Shrouded in the inky depths of typical mid-autumnal evening, Vassar College’s Aula projected rays of light into the brisk November night. Housed in its protective Ely Hall, the luminance emanating from within the Aula shone bright enough to rival even the sun. Like the sun, there appeared even the effect of some gravitational pull; from a hundred meters away, students, faculty and members of the Poughkeepsie community alike filed in.
As one attendee, Chris Langer ’19 put it, “The food was true to my heritage (I’m German and Irish), and the conversation (and Germanic speaking) left me so much more informed and equipped to impact the local refugee community.”
The night offered just that: authentic food from different parts of Europe as well as an informative and constructive discussion. Just from external observation, there seemed compelling enough reason to be inside, among everyone else. The festive atmosphere, lights, and music seeping into the darkness emitted a promise of a spirited night spent with friends and family, all bathed in the light of camaraderie and conversation at the German Department’s annual Herbstessen.
Every year, a uniquely themed Herbstessen is hosted by the German Department. Literally translated, the word means “fall dinner,” thus accounting for its appropriate occurrence in mid-autumn.
The German Department makes sure that everyone plays a role in making the dinner come alive. German Department faculty and staff are responsible for providing publicity and early access to tickets for the event, while students are held responsible for the event’s organization and success.
For example, besides running the dinner, students also cook all the food, organize the event’s execution, decorate the entire reception hall and provide all entertainment. This year, it was also the students who determined that the refugee crisis would be the topic and theme of discussion.
Alysha Mckenzie ’19 explained that the promise of in-depth discussion of the Refugee Crises encouraged her attendance to the dinner. “I was a little apprehensive at first to attend a dinner for a conglomeration of cultures I’m not necessarily acquainted with, but the promise of progressive public policy discussion on the topic of immigration was veritable enough,” She said.
This year’s Herbstessen event, Deutschland Multikulti, is a historical reference to the German progressive movements of the latter quarter of the 20th century. A slogan of the multiculturism approach of public policy, the term “multikulti” derives from the German term “multikulturalismus,” or multiculturalism. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the German Green party utilized it when speaking of its public policy tactics, and from this point forward its usage spread. Eventually, the word surged so much in popularity, that people from all over Europe were using it.
Though this year’s dinner was a reference to the historical foundation of the idea of Deutschland Multikulti, students were also encouraged to update this idea’s significance by applying to it a general discussion of the main immigrant groups in Germany.
As German Department academic intern Kristen Caccavale ’16 explained, there was a strong desire to draw on current events for this year’s theme. Because themes are usually chosen based on relevance to different aspects of German culture, this year’s refugee crisis seemed a natural fit.
This year’s topic took on a new tone as compared to the past few years. Last year’s subject was soccer’s impact on the nation (Germany had recently won the World Cup), and the year previous’ was “Nosferatu,” a German horror movie about vampires.
Caccavale described the presentation of a unique opportunity for impactful campus discussion this year.
She stated, “With the current situation in Syria and Germany making space for so many refugees, we felt we were being presented with an opportunity to talk about this current political event, and that we needed to take that opportunity in order to raise awareness on campus.”
She went on, “We didn’t want to do something cliché, such as Oktoberfest, when we had the chance to talk about something incredibly relevant and important at the moment, especially something with which Germany is directly involved.”
Students of all backgrounds were invited to participate in the dinner and discussion on Monday. Mckenzie explained that her interactions with Germany have been limited. “Since I’ve only been to Germany once as a child, my memories of European travel are not significant enough for me to feel a real association with countries apart from the United States and the Caribbean Islands. However, some of my German and Irish friends convinced me to experience their culture, so I did,” She said.
She went on to explain that she was intrigued by the conversation, enough that she was moved to become more involved in the Refugee cause. Mckenzie said, “I’m glad to say I did so, too, because not only was the food and conversation so enriching, the presentations I saw also compelled me to involve myself more in helping immigrants integrate themselves socially and academically through volunteering with various Vassar organizations.”
Additionally, students involved in the planning and preparation for the event specifically sought a more delineated concentration in order to provide comparison and contrast to the settings of the last quarter of the 20th century and now.
Their intent was not to understand the historical significance of multiculturalism in Germany, rather, they hoped to apply this concept of cultural integration to a contemporary context. This idea was accomplished by singularly concentrating on Syrian refugees in Germany and their impact on German culture.
