Spotlight: Verena Aschbacher

Verena Aschbacher, a new Ph.D. student in German Studies, grew up in South Tyrol (Südtirol in German), Italy. Verena’s small hometown lies at the border of Austria and Switzerland and people from the area speak regional dialects of German and Italian. This borderland zone combines Mediterranean and Germanic languages and cultures in the midst of dazzling mountains.

She attributes her love of books to her parents’ habit of bedtime reading when she was young. When she looks back on her childhood it seems that if she was not reading, she was swimming. When she was seventeen, she was asked to give swimming lessons. Coaching kids about how to swim was how she discovered that teaching was something she found extremely fulfilling.

This experience stayed with her and she eventually decided on a teaching career. Once she had completed her master program in teaching, she moved to Switzerland to teach German to migrants and refugee children and adults. Her classes were made up of students from around the world, all of whom spoke different languages. Many were traumatized and she was often confronted by students who had never been to school. The parallel between teaching language and teaching swimming helped her to stay focused on what is satisfying about the learning process for both student and teacher. Aschbacher observed that “teaching a language and teaching how to swim have quite big similarities. At first, the kid would not be able to swim a meter. Then, by practice and graded exercises, the kid is able to swim ten meters, and a hundred then. Learning a language is quite similar.” This perspective gave her the tools to encourage her students through the process and rewards of moving forward despite the challenge each of us encounters while learning something new.

After teaching refugees and migrants for two years, Verena became a secondary school teacher, still in Switzerland. While working at the secondary school, she took an extra class intitled “Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent Development” which provided teachers with methods to help students identify and develop talents about which they might not have been aware. That is where she understood the importance of creativity to students. Creative investment had to become a regular part of students’ re-engagement with a subject in order for the learning process to be effective. The program she took happened to be designed by the Swiss professors of Education Salomé Müller-Oppliger and Victor Mūller-Oppliger, who designed the program after learning about it at UConn. This was how Verena learned about UConn.

After three years as a secondary school teacher, Verena decided she was ready for a new challenge. While she was exploring graduate programs online, she discovered that UConn—a University she had already heard so much about—was recruiting graduate students for its the German Studies Program. A crucial motivation was that she would continue to develop her work in teaching German literature, language, and culture.

Her current interests are for writers such as Juli Zeh and Ferdinand Von Schirach. Verena also enjoys graphic novels including Nick Sousanis’s Unflattened (2015), a work she is hoping to translate into German. She is in her first year of PhD at UConn and is still thinking about a dissertation project.

—Lodi Maresescu