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Students connect with German elders to reduce loneliness–and learn the language

Students attend professor Caroline Fuchs’ German class in Richards Hall on Thursday Oct. 28, 2021. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

A 72-year-old German woman is busy in her Hamburg home crafting yuletide trinkets for the holiday packages she sends out every year to friends and family. This year, Hannelore Schäfer will be sending a gift to Maisie Saganic, a journalism and political science student at Northeastern.

Maisie and Hannelore met at the beginning of the semester as part of a virtual intergenerational  exchange program in her Intermediate German II class led by teaching professor Carolin Fuchs. Fuchs began the exchange program in the spring of 2021 after partnering with Freunde alter Menschen e.V., an organization in Germany that coordinates visitor partnerships and social events for German seniors. At a time when lots of elderly people are isolated because of the pandemic, Fuchs thought the program could benefit both her students and the elderly community in Germany. 

“It turned out there were more Germans interested than I had students in my class,” Fuchs says. Right away, Fuchs expanded the program to the Intermediate German I class with help from her community partner Kerstin Hoffmann and her colleagues in Germany, and from Northeastern’s part-time teaching instructor, Sandra Ward. 

The students participate in one-on-one video calls with elderly Germans living in either Berlin or Hamburg, providing an opportunity for them to practice their German language skills and learn more about the culture. The Germans get to engage with and teach young people while sharing some of their knowledge and life experience.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Four times during the semester, students prepare a loose set of questions about German life, politics, and history to use as touchstones during video calls with their German partners. Students are expected to speak in German the entire time, especially since the  elderly partners don’t speak English, Fuchs says. The students then reflect on their virtual exchanges through posts on a discussion forum and a final project.

The students ask about a wide range of topics, including immigration and climate change, but also historical events. For example, many of the German elders talk about the reunification of the country after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Some of them were in Berlin at the time,” Fuchs explains. “That’s a topic that almost always comes up.” 

Not every discussion is political. “Oftentimes, the elders talk about their families or their hobbies, or just tell personal stories,” she says. For example, one student last spring learned that his discussion partner practiced tai chi and got to watch some of her videos on YouTube. 

These transcontinental video connections are just the latest development in Fuchs’ decades-long efforts to find new ways to communicate with people in Germany and connect to the country. She left in 1991 to work as an au pair in Florida. 

“When I came here, there was no Skype,” she recalls. “My father was an attorney, so he had access to a fax machine, so I would send him faxes. It was faster than sending letters.”

Then, in 1999 while she was teaching German at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, Fuchs established her first official virtual exchange program that connected her students to students from her alma mater in Munich. Again, the fax machine proved essential.

“My students would type emails to the German students, but the internet was still in its infancy in Germany at the time,” she says. “The emails wouldn’t go through, so we would print the emails and fax them to Germany.” 

Now, thanks in part to the service-learning fellowship Fuchs received from Northeastern’s Community-Engaged Teaching & Research team, this virtual exchange program is a central component of the German program’s service-learning initiative. 

“Ever since I did my first virtual exchange with students, the point has been to have an authentic language experience with speakers of the language,” she says. “Plus, it’s a way for me to keep in touch with my home country.”  

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