A year of ‘ambassadorship’


A University of Iowa graduate spent the last 10 months serving as a ‘citizen ambassador’ to Germany.

By Katelyn Weisbrod

A Fulbright scholar in Germany spent the last 10 months learning the German world and sharing her American culture.

“It was a really interesting time to be abroad as the election here was going on, and I was tasked with being the American voice,” said Lauren Darby, who returned home to Iowa City this spring.

Darby, a University of Iowa graduate, taught English to fifth- through 12th-graders in Wolfsburg, Germany, but she often found her English lessons becoming social-studies lessons.

“I had fifth-graders drawing campaign posters and pictures of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton completely unprovoked, but that’s what they were curious about, that’s what they were interested in,” Darby said.

She enjoyed this, she said, because she is certified in social-studies education.

Not only was she teaching and learning from her students but also her colleagues at the school. She often took coffee breaks with her German peers to exchange knowledge on both German and American history, politics, and literature.

“They were also super-eager to practice their English and learn, and I was super-eager to practice my German and learn about the country where I was, and to get that authentic voice of Germans, hearing their opinions on topics I had only studied about previously,” Darby said.

Karen Wachsmuth, the UI associate director of international fellowships, said Fulbright scholars often feel like they are called on to serve as “citizen ambassadors.”

“In some cases, this might be the first American that [foreign] students have met,” Wachsmuth said. “So the [Fulbright scholars] do become a very important representative of the U.S., and they have to be prepared to discuss international issues in a thoughtful and considerate way.”

The Fulbright Program was established after World War II to foster relationships between U.S. students and foreign countries, according to its website. That philosophy remains at the program’s core; however, Fulbright could face a 47 percent cut in funding under the Trump Administration, The Washington Post reported in June.

Darby said many fail to recognize the value of this kind of grass-roots diplomacy.

“[I think about] what it means to be an American abroad and what it means to represent this country,” Darby said. “[When the people I met] think of the U.S., regardless of what happens in the world, they can say, ‘I knew an American once, and they were really cool; they were someone that I connected with.’ That really does a lot for the country as a whole.”

Wachsmuth said Darby had a lot to bring to the community of Wolfsburg as well. Wachsmuth, who serves as the UI Fulbright adviser, she had the opportunity to sit in on a few of Darby’s classes while traveling in Germany.

“I was able to see her interactions with younger students and older students, and she’s very skilled at working with this age group … and she was clearly well liked by her students and well-respected by her master teachers,” Wachsmuth said.

UI social-studies education Professor Greg Hamot, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Darby for her Fulbright application, said he was confident that she represented the United States well, both as a teacher and as an ambassador.

“[She’s] someone who’s certainly one of the better students I’ve ever had,” Hamot said. “She’s a perfect representative of the University of Iowa on a Fulbright.”

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