Centre-in-Strasbourg: A Classroom with a View
Nothing evokes the experience of Centre-in-Strasbourg like the view from our classroom window, beautifully depicted in Ken Keffer’s painting, with the cathedral looming over the roofs of the city as if to eavesdrop on our conversations. If you are one of the 1,181 students and 15 faculty directors to have participated in the program during its first 25 years, you know exactly what I mean, and your mind is processing old (or not-so-old) memories right now. If not, please allow me to explain.
Centre’s students experience several Strasbourgs while they are there. One is historical Strasbourg, picturesque Strasbourg, a city almost too lovely to be real. This is the Strasbourg of the city center, with its winding medieval streets, its half-timbered houses, its flower-covered bridges and canals. Of course, the cathedral is at the heart of all this, as it has been since the Middle Ages, built out of pink sandstone from the nearby Vosges Mountains and boasting its trademark single spire.
Our students also experience modern, multicultural Strasbourg, with the futuristic tram that glides through the city, as people from dozens of different countries and cultures jostle in the streets. And then there is Strasbourg as European capital, headquarters for the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, and (one week each month) the European Parliament. A French city located just across the Rhine River from Germany, Strasbourg is often called the crossroads of Europe. From its train station Centre students can (and do) catch an overnight coach on Thursday night and wake up on Friday morning in Rome, Barcelona, Amsterdam, or Prague.
Strasbourg is a youth capital, too, with the second-largest university in France (some of our students take aerobics and rock climbing classes there), as well as a center of gastronomy, with restaurants, cafés, and farmers markets everywhere you turn. When French people learn that you are living in Strasbourg, that is the first thing they mention—“oh, yes, they eat well there.” And it is a city where the arts, especially music, thrive.
Centre-in-Europe, as the Strasbourg program was originally called, was the brainchild of Karin Ciholas, Van Winkle Professor Emerita of French and German, so it is fitting that our classroom, with its cathedral view, is now named after her. In the fall of 1990, the College began to expand its international offerings with a residential program in London. A program in Paris seemed the inevitable next step. But Karin had a better idea. Having lived in Strasbourg while her husband, Paul, was pastor of a church and completing his doctoral degree, she knew that the city’s relatively modest size and scale would prove far more navigable for our students than the urban labyrinth of Paris, while providing them with opportunities equally rich. Each time I meet a new group of students at the beginning of a Strasbourg term, I am reminded again of Karin’s wisdom. Arriving at the city jetlagged and tired, they are intimidated on that first day, and I can read in their eyes a fear that they will never master their surroundings. Two or three days later they have a spring in their steps, already feeling that they know their way around, and then the learning can begin.
Two other founding parents of the Strasbourg program deserve mention here. Ken Keffer, recently retired Stodghill Professor of French and German, was the first faculty director in 1991-92, helping to lay the foundation for what endures today, while Milton Reigelman has not only twice led the program, but also been its greatest champion throughout his many years as the College’s director of international programs. Every faculty director has been grateful for his unstinting support.
And indeed every faculty director has contributed something to the lore (and allure) of Centre-in-Strasbourg. My favorite story about another director comes from Stodghill Professor of English Dan Manheim, who in 1995-96 had his students sample a different French cheese every day during the orientation period, with a blind taste test as part of the final exam. Now, that is experiential learning!
Ken Keffer has done many brilliant things during his distinguished career, but few have been as momentous as his hiring of Astrid Klis Hullar, who has served as French instructor to Centre’s students in Strasbourg since 1992, as well as on-site coordinator for many years. Each semester a new group of students falls in love with Astrid, drawn by her kindness, her vivacity, and her warm desire to share her language and her culture with them. Astrid is both a colleague and a friend, and I am thinking fondly of her now.
Other on-site faculty and staff have been integral parts of the Centre-in-Strasbourg experience. Until her retirement, longtime adjunct art history professor Ann Grayson was an erudite, yet welcoming, presence; she has been succeeded in that position by Kate Sowley, who since 2008 has shared her passion for art with our students. As for Pierre Nuss, adjunct professor of politics, he is in a class by himself. Each year since 2004, Pierre has held students spellbound in his course on European politics. Not only does he have a doctorate in international law, but Pierre is also the author of several detective novels set in Strasbourg that feature as their hero a teacher in an American study abroad program, and he headlines a band devoted to recreating the music of such 1980s groups as Pink Floyd and Supertramp. The end-of-term dinners that Pierre hosts for his students at his family home in Molsheim are legendary.
Overseeing the program and providing continuity from one year to the next is the smiling presence of Heidi Cahen, Centre’s on-site coordinator since 2006, tireless in her efforts to make Strasbourg’s opportunities available to our students. Among her many tasks is managing all arrangements for student homestays, recruiting and retaining the host families that are such a cherished part of those students’ lives.
In short, students arriving in Strasbourg today undertake an experience that has been crafted for them over more than a quarter-century, with a dedicated network of support. This doesn’t mean that the experience is always easy, nor should it be. Classes are rigorous and intense, and the challenges of negotiating linguistic and cultural differences are real. It’s the process of meeting those challenges that makes the Strasbourg experience such a meaningful one for our students, leaving them not just with memories, but with a vivid sense of how much they have accomplished and grown over a few short months—a sense that radiates from every student reminiscence on these pages.
On a personal note, I want to say how much my own three years as Strasbourg director have meant to me and to my family. Each year a different family member has come along. In 2001-02 it was my son, Ivan, and in 2005-06 my daughter, Petra, both taking gap years between high school and college. More recently, my wife, Helen, accompanied me in 2014-15, taking her own gap year between 23 years as a mental health case manager and a well-deserved retirement. Ivan, Petra, and Helen took courses with Centre students, shared meals and travel with them, and became their friends. Our lives as a family have been immeasurably enriched.
I’ll conclude with a brief anecdote. Several years ago Helen and I were in a bar in Lexington, waiting for a band to play, when a young woman came up to our table. She was Courtney Shannon Devine ’03, who was in the first group of students that I directed in Strasbourg, in fall 2001. (Yes, that term included the experience of September 11 while we were in France, but that is another story.) Courtney had just been to a wedding, and she was still in her bridesmaid’s gown. She and I chatted a bit about our Strasbourg days, and as the conversation was winding down Courtney looked me in the eyes and said, “You know, Dr. Rasmussen, not a day goes by that I don’t think about my time in Strasbourg. Not a day goes by.” Once again I was reminded of the power of this program to change students’ lives. To be associated with it has been one of the great honors of my career.
by Mark Rasmussen
October 4, 2016
Article featured in the fall 2016 edition of Centrepiece magazine.
Mark Rasmussen, Luellen Professor of English, has taught at Centre since 1989. He has directed the Strasbourg program three times, most recently in 2014-15, and was co-director of the London program in 2009.
PHOTOS: (from top) Strasbourg Cathedral as painted by Ken Keffer, and students outside of the Strasbourg Cathedral.