Beware Vassar’s Minimum Requirements — They Just Might Change Your Life

As a student at Vassar from 1993-1997, I pursued a major in music with a concentration in composition. While the college, now as then, prides itself on a flexible curriculum that allows its students to build a diverse and creative course of study, there are a small number of requirements that must be met, including proven proficiency in a language other than English. Having earned excellent grades in high-school French (which I took because I had to), I considered trying to test-out of the requirement, but for students of music, knowledge of German was “strongly recommended.” Rolling my eyes, I thus enrolled in an intensive, introductory German course to get it over with. Instead, I found myself forever changed.

Günter Klabes, who taught at Vassar from 1974-2010, was an engaging and entertaining teacher. Energetic, cheerful and possessing a gleaming nutcracker’s grin, he conveyed the beauty of the German language, even to his bumbling intro students. His teaching was rife with an infectious passion for German art and literature, as well as the more mundane glories of his homeland—German wine among them.

Learning German—and learning it well—enriched my life in unexpected ways. It allowed me to access a wealth of literature while fueling an interest in international affairs and world history, and afforded me the chance to discover long-forgotten facets of my family’s heritage. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I participated in Vassar’s six-week Summer Study Program in Münster (established by Herr Klabes in 1975), which was to be my first extended trip to another country. I returned to the United States in awe of the stark differences, as well as the similarities, between the people and cultures of the two nations, and I found myself keenly aware of—if unable to articulate—that which both binds and divides them. I vowed to return for a longer stay, and did so after graduation by moving to Cologne.

During the ensuing year, I met long-lost relatives and made a number of lasting friendships. That year in Germany counts among the best of my life. It gave me a renewed sense of belonging—new roots, if you will—in a city, a country, a world, even, and all in a place very far from home. It is a sentiment I could not have anticipated, and I carry it with me today.

Beware Vassar’s minimal requirements—they just might change your life.

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