Schuylkill students gain workplace insights on spring break trip to Germany

An image of Penn State Schuylkill Students posing on the cobblestone streets of historic German town.

Penn State Schuylkill business students in historic Marburg, Germany.

Credit: Photo provided

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — Fifteen Penn State Schuylkill students traveled to Germany over spring break for a week-long immersion experience to develop cultural intelligence in the workplace. The trip was a component of a new course, Cultural Intelligence in Leadership and Management, designed to foster an understanding of and tolerance for cultural diversity to help promote successful international business and personal relationships.

The class emerged from a partnership between Penn State Schuylkill’s Gina Whalen, assistant teaching professor and business division coordinator, and Kate Zimmerman, director of cooperative education. Their idea was to create a course with experiential learning opportunities, including a travel abroad experience, allowing students to employ newly learned cultural competencies in the real world.

We designed the course as a collaboration with employer partners to foster transformative learning experiences for our students. And the overseas trip was a planned opportunity to practice our cultural intelligence skills.

—Gina Whalen , assistant teaching professor and business division coordinator

While Whalen was the primary developer of the course curriculum, Zimmerman worked on employer relations and travel coordination.

As Whalen and Zimmerman brainstormed this unique course/travel abroad project, they considered potential business partnerships. They were interested in working with current members of the Penn State Schuylkill Consortium of Co-Op Employers who also had overseas operations. MAE-Eitel Inc., a manufacturer located in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, and whose parent company is headquartered in Germany, emerged as a top choice.

MAE-Eitel is an inaugural member of the employer consortium and an active participant in the Co-Op program — providing student internships and taking part in on-campus activities. Additionally, MAE-Eitel’s head of personnel and organizational development and Co-Op liaison, Katharina Stuerzl, has developed a collaborative partnership with the Penn State Schuylkill Career Development Center.

“Katharina is especially active in our consortium,” emphasized Zimmerman. “She attends most of the events that we hold and is always willing to talk to and mentor students. We looked at MAE-Eitel because of the strong relationship that we already had with Katharina.”

When Zimmerman approached Stuerzl, who is originally from Germany, with the idea for the trip, she was immediately on board. “We at MAE-Eitel are extremely grateful for the partnership that has developed with Penn State Schuylkill,” Stuerzl said. “We are proud to contribute to student development, and to be part of their growth as professionals and global citizens through participating in this unique course and trip abroad experience.”

Stuerzl proved to be an invaluable partner. Not only did she connect Whalen and Zimmerman with MAE-Eitel's Germany-based headquarters, MAE Group, but she also leveraged her German connections to provide additional experiential opportunities. Stuerzl's native knowledge aided in the coordination of accommodation and local transportation, and her German family enthusiastically stepped up to welcome the group with informal hosting and tour guide duties. Before embarking on their trip abroad, the class had an opportunity to tour the Orwigsburg facility and meet with some of the local leadership team, including MAE-Eitel’s president, Norman Walker, and production manager, Lyle Yoder.

Newark to Dusseldorf

On Saturday, March 5, the trip commenced with a direct overnight flight into Frankfurt, Germany. For some of the students, this was not only their first international trip but their first time traveling on an airplane. Upon arrival, they boarded high-speed rail to their first destination, the city of Dusseldorf—where they used their first day to acclimate and do some sightseeing.

The following day, the Penn State Schuylkill contingent met up with Stuerzl and her 80-year-old grandmother for a day-long exploration of nearby Cologne. They visited historical landmarks, including the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), Old Town Cologne, and enjoyed an authentic German meal at a local brauhaus.

“These excursions provided an excellent opportunity for our students to experience a European culture,” said Zimmerman. “We encouraged the students to immerse themselves in German culture, and many decided to try novel foods and step outside of their comfort zone!”

First-hand look at European business operations

The next day the group boarded a train for Erkrath to tour MAE Maschinen und Apparatebau Götzen GmbH, an industry-leading manufacturer of straightening machinery with applications in the rail and automotive industry. They enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility with the leadership team from MAE Group, who answered questions about international manufacturing and business operations.

On Wednesday, the group boarded a train for the next stop on the trip, Marburg. Marburg is a picturesque medieval town boasting gothic architecture, cobblestone streets, a historic university founded in 1527, and a castle. They explored the university town — where the Brothers Grimm studied in the early 19th century and were first inspired to transcribe German folklore — and enjoyed dinner with Stuerzl and her family. Later in the evening, they walked to Marburger Schloss (Marburg Castle). The castle, built in the 11th century as a defensive fortress, sits atop a hill at the center of town and currently houses a museum and event space.

The following day provided another opportunity for the group to connect with a German business. Stuerzl’s stepfather, Frank Grote, invited them to tour Frank Original , a manufacturer of agricultural equipment since 1836, where they observed the day-to-day operations of the facility and met with the plant's management team. Grote led the group in a discussion about leadership and business strategies within the context of cultural intelligence and how these strategies might apply to United States-based companies.

Practicing cultural competence in a global world

Fourth-year Co-Op student Corinne Ellis acknowledged how this trip helped her develop, and implement, constructive business and personal skills and competencies.

“Because of this trip, I was able to expand my knowledge of cultural humility and apply what was learned in my leadership and management class,” Ellis stated. “We were able to experience different business strategies and learn the importance of intercultural competence. This opportunity has been amazing, and I am looking forward to implementing what I learned into both my day-to-day and professional life.”

Third-year business major Seth Hubler also remarked on how the trip broadened his understanding of cultural intelligence and effective global citizenship. The trip gave him a new appreciation for the value of travel and first-hand experience of diverse cultures. He also gained insight from visiting two well-established German manufacturers.

“I learned a lot about global manufacturing at the two facilities we visited,” explained Hubler. “It was interesting to compare the practices used at MAE’s subsidiary, MAE-Eitel in Orwigsburg, with those used in the German plant. At Frank Original, we saw modern manufacturing technology that included robotics, and the company’s setup and workforce were extremely impressive and unlike anything I had experienced before. Their relationship-oriented approach to business and drive to produce a quality product was very inspiring.”

Hubler was so inspired by his experience touring Frank Original that he authored an article — including interviews of fellow classmates and instructors — which was translated into German and published in a local Frankenberg (Hesse) newspaper.

Innovative programming for the 21st century

Management 497, Cultural Intelligence in Leadership and Management, is a forward-looking academic course that equips students with high-level, in-demand soft skills for a rapidly evolving global economy. Whalen and Zimmerman, along with their employer partners, aim to provide students with experiential learning opportunities that will help inform their professional lives and enrich their individual experiences. Whalen expressed her appreciation for the campus and business community's support for this innovative course.

“We are grateful that Penn State Schuylkill supported this class and trusted in our vision to foster the growth of the next generation of global citizens,” emphasized Whalen. “And we are extremely grateful to MAE-Eitel, and especially Katharina Stuerzl, who helped ensure that our students had a rich and authentic experience.”

Learn more about academic programming and Penn State Schuylkill Co-Op.