Choosing such a divided topic did not prove to be an easy task. Because Herbstessen is perceived as a generally fun event with a buffet, music and lighthearted presentations, Caccavale described slight difficulty in ensuring the tone of conversation was appropriate for this very serious political situation. The ultimate decision was to prepare and include food from the main immigrant groups in Germany in order to segway into talking about Syrian refugees and their inevitable importation of culture into Germany.
Through the inclusion of foods from Germany’s most important immigrant countries, Professor of German Silke von der Emde described the hope that meaningful discussion would be facilitated. She said, “The dinner will focus on Germany as a multicultural society and provide information on the way the country is impacted and deals with the refugee crisis.”
She went on to explain that this space was not going to be anything like a formal class lecture or a directed conversation. “There won’t be formal discussion, however. Rather, the students will provide lots of background information and we hope that lots of conversations will take place at the different tables over dinner dishes,” She said.
Fortunately, von der Emde’s hope was not unfounded. The dinner’s buffet featured foods such as Syrian Roz Bhaleeb (Rice Pudding), Polish pierogies, German Käsespätzle, Greek Moussaka and Turkish Bulgar Salad.
While the conversation was undoubtedly important, some students, like Anamarie Cirigliano ’19, were drawn in by the food. Cirigliano said, “Food and festivity, all accompanied by the food of my people? Obviously, as an Italian, I was there.”
She added that each dish still managed to bring its own flavors to the table. “Fortunately, I was not disappointed either. Despite the breadth of cultures represented culinarily, there was so much authenticity in each dish I was able to thoroughly enjoy all of it, and I plan on attending next year’s Herbstessen too.”
Students canvassed in the Deece a few days and the day before the event happened. They called out to passing students, “Support the cause! Learn more about the Syrian Refugee Crises!” If you bought a ticket then and there, the cost was only $8. Tickets were also available at the door for $10.
Indeed, students were able to not just learn about the crises, they were also exposed to a wide variety of prospectives on the issue. About 20 students were in attendance from German to Economics majors, freshmen through seniors. .
Throughout the event, student-generated media presentations provided different information about the Syrian Refugee Crises and Germany’s role. This included a video presentation of an in-depth discussion of a refugee’s experience, personal pictures and a presentation from the department’s Language Fellow Lea Espinoza. As a student of a college in Münster, Espinoza was able to describe her experience and connection to groups aiding refugee placement in Germany, and her relationship with her college even provided the college an opportunity to directly impact the crisis through student involvement.
Professor Höhn and Anish Kanoria ’18, who helps Höhn organize campus events, were also present. Imparting a brief presentation on Vassar College’s capacity to impact local and global causes to alleviate the challenges faced by refugees and immigrants of all types, Höhn brought a sign-up sheet for students and community members both to volunteer their skills.
The money generated by ticket sales of the events also went towards aiding those in distress: the funds will be used to purchase German children’s books for Syrian children refugees. The intent of this action is to ease these children’s attempts at acquiring the German language, and through Espinoza’s academic relationship to Münster, they chose a group to ensure that these books arrive and benefit the refugees in need of them most.
Unsurprisingly, the same learning conception has also been applied to students at Vassar attempting to learn German for the first time as well. Like Syrian refugees and other immigrants in Germany seeking to learn language for expression and communication, there is often the trouble for students in familiarizing language rules and constructs in an easily comprehensible form.
The idea of using the medium of storytelling to teach German arose during the summer of 2014 when Caccavale, Ford Scholar for the German Department, compiled a list of over 50 German children books for use in the department. It is this list the donated books are to be purchased from, and it is also this list that is used as a basis for the course content of the Department’s Introductory German course, GERM 105/106.
Like the Deutschland Multikulti event coordinators intended for Syrian refugees, the Intro. German course focuses on German children tales and content as a medium for teaching German. Caccavale identifies, “This method of teaching in our department matches our goal for this year’s Herbstassen event; we want to provide the same learning opportunities for students in any context to learn German.”
Regardless of whether it’s an individual at Vassar College looking to learn German as a part of their coursework or an immigrant to Germany seeking to speak the language and access German culture, the methodology and medium through which this task occurs is identical.
For those who attended this event, there appeared to be endless opportunities and areas in which to gain or further their knowledge. Regardless of motivations, like experiencing a taste of home or something new, engaging in political discussion on a contemporary significant topic or identifying and engaging in various pathways of local or global involvement, the success of this year’s Herbstessen drew on the same concept of its theme of Deutschland multiculturalism.
Essentially, by taking and assimilating various concepts and contributions of individuals from backgrounds as different as the foods served, languages spoken and presentation methods given, attendees of this year’s event were able to enrich themselves and others by their contributions and communication.