frequently asked in interviews the following: ‘I see from your resumé that you’ve lived in Germany with a family for five weeks. Tell me about that,’” Lovik said. “A lot of jobs today at big corporations require the ability to work with people from different cultures and students leave the program with that experience.”
(Written by Austin Curtis)