Alfred University News

Alfred University trip exposes students to German culture

A group of a dozen students and three faculty members from Alfred University took a nine-day trip to Germany in January where they toured automobile plants and art galleries, took a business class with other international students, and immersed themselves in the German culture.

The trip was organized by the Alfred University College of Business, which since the 1990s has been offering students international travel opportunities and a chance to learn about how businesses operate in other countries. Past excursions have taken students to New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Italy, and since in 2008 have included trips to Germany.

Since 2014, Mark Lewis, dean of the College of Business, has offered an Allen Term class, held during the break between fall and spring semester, focusing on the German automotive industry. Online instruction is offered for three weeks prior to the trip overseas, which this year was held Jan. 5-14.

The trips are open to all Alfred University students, regardless of academic major. This year, students enrolled in Lewis’s Allen Term class, and another taught by Andrew Kless, assistant professor of history and global studies, went on the trip. Kless’s Allen Term class, “Looting Europe: How Hitler Stole the Continent’s Art,” examined the Nazi leader’s organized theft of art throughout Europe during World War II.

In addition to Lewis and Kless, the 12 students—three of whom were enrolled in Lewis’s class and nine in Kless’s class—were accompanied by College of Business faculty Jean Ellefson, assistant professor of analytics.

The group from Alfred flew from Rochester to Germany on Friday, Jan. 5. While there were some opportunities for free time and sightseeing, most of the trip was educational in nature. From Monday to Wednesday, Jan. 8-10, all 12 students in Alfred’s group joined students from Germany and China for a business simulation class at the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) campus in Heidenheim. DHBW, with which AU has been collaborating on travel classes since 2008, is the first higher education institution in Germany to integrate academic studies with workplace training.

Mark Lewis teaching class in Heidenheim
Mark Lewis, dean of the College of Business at Alfred University, teaches a class on business technology to a group of students at Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University campus in Heidenheim, Germany.

“In this case, the (simulated) business was a scooter manufacturer transitioning from gas power to electric,” Lewis explained. Over the three days, students were taught in six instructional periods, which each representing a year in the business’s operations. The simulation covered, among other areas, staffing, borrowing and investing capital, purchasing, product pricing, and international expansion.

“There were about 120 decisions made (relative to the business model) each period,” Lewis explained. “The students were making the same decisions they would make if they were running an international business.”

The business simulation was competitive in nature and students from Alfred, China, and DHBW were split into teams. “Students were required to make decisions within their groups, from multiple perspectives. It helped them gain an understanding of different cultures. For three days, (AU students) integrated into the life of a German student. That’s a valuable lesson,” Lewis said.

Youtube video chronicling Germany trip

During the business simulation class, Lewis and Ellefson taught classes on business technology to second-year DHBW students. Following the conclusion of the class, Alfred University students saw first-hand what they learned in the classroom and how it applies to German manufacturing. The entire Alfred contingent toured the Mercedes-Benz plant in Sindelfingen. “Students learned aspects of the German auto manufacturing industry, like production, lean manufacturing, the use of automation and robotics, and logistics,” Lewis said.

Group shot at Mercedes-Benz plant in Germany

A group including students and faculty from Alfred University stand in front of the Mercedes-Benz facility in Sindelfingen, Germany. The group toured the plant as part of an international trip to Germany over the semester break in January.

While students in Lewis’s group toured Porsche, MAN truck and bus, and BMW facilities in Munich, Kless accompanied the group of students in his history class to art galleries in the area.

Kless said that the museums his students toured were chosen for their relevance to his class on Hitler’s theft of European art. He explained that Nazi leaders stole art which they wanted to install in museums throughout Nazi Germany, including in their own private collections, or to sell on the black market.

Student’s in Kless’s class visited the Alte Pinakothek museum in Munich, which houses collections of art from the 1400s to the 1700s. “These were the types of artworks Hitler wanted installed in his own Führermuseum,” Kless said. Students also visited the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich, which Hitler built to display classical European art that the Nazis admired.

Hitler also attacked art perceived to be irreverent toward conservative German culture. One such artist was Otto Dix, whose art Hitler banned from being sold and displayed. Among the galleries Kless’s students visited was in the Kunst Museum in Stuttgart, which holds a large collection of Dix’s work. In Heidenheim, Kless’s group toured a museum that housed a large collection of Pablo Picasso’s art.

The entire group from Alfred also visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial, site of the first Nazi concentration camp.

Lewis pointed out that this trip, like many Alfred University organizes for its students, has a focus not just on business instruction, but also on cultural immersion and exposing Alfred students to another country’s learning environment.

“This is very unique. All other travel courses at AU are arranged by a travel company. This is unique in that it pairs with another overseas university. With this trip, the students are interacting deeply with each other and with students from other countries and cultures. You really can’t get that with package tours,” he said. “Having an appreciation for why things are the way they are is healthy. Interactions between different cultures is the most important benefit of this program.”

Kless said that his students, which primarily are art and history majors, had a keen interest in the layout of the German cities. “There is this mix of old and modern that looks very different” from American cities.

“Overall, the greatest benefit for students was being immersed in another culture and having interactions with the students from Germany and China,” he added.

