It is not uncommon for students to complain about having to take a compulsory language course. They can be one of the most challenging parts of a student’s education. Penn State Harrisburg alumnus Haldan Jacobson could have completed his language credits as quickly as possible and moved on, barely remembering a few words shortly after graduation.
Instead, the further he progressed, the more he realized that language is a key that unlocks doors of opportunity, discovery, and journey.
The first door
When Jacobson’s Jewish grandfather was expelled from Germany in 1939 due to threats from the Nazi regime, authorities also revoked his citizenship. In 2011, Jacobson and other family members were offered restored citizenship under the German reparations program.
Jacobson was proud of his Jewish ancestry and his German nationality. Yet it wasn’t until his freshman year at Penn State Altoona, during his first German class, that he began to appreciate this connection and nurture his roots. “I started to really take an interest in it and learned to understand it. I started to learn about German history and consider it part of my own.
In 2019, after two full years of German lessons, Jacobson had the opportunity to test his fledgling German skills through a volunteering program that took him to the small southwestern town of Hermeskeil. of Germany.
“I saw the trip to Hermeskeil as the culmination of my studies and my immersion in German language and history. It was a way to push it all.
And push yourself. Shortly after arriving in the country, as Jacobson tried to figure out the train and bus system, he found himself sitting alone on a bus stop bench somewhere deep in rural Germany. from the southwest without wi-fi. “The fact that my German was fluent conversation at best for a primary school student didn’t faze me. It was a bit scary but also empowering and liberating. I was there, and the only person I could rely on , it was myself. That was the point.
Jacobson managed to get to the right place, Grimburg Castle. For ten days he remained in the halls of the castle, where he and other members of the volunteer group helped maintain the structure and its grounds, organize a Renaissance festival for Father’s Day and work in a local museum. He visited and explored nearby towns, interacted with locals, hiked and attended music festivals.
But it’s not those things that have had the most significant impact on Jacobson. It was sitting around the fire at night, sharing beer, borscht and stories with other members of the volunteer group that really moved him, fostered a sense of connection and reinforced his role as a global citizen. . Volunteers included young adults from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Ukraine, Turkey, France and Russia. “Sharing our personal experiences and listening to those of others creates bonds that transcend cultures. It was really interesting and special.
Jacobson had two influential German instructors and mentors at Penn State Altoona. Anja Wagner laid the foundation for her first year, and Jutta Gsoels-Lorensen took over from there.
As an associate professor of German, English, and Comparative Literature at Penn State Altoona, Gsoels-Lorensen always encourages her students to think critically about the study of languages and apply its benefits to the teaching of undergraduate and beyond.
So she was thrilled to see Jacobson take advantage of the opportunity to volunteer. “Learning another language means wanting to be at home in more than one place,” she said. “I know that students, overwhelmed with grammar rules and tricky new words, can feel lost in the business, but the work it takes to become proficient in another language comes down to the ability to make a connection and to figure out where tourists can only point and smile.. Given the transnational nature of today’s most pressing issues, what could be more important than this fine human enterprise of trying to communicate, literally, in the words of another?
The second door: a return to Germany
A few months after graduation, Jacobson found himself in Germany as a volunteer with the Center of Excellence in Europe, located in Halle, Germany. He taught English to refugees and migrants from Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen for three months. For Jacobson, it was the perfect intersection of travel and his interests in political science, English and German, all of which had intensified at Hermeskeil.
Jacobson has worked with a wide range of people, ages seven to 45, with varying levels of English comprehension. It was hard. It was about figuring out how to teach the language when he had no experience in the subject. It was learning to be flexible and spontaneous. This often involved being the only volunteer at the center trying to accommodate up to eight students with one-on-one instruction. It relied on the shared German language to explain a concept when English didn’t work. He was fully running the center for an entire month when the director was called.
It was also one of the most rewarding things Jacobson had ever done.
“It was so rewarding and inspiring to be part of something constructive. It showed me which avenue I wanted to take in my career. I want to be someone who helps formative causes.”
Another benefit of the volunteer program was that Jacobson received German lessons himself. This included classroom material, city trips to Halle and Leipzig, ordering food in restaurants, “painfully awkward” conversations with strangers, and exploring German culture and cuisine. The work was exhaustive, but it was worth it.
At the end of his time at the Center of Excellence, Jacobson was offered a job to continue teaching there. In the end, he decided to go home for the time being, but with contract work writing for the organization’s website. The articles contain information about the centre’s mission and programs, life in Halle and what volunteers can do in various areas.
“I’m happy to continue using these language skills that I’ve learned that are clearly marketable. It’s exciting to write for an entity and get paid for it. Overall, a good experience and I enjoy the process.
The next open door
Looking back, Jacobson recalls somewhat ashamedly that he once considered language, communication and writing to be unimportant. Now his life has been transformed by these things, and he says it wouldn’t have been possible without the exposure to studying languages he received at Penn State Altoona.
Jacobson encourages students to view language study as a master key that opens doors to places they cannot begin to imagine. “Do it, do it all. I know there’s fear around it, but it’ll be fine. You will grow so much as a person and learn so much about yourself and the world.
Jacobson says his travels taught him the importance of listening and being open to other perspectives and opinions. He has become more humble, attentive and aware of what is really important in life.
He is convinced that everything he has learned from studying languages and traveling will come in handy when he knocks to find the next open door. He is ready to use his energy and skills to write, help run an organization, advocate for political interests or even work in law.
“It really is a great gift to be able to study another language. It’s like having a new pair of wings. Now you have this opportunity to go somewhere else and interact with all these different people. It’s exciting and you find yourself trying new things, things you never imagined. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself at this time in your life.