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They've Got Their Feet in Both Worlds

Friday, October 6, 2017
Students sit in council chambers.

Fulbright Commission students from Germany explored Trinity and San Antonio this fall.

Trinity hosts German university students with immigration and diversity backgrounds

by Jeremy Gerlach

For Sania Rehman, a German citizen of Pakistani descent, attending a small rodeo held in Bulverde, Texas in September was like traveling to a different planet.

As baby calves frenetically scattered across the arena and monstrous bulls, broncos, and other beasts of burden kicked up clouds of dust before a throng of spectators clad in plaid, worn-leather cowboy boots and shiny belt buckles, there was Rehman, who is Muslim, decked out in a hijab and loving every minute of the wild scene.

“When you hear about America, the United States, this is what you are told,” Rehman says. “Everything is huge: it’s like a different world.”

Rehman was one of 18 German university students who traveled for a three-week stay in San Antonio this September as part of the Fulbright International Studies at Trinity University program (FISTU), which is funded by the German Fulbright Commission. The program gives students a chance to experience life at an American university and to explore cultural and political spheres beyond campus, too. Trinity is one of several schools that host Fulbright scholars each year, while the University’s Texas location makes for one of the most “American” places imaginable to foreign visitors.

But these FISTU visitors, all German citizens, are accustomed to exploring new worlds, since the program requires that participants come from families with immigration backgrounds. While Rehman’s family migrated to Germany from Pakistan in the 1980s, fellow student Anile Tmava was born to a German mother and Kosovan father in Germany during the 1990s.

Anile Tmava stands at a screen

“We all think of ourselves as German, but we also have this dual identity,” Tmava says. “It’s hard to put into words, but I imagine many Americans who’ve come here from abroad can feel the same way.”

At Trinity, the FISTU Scholars took on a third identity: Tigers. Each participant chose to take three Trinity classes, in subjects ranging from anthropology and environmental studies to history, among others. Rehman’s favorite? Improv with human communication and theatre professor Kyle Gillette, who taught her she could "study things like how to speak on stage, or how to create a scene on your own.”

First Year Experiences instructor Habiba Noor, who coordinated the FISTU visit, says the Germans brought a bit of “instant cosmopolitan flair” to Trinity.

“The Fulbright scholars gave us another lens through which to view own community,” Noor says.

Katie Boatright ’19, a psychology major who aided the FISTU scholars as an intern during their visit, was one of many friends the group made on campus.

“They fit right in at Trinity,” Boatright says. “There was a natural connection here, because our students wanted to learn about their lives in Germany, and we got to show them a bit of how we live here in San Antonio.”

Students visit with the mayor

On weekends, the FISTU scholars explored a bit of this lifestyle beyond the campus with their Trinity student friends, marveling at colossal cinnamon rolls from Lulu’s Bakery and Cafe and heading to rodeos, Six Flags, and—in true Texas fashion—a high school football game at Smithson Valley. The group was even invited to a city council meeting by Mayor Ron Nirenberg ‘99, who officially welcomed the group as a point of order during the meeting.

Across the group’s different excursions, the German visitors were amazed at the openness of both San Antonio’s citizens and Trinity’s students. Participant Daniel Wilhelm-Weber, a German citizen with Kazakhstani family roots, was taken aback at how talkative many Americans were.

“In Germany, you need a reason to ‘chat people up,’” Weber says. “Here it is so easy to meet someone new, just by talking to people.”

“At Trinity, people would just start talking to you at the gym, walking through dorms,” Tmava says, as Rehman adds, “Trinity students, and most Americans we’ve met, really, are so open. They don’t judge you.”

For Rehman, this acceptance extended all the way to her favorite place on campus: the pool. In Germany, Rehman has felt so uncomfortable wearing her full-body covering to swim in public areas—since many other Germans tend to “stare [at] or disapprove” of her attire—that she hasn’t swum in years. But at Trinity?

“No one thought twice about me being in the pool,” Rehman smiles.

Beyond the cowboys, gigantic pastries, and smooth swimming, the group got a first-hand look at big, messy parts of the American political landscape too.

Just before the FISTU scholars arrived in the U.S., a sweeping national debate over Confederate memorials erupted. Following a series of protests in Charlottesville—where an anti-Confederate demonstrator was murdered by a man with links to white supremacist groups on Aug. 12—cities across the U.S. began to remove several prominent Confederate statues, plaques, and other landmarks. San Antonio, in turn, removed a statue of an anonymous Confederate soldier from Travis Park on Sept. 1.

Audience stares at projector screen

This debate hit home for Weber and the rest of the German group, who saw disturbing parallels between America’s Confederate iconography and Germany’s past involving Nazis and white nationalism.

“These Confederate memorials were put up to prove a point,” Weber says, “They were mostly put up during America’s Civil Rights movement or during the Jim Crow era, and they were meant to humiliate and intimidate people who were oppressed at that time.”

Jumping in on the debate, the German contingent even organized a presentation open to the Trinity and San Antonio community, outlining the education system in Germany and how it teaches “difficult history,” such as the rise and fall of Nazism and the Holocaust.

“Our monuments and museums focus on the stories of the victims,” Tmava says. “Germans will admit to their history, and actively try to make up for it. In America, it can feel like they only have these types of discussions when everybody is asked to talk about it.”

The presentation saw the whole group present, answer questions and even deliver a bit of self-composed, spoken poetry before a packed crowd of about 40 attendees at the Tehuacana room in Coates Student Center, and it attracted coverage from the Express-News. Weber also went on to write an editorial in the Trinitonian on the issue of Confederate flags and nationalism.

“I didn’t know Trinity has media institutions right here on campus,” Weber notes. “You might hear some stuff you don’t like, but that means it’s easier to start these difficult conversations, too.”

With so many different worlds currently colliding—across continents, social media spheres and even on intimate spaces such as college campuses—Rehman says these tough talks become even more important.

“With prejudice, a lack of communication can lead to unrest and violence,” she says. “But just talking, and even the most simple act of cultural exchange, can fight against those prejudices.”

Boatright sees the program itself as a building block in this cultural exchange.

“The FISTU group might have come in with an expectation that Americans are always jumping down each others’ throats while arguing, because that’s what it seems like on TV,” she says. “And to be fair, during one class, some of the FISTU scholars even found themselves in a heated debate.”

“But everyone here has been respectful,” Boatright continues, noting that the debate in class ended with the FISTU scholars and the Trinity students heading down to eat at the dining hall together. “And Trinity students got to see that the Germans in the group came from all over the map with their cultural backgrounds, but everyone was able to talk and focus on what they have in common.”

Students say goodbye

As the group prepared to depart for Germany at the end of the three-week stay, Rehman and Tmava noted these commonalities extend beyond a love of giant cinnamon rolls and rodeos.

“I will remember the kindness and the welcoming here,” Rehman says. “This was the most fun I’ve had in my entire life, and I’m taking that back with me.”

“We had no idea what life at Trinity and in Texas was going to be like,” Tmava adds. “But it was even better and stranger than you could imagine it.”

You can read more about the FISTU scholars’ experiences—in their own words—at the group’s Wordpress and blogspot entries.

Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity's brand journalist. He's half-German, and each autumn you can catch him in line for funnel cakes and bratwurst at any Oktoberfest celebration he can find. Email Jeremy at jgerlach [at] trinity.edu or tweet @JT_Gerlach.