Fulbright Features: Teaching, volunteering is eye-opening experience for alumna

Penn State alumna and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Amanda Thoet stands on the top of the MDR Radio Tower in Leipzig, Germany, where she is living for the next seven months. Credit: Amanda ThoetAll Rights Reserved.

Editor's note: Penn State students are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend master's degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Program, a highly sought-after nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This is part of a series of essays written by Penn State student Fulbright winners who have returned from or have just embarked on their trips.

While the official total hasn't yet been released, at least 11 students have been offered the scholarship this year, according to Penn State’s University Fellowships Office. Last year, 13 Penn State students received the prestigious scholarship. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website. Click here to read more Fulbright Features.


I arrived at the main train station in Leipzig, Germany, on Aug. 26 after nearly 24 hours of travel with my life packed away in two suitcases and a blank leather-bound journal ready for the next 10 months of my Fulbright adventure. Since then, I have already filled that blank journal with countless memories and new experiences, as well as valuable lessons learned.

I have found it particularly important to embrace the unknown and unexpected with a laugh and shrug of the shoulders as I adapt to living in a new culture — whether it’s frustrations with the postal service for never receiving a package that was mailed more than two months ago or trying to secure an appointment at the foreign authority’s office to interview for a residence permit as I watch the days of my tourist visa slowly tick away. I often joke that my German post office vocabulary has improved tremendously and even the smallest accomplishments are met with the greatest jubilations.

Since arriving in Leipzig, I have learned to navigate and adapt to the German bureaucracy and public transportation system, as well as waking up at 5 a.m. to begin my morning commute to work. I work as an English teaching assistant at the Lessing Gymnasium in Döbeln, a quaint town located about an hour from the city of Leipzig and in the German state of Saxony.

The gymnasium recently underwent a massive reconstruction project that was supported by the EFRE (European Regional Development Fund). The primary goal of this fund is to eliminate economic, social and territorial inequalities and disparities between the different regions of the European Union. Since I’m one of the first Americans my students have ever interacted with, they are incredibly curious and inquisitive about what life is actually like in the United States — so much so that I coordinated a pen pal program with one of my advanced classes and my brother’s German class back home in Colorado.

Right now is a very transformative and fascinating time to be living in Europe, particularly in Germany. Refugees have been flooding in by the thousands and train stations have become inundated with new people daily. Perhaps the most eye-opening and influential part of my time here thus far has been my volunteer work with a refugee center in Leipzig. This particular center is home to about 500 refugees from mainly Pakistan and Syria with numbers growing by the day. I have found it exceptionally heartwarming to experience firsthand the kindness of humans helping other humans in times of despair. I also learned that many of the volunteers share many of my same concerns for the future of these refugees and Germany as it continues to try to care and provide for such a large influx of people.

The general sentiments of the German people from what I have witnessed so far is that they are very welcoming to these displaced people and offering various goods and services; however, like any social issue, there are always people in opposition. As someone who is very open to new ideas and other cultures, I found it a bit disheartening when I was in the city center one afternoon to see hundreds of police vans rolling in from all the neighboring states. They proceeded to put on their riot gear and barricade the city streets.

There is a group in Germany called PEDIGA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) and Leipzig coined their own version, LEGIDA. Although this group is particularly against the notion of Islamic people coming to Germany, with the influx of refugees lately, they have now taken a stance against immigration altogether. Despite my frustration with their intolerant acts, I was pleased to see a large number of anti-protesters showcasing their disapproval of these intolerant acts, and I even joined in the peaceful anti-protest with a few of my fellow Fulbrighters.

A lot of the discussion in my upper-level English classes focuses on the refugee crisis and analyzing the reactions of various countries. I am finding it to be a wonderful learning opportunity to not only be living in a country that is accepting such a large influx of refugees but also delving into discussing various policies, differing opinions and valid concerns alongside my students.

Another major component of my time in Germany thus far has been acting on the premise of what the Fulbright program aims to achieve: to promote cross-cultural interaction and mutual understanding between cultures. Therefore, I have in turn made it my prerogative to find avenues where I can achieve this, whether it’s through volunteering at the refugee center, through establishing a pen pal program or through weekly communications with a classroom in New York City. I have found that translating my experiences here in Germany back to the United States through my role as a travel correspondent for a nonprofit in New York called Reach the World has really aided me in allowing time for reflection, while at the same time hoping to inspire these students with a desire to want to travel and experience new cultures.

These past few months have without a doubt made me step out of my comfort zone in more ways than I can count but through the process, these new experiences have instilled in me the confidence to approach the next seven months with even more zest for fulfilling my role as a cultural ambassador for the United States here in Germany.

Last Updated December 08, 2015