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Interterm trip looks at effects of history on people of East Central Europe

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by Marike Stucky

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The interterm course History of East Central Europe enabled students to grapple with complex historical, political, religious and social issues and to understand how history affects the way people live today.

Mark Jantzen, associate professor of history and facilitator of the trip, led students through Germany, Poland, Serbia, and Bosnia.

He explained his rationale for the trip: “The term ‘East Central Europe’ is a kind of shorthand for former communist countries that were not part of the Soviet Union. The trip provides a good sampling of the different experiences in north and south, inside the Warsaw Pact and outside it.

“It is also true that two of the five cities this time around – Berlin and Belgrade – were included because I lived there at various times in the past,” he added.

Jantzen said his goal was for students to experience how history continues to influence all aspects of people’s lives in East Central Europe, aspects ranging from language and culture to how individuals look at the world.

Beyond learning how past events affect present ones, several students also came to understand more about their Mennonite ancestors.

“I have an interest in Eastern European history, especially the history of the Mennonites, since my ancestors are originally from that region,” said senior Sean Claassen. “Visiting the Mennonite cemetery in Stogi, Poland, was a highlight, since my great-great-great-great-grandfather is buried there.”

Student experience with the people of East Central Europe, however, was the most significant aspect of the trip.

“I suppose one of the most impactful or reflective days for me was the one we spent in Belgrade with the staff of Bread of Life,” junior Rebecca Epp said. “They took us around to visit different places and people they worked with, including an elderly lady living in poverty alone and the sweetest woman I’ve ever met, and some Roma kids working towards education in the face of poverty and a conflicting culture.

“Finally, we had lunch with some young adults, most of whom were former drug addicts. Those were some powerful stories to take in.”

Claassen agreed that interacting with people provided for meaningful experiences. “Speaking with young people in each place we visited was invaluable in understanding new perspectives on a variety of topics,” he said.

Even after returning home, the students are still being influenced by what they learned on the trip.

“This trip really reaffirmed how lucky I am to live where I do and to have the opportunities afforded me by my status as a middle-class American,” Epp said. “I’m never going to forget this trip, and I think it’s affected me more than I know now. The impact will hit me one day when I least expect it.”

Jantzen plans to offer the trip again in January 2016. He encourages anyone interested in European history, fascism and communism, and the interaction of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to consider choosing this interterm travel option.

It is safe to say that all the students who traveled to East Central Europe over interterm – the writer included – would highly recommend this trip, even if you’re not a history major.

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

Marike Stucky is a junior from Moundridge. Other members of the 2013 Bethel interterm class History of East Central Europe, with Mark Jantzen, associate professor of history, were Brendan Bergen, Moundridge, Jacob Brubaker, Top-of-the-World, Ariz., Lukas Butkus, Freeman, S.D., Sean Claassen, Elmira, Ore., Rebecca Epp, North Newton, Michelle Kaufman, Moundridge, Chris Riesen, Beatrice, Neb., and Katie Schmidt, North Newton.

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