Students affiliated with the German Studies Department earning Fulbrights this year are (L-R) Sarah Fox, Caroline Kita, Taylor Healy, Katherine Stainken and Elizabeth Paulhus. The secret of the department's success, says chairman Prof. Michael Resler, is "'Get Them Early.' They need to know this can happen...I tell them, 'I can't guarantee you'll win a Fulbright, but if you play the game with me, I can guarantee you'll be competitive.'" (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Small Department, Big Dreams
Year in, year out, tiny German Studies racks up those Fulbright awards
By Mark Sullivan
With four Fulbrights to Germany and one to Austria won by Boston College students this spring, the German Studies Department again claims an eagle's share of the coveted fellowships for post-baccalaureate study abroad. [See separate story]
This is the third year in a row that five Fulbrights to Germany or Austria have been won by students who have majored, minored or taken language courses in German Studies.
Since 1985, students prepared by the department have won 42 Fulbrights, 33 of them in the past 10 years, including a high of seven in 1998.
How is it that one of the smallest departments in the University each year turns out as many Fulbrights as a good liberal arts college? Call it esprit de corps or cura personalis. In German Studies they call it Gemutlichkeit.
"That means snugness, informality, warmth, a fireplace going - or a room like this," said German Studies chairman Prof. Michael Resler during a recent interview in the department's Heinz Bluhm Memorial Library, a book-filled alcove in Lyons Hall where the shelves are lined with volumes of Goethe, Wagner and Durer, biographies of Emperor Franz Joseph and the collected speeches of Kaiser Wilhelm.
German Studies is small, with perhaps 80 majors and minors combined in all classes: "If we graduate 10 majors in a year, we have a bumper crop," said Resler. So the year-by-year Fulbright count since 1995, which includes three consecutive years of five Fulbright winners as well as the record seven, makes an impression.
"When I look at the other German departments that have won a lot, the Harvards, the Stanfords, they have graduate programs," Resler said. "Someone from Harvard told me, 'You could probably claim to be the best German Studies department in the country without a graduate program.'
"I'm just so proud of our students," he said. "We get good ones, and we can nurture them. Our students are not always aware of how competitive they can be. We bring them in early and tell them, 'you can do this.'
"We know our students. We like them. They become friends, in some cases lifelong friends. The only thing hard about this job is that students you have come to know and love leave after four years."
A past winner of the Teacher of the Year award voted by the campus chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Resler has emphasized the personal touch during his 12 years as department chairman, while taking a hands-on approach to grooming future fellowship winners.
Students in German Studies meet on their own weekly at a stammtisch, or regular table, at Roggie's for pizza and German conversation. Resler has students to his home for an annual Christmas party and to his New Hampshire lodge for snowboarding.
Most years when the Fulbrights are announced, a celebratory dinner is held downtown at the landmark German restaurant Jacob Wirth's.
Germany is a particularly fruitful hunting ground for Fulbrights, and Resler has made it his mission that the 20 or so majors and minors that BC German Studies graduates each year capitalize upon them. On the topic of winning Fulbrights, the German Studies chairman sounds like a scholarly version of the small-town coach with big dreams in "Hoosiers."
"The secret of success is, 'Get Them Early,'" said Resler. "They need to know this can happen. I met with a freshman this afternoon, and put the Fulbright bug in his ear right away.
"I tell them, 'I can't guarantee you'll win a Fulbright, but if you play the game with me, I can guarantee you'll be competitive.'"
Visitors to German Studies are greeted by a sign outside Resler's office saluting the year's honor roll of Fulbright winners with Herzlichen Gluckwunsch, "heartiest good wishes."
"It's a delight to see these kids go off and have the 'best year of their lives,'" said Resler, who recalled the Fulbright inspiration he had received as a William & Mary undergraduate from two of his professors.
"They encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright and helped me fill out the application, exactly what I'm doing with students all these years later," he said. "It comes full circle: Without the mentoring I received, I never would have won a Fulbright. This is a payback."
The Fulbright application includes two required essays, one personal, and the other describing one's academic project. Resler works with his students on rewrite after rewrite until the essays - no longer than a page or two apiece - are submitted by the 5 o'clock deadline on Oct. 1, after which, he said, the halls of the department ring with the cry, Das Fulbright biest ist tot, "the Fulbright beast is dead!"
Those whose efforts were rewarded this spring thanked the German Studies mentor they said did so much to help land their Fulbrights.
"Prof. Resler had talked to be about applying for a Fulbright ever since I first took one of his courses during my sophomore year," said Taylor Healy '04, a German Studies and English major from Atlanta, Ga., who will study immigration policy at the Institute for Migration and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabruck in Germany.
"He encouraged me to study abroad during my junior year and read upwards of 10 drafts of my Fulbright application essays," she said. "Prof. Resler is the most influential and amazing professor that I have had during my four years at BC and I would not have received this grant had it not been for his dedication and assistance."
Katherine Stainken '04, a German Studies and chemistry major from Hillsborough, NJ, who will study atmospheric chemistry at the Institut für Meteorologie und Klimaforschung in Karlsruhe, Germany, said: "Prof. Resler was extremely helpful in the application process, and as a friend, to offer his opinion on Fulbright project ideas. He's been a great mentor."
Caroline Kita '04, a history major and German Studies minor from Hamburg, NY, will spend next year studying music and history at the University of Vienna and teaching English at an Austrian high school. "Without Michael Resler's guidance, I never would have even considered applying for the fellowship," she said.