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A German Push

German is awesome. And Susanne Wagner wants you to know about it.

Two months into just her second year as an assistant professor, the Cologne, Germany, native has firmly positioned herself as a leading force for her home country’s language not only at St. Thomas, but throughout the Midwest. It hasn’t gone unnoticed: Deutsche Welle – Germany’s international broadcaster (think BBC in 30 different languages) – recently named Wagner their German Teacher of the Month, an award that cites standout teachers all over the world.

“It’s a huge honor,” Wagner said.

Susanne Wagner (Photo by Mike Ekern)

That honor came after Wagner spent two weeks last summer in Bonn, Germany, as part of a 20-person delegation of teachers from all over the world. Invited by the German government, the teachers participated in an intensive seminar highlighting “German for the profession.” As the only member of the delegation from the Americas, Wagner was in a unique position to provide perspective on what it’s like to be a German professor in the United States.

“It was interesting to have people from all over the world,” she said. “We even had two people there from Russia and one from Ukraine, which was when everything was happening there between those two countries. That was very interesting.”

The focal point of the seminar (how to use German in different career settings) also fit perfectly with Wagner’s goals thousands of miles away in her new home, St. Paul.

Practical application

Wagner came to St. Thomas by way of master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a teaching stint at Agnes Scott College in Georgia and five more years teaching at the University of Arkansas. (“I still know nothing about football,” she said of her time in the pigskin hotbed.) Some of the advantages of teaching German in Minnesota were evident immediately: “The majority of my students have some German connection, a grandfather or a father who studied in Germany or Austria,” she said. “And there are so many Germans here, and events and things going on. There are a lot of those connections I didn’t have in Arkansas.”

Challenges were evident as well though, with a German department at St. Thomas that wasn’t as robust as it had been in the past.

“We’re definitely trying to rebuild the program,” she said.

A huge part of that effort is tied directly to the experience she had this summer in Bonn: showing her students that speaking German is a transferable skill that can help open up career paths and, in general, be used all over in real life. That is built into her curriculum in many ways, from requiring students to seek out German-specific interactions (“I call them my ‘Close Encounters of the German kind,’” she said) to connecting them with German clubs, jobs or social events, such as with the upcoming German-inspired Minneapolis Holiday Market. A grant Wagner secured helped bring many events and speakers to campus as well last year, diversifying the offerings students can take part in.

“I’m trying to make them see that (speaking German) is applicable, that they can use it,” Wagner said. “We’re trying to prepare them for life. The St. Thomas mission is fantastic because it’s just exactly that.”

Wagner also recognizes a strong business tradition is part of St. Thomas’ identity, and she aims to tap into that with more direct links for students. Plans for a German for Business course are part of that, which could be another positive development in Wagner’s strategy for moving her department forward.

“It’s obvious she has a lot of energy and is really motivated,” said Derrin Pinto, chair of the Modern and Classical Languages Department. “She’s tireless.”

“I’m giving myself some time to build some of these things; it’s probably a three- to five-year plan,” she said. “More than anything the students need to see it’s exciting.”

For 17 students this J-Term that means a trip to Berlin, the first study abroad for the German Department in more than a decade, Wagner said. With a professor like Wagner leading such classes and the overall charge for German at St. Thomas, seeing excitement may just continue getting easier and easier.