“Students learned personal responsibility on this trip—how to act when they’re not in their own culture,” Kless continued. “And there is an element of problem solving. With any interaction they had—ordering food or coffee, asking for directions—there is a level of humility.”

“German culture wasn't too different than America, but it was just enough of a difference to feel out of place,” said Emily Sexsmith, a junior art and design major. “Personally, I have researched Germany and have been teaching myself the language for a few years, so I was somewhat familiar with key differences. However, experiencing something is the next level of learning. Learning things, especially on your own, can pin you to expectations. I had some ideas of what experiencing Germany would be like, but nothing was how I had thought it would be. I thought the students would act different from us and judge us for being out of place. But we all got along, and we were very similar.”

Emily said the experience opened her eyes to the extent of the Nazi looting of European art and the atrocities of the Holocaust. “It’s important that we learned this because so many things are sugarcoated in history and forgotten. There is a growing belief in America that the Holocaust never happened—that it was a hoax. I'm glad to have taken the course so that I can be educated enough to know the truth and to spread it.”

Emily’s sister, Abigail, a first-year Academic Explorer, said visiting historic sites—including thousand-year-old churches and castles, the Dachau memorial, and other sites relevant to World War II—left an impression on her. “I have never been where there was that much history still standing, and there is nothing like seeing these places that I’ve studied from pictures in textbooks in real life. Everything is so soaked in history, it’s hard to put your head around it. I feel like seeing Dachau will also stay with me for a long time, but I am so grateful I was able to go and get that perspective of what happened,” she said.

I think I will most remember sightseeing, experiencing a different culture, and the friendships I made. I made a lot of friends in Germany too. I got to talk with German students and work with them, and we had a lot in common. I became good friends with the other Americans on the trip too, we had a lot of fun hanging out together. I think the more I travel in the future, the more grateful I will be for this experience.”

Jane Heffernan, a sophomore ceramic engineering major, said the trip gave her an opportunity to learn and socialize with students from other cultures and appreciate their differences.

“The student-to-student interactions allowed me to learn far more about German and Chinese cultures than I ever would have traveling alone. I had first-hand experience understanding the nuances of working with people internationally. This trip expanded my worldview and reinforced the importance of taking the time to interact with people who are different from me,” Heffernan commented.

“Ten years from now I think I will remember the student interactions the most. I went on this trip without knowing anyone else who was going. This was a wonderful opportunity to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I met many wonderful people from Alfred, Germany, and China. The most memorable part of this trip will be the friends I made and the conversations we had.”

Jane Heffernan at Hellenstein Castle
Jane Heffernan, a sophomore ceramic engineering major at Alfred University, at Hellenstein Castle during the recent trip to Germany. The 12th Century castle overlooks the city of Heidenheim.

The College of Business routinely offers other international travel opportunities, as many as three each year. Theresa Gunn, associate professor of accountancy and associate dean of the College of Business, has accompanied students to Costa Rica during spring break, and Shelly Freyn, associate professor of marketing, plans a trip to Spain this summer.  Fred Farley, associate professor of management, has taken students in the Health Care Management program on Allen Term excursions to the Netherlands.

Lewis said he has encouraged business faculty who are considering organizing future trips to seek out faculty from the University’s other academic units to arrange classes linked to international travel. “This is such a great model for intersections. We want this (travel classes) to involve a more integrated, diverse group of students,” Lewis said.

Lewis said the trips have left a long-lasting impression on students.

“I’ve had former students who went on this trip tell me that this was the most impactful experience they had while at Alfred,” he said. “That’s the impact I want it to have. You can’t replicate this in the classroom.”

Once such student is Zach Harrington, a 2014 graduate with a degree in finance, who is a financial advisor and partner at Rise Advisors, LLC, in Rochester. He was among a group of business students that took Lewis’s class on the German auto industry and traveled to Germany in January 2014. There, the group toured Ziegler, at the time a family-owned fire truck maker, and Mercedes-Benz and BMW plants. Harrington’s group took a business simulation class at DHBW in Heidenheim.

“This trip was such an awesome experience. When I look back on my time at Alfred, this was one of the most fun times I had. We were very normal Alfred University kids, middle to lower-middle class, in a foreign country figuring things out,” Harrington recalled.

“There are so many memories. We flew out of Newark, NJ, and when we arrived in Germany, we were immediately engulfed in their culture. We made friends with German students, spent a lot of time together (in class and socially). It really was a coming of age for us, figuring out how to carry ourselves in a foreign country. I think more students should take advantage of this type of opportunity.”

Harrington said the experience has helped him professionally, and he says he has applied lessons from the trip to career in finance. He explained that his business simulation at DHBW focused on a wine distributor and students made business decisions on everything from pricing and financing to sales and marketing. “What we learned in the simulation reflects so much of what I do for my clients now.”

Kless said he hopes the experience inspires students to travel international, to experience even more cultures. “I think they can better understand the United States by looking at it from afar, from others’ perspectives.”

After the trip, Kless said, students expressed an interest in pursuing study abroad opportunities. He encourages any students who want more information on studying abroad to contact Laura Johnson, Alfred University’s Director of Education Abroad.