IEP Staff Spotlight: Practice What You Preach

On the front of the building is inscribed "Dem deutschen Volke", which means "to/for the German people".
Learning doesn’t stop outside the classroom! Visiting the Reichstag building, which houses the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament. (Courtesy of Melissa Schenck)

For Melissa Schenck ‘09, M.A. ‘11, Coordinator of the International Engineering Program (IEP), empowering students to learn languages and study abroad is part of her day-to-day work at the University of Rhode Island. Undertaking such experiences in German herself in her free time, on the other hand, has been a labor of love. Recently, this decade-long passion project culminated in an intensive German summer program in Berlin, Germany.

Funded by a 2021 Beatrice S. Demers Fellowship, Schenck completed a four-week advanced German course in Berlin that started in late May 2022. This fellowship is sponsored by the RI Foundation and is awarded to both present RI college students and educators as well as current RI residents desiring to advance their linguistic skills abroad.

An outdoor exhibit in Berlin featuring faces of diverse German citizens
An outdoor exhibit in Berlin called the “The Germans of the 21st Century”, highlighting the diversity of German citizens today. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Schenck)

Schenck participated in daily German immersion classes sponsored by the Institute for International Communication Berlin (IIK Berliner ID) alongside other international students from Malaysia, Ukraine and Libya. She opted for a homestay to further enrich her experience and, taking a page out of her advice to IEP students, took every chance she could to soak in the language and culture – attending museum visits and cultural events, seeking out interesting new German books and keeping up with the news, meeting up with contacts made through the IEP and going on excursions with her instructor and classmates.

Originally a high school Spanish teacher whose graduate area of expertise at URI was in Hispanic literature, Schenck had assumed that study abroad experiences were a thing of the past for her. Finding out in 2020 that she, a RI resident who was not enrolled at a college but who had passion for languages, was eligible to apply for the Demers fellowship was life-changing. Using what she learned during her summer study this year, she hopes to give back to the GIEP, which had inspired her to embark on this personal journey in the first place, by expanding the ways in which she could support the program and connect with its students on a more personal level, demonstrating by example that learning is a lifelong process.

Melissa Schenck stands next to an iconic bear statue in Berlin
One of many iconic “Berliner Bears” that dot the city of Berlin, this one welcomes travelers to Berlin from just outside Berlin Central Station. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Schenck)

Schenck started learning German casually in 2012, first with Duolingo, later taking German classes with her husband at the Boylston Schul-Verein in Walpole, MA, but it wasn’t until she started working at URI in 2018 with the IEP that learning German took on a new meaning for her. Lunch hour German lessons, both formal and informal. Participating in Kaffeestunden and Sprachtandems. Chaperoning two J-Term study tours in Germany with Dr. Sigrid Berka, executive director of the IEP, while learning the language alongside the students. As virtual options took off, she was fortunate to be able to take part in two years of online instruction offered by the Goethe Institute in Boston. Each of these experiences helped build up to her immersion course with IIK Berlin, which is just the latest, but will not be the last, step in her German journey.