The Collegian
Thursday, February 22, 2024

Senior awarded Fulbright to teach English in Germany

<p>Senior Tom Vanderbeek poses for a photo while traveling during his semester abroad. <em>Photo courtesy of Tom Vanderbeek</em>&nbsp;</p>

Senior Tom Vanderbeek poses for a photo while traveling during his semester abroad. Photo courtesy of Tom Vanderbeek 

This September, senior Tom Vanderbeek will be leaving for a year in Rhineland, Germany, to serve as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in a German school — a position awarded him through the Fulbright program. Vanderbeek was one of three University of Richmond students to be awarded and accept a Fulbright Award this year.

Fulbright Awards are grants that offer opportunities to recent college graduates for research, study and teaching in more than 140 countries, according to the Fulbright website. The Fulbright program distributes these awards to students who are chosen after a rigorous application process.

Out of more than 10,000 applicants each year, approximately 20% are awarded grants, Dana Kuchem, UR’s Fulbright Program Adviser (FPA) said. UR had 24 applicants this year, Kuchem said. Of those, 15 made it to the semi-finalist stage and three were awarded Fulbright grants. 

As an ETA, Vanderbeek will be placed in a German school to teach English language as well as American culture and history, he said. Vanderbeek said he does not know yet what age group he will be teaching or what school he will be placed in — only that he will be teaching students anywhere between grade school and high school in the state of Rhineland. 

Vanderbeek, who is a triple major in German studies, history and global studies, said he felt his background was a perfect fit for the job.

“I have a good amount of teaching experience, but it’s not all traditional teaching experience,” Vanderbeek said.

The ETA experience includes serving as a drill instructor for the German studies department, working as a tour guide for the university and teaching swim lessons to children during the summer, Vanderbeek said. 

Vanderbeek said he also speaks German, having studied the language since high school and because he studied abroad in Freiburg, Germany, during the fall semester of his junior year.

However, he feels this experience will be different from his time abroad.

“Being in the school with other young teachers and students will give me a very different sense of community than I had at a big international university where I was previously,” he said. “And it will probably feel a lot smaller, but will also really challenge me to touch in with the local culture.”

The Fulbright grant provides recipients with a monthly stipend for housing, food and other living expenses. Though it is “not extravagant,” as Vanderbeek said, it provides countless opportunities both during and after the duration of the grant.

Vanderbeek aims to attend law school after returning from Germany, possibly for immigration law, he said. Learning firsthand about the differences between the German and American immigration systems is something that he said he was excited for.

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Kuchem explained that Germany’s economy depends on immigration because of declining birth rates.

“To keep their economy going, and at the level it is just to maintain it, they’re relying on almost 20% immigration a year,” she said. “So they’re really looking at ways to embrace immigrants, and integrate them into their community and do things in different ways."

In addition to teaching, becoming immersed in the culture and learning more about potential careers, there is a fourth aspect to the ETA position, Kuchem said.

As one of approximately 140 ETA’s in Germany, Vanderbeek will also serve a somewhat ambassadorial role. Speaking of alumnus Ryan McEvoy, ‘17, who was awarded a Fulbright for an ETA position in Germany, Kuchem said part of the job was also to educate community members in addition to students.

“In a lot of these smaller German towns, [McEvoy] might be the first American someone had met,” she said. “And his job was to give sort of a balanced view of American life — what Americans are like, how we think and answer all sorts of tough questions from people in a foreign country about where you’re coming from.”

Vanderbeek said he felt confident in both his linguistic and cultural knowledge to fulfill all aspects of the job. 

Kathrin Bower, professor and coordinator of German studies, agreed.

Bower has had Vanderbeek in several of her classes beginning his freshman year. She said that, throughout her experiences with him, she had noticed several qualities that would serve him well as an ETA. Bower had found him to be diligent, organized, attentive, goal oriented, personable and respectful, she said. 

“He was very capable of creating an environment where everyone was comfortable,” she said of Vanderbeek’s interactions with peers. “He has a great sense of humor, and I think knows how to get people to relax.”

Vanderbeek said he was not done preparing for his position and still had a lot to do this summer. He intends to start creating lesson plans, and read up on teaching the age group that he is assigned, he said. He also plans on practicing his German.

“One goal over the summer will be expanding vocabulary,” he said. “I think watching TV shows without subtitles and things like that will be a good way to train myself to get used to hearing diverse dialects. Here, I always speak German with my professors, but that’s only three or four. So that’ll be good practice to stay on my toes.”

Vanderbeek will serve as an ETA for one school year, after which he will return to the U.S., he said. Until then however, Vanderbeek is excited and eager to be immersed in the German culture and lifestyle.

Contact contributor Rebecca Rohn at 

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