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Catherine Detrow

College: Macaulay Honors College | Hunter College
Awards: Fulbright U.S. Student Program, 2012

Speaking Their Language

The Almanya Türkleri - as the Turkish Germans call themselves - started coming to Germany in large numbers in the 1950s and 1960s as "guest workers" because of labor shortages. Numbering about 4 million, 1.7 million of them German citizens, they comprise 5 percent of the population; most are second- and third-generation descendants and later immigrants. The resulting mix is at best multicultural, at worst a point of friction among xenophobic elements of the German majority.

Exploring the relationship between culture, ethnicity and identity among these immigrants and their descendants is at the heart of the research that Catherine "Casey" Detrow intends to carry out while on a 2012 Fulbright U.S. Student Fellowship. She'll also teach English in a German elementary school in Berlin.

She graduated magna cum laude from Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College in 2011 with a BA in anthropology and gender studies, an interdisciplinary focus on language, gender and social change, and a minor in German.

"I want to look at critical cultural politics as seen by Turkish migrant youth and German youth and how, seen through a sociolinguistic lens, you can facilitate more taboo conversations in a language that isn't native to either group," Detrow says. That, of course, is English, which, she says, most German high schoolers can speak at a conversational level far above what their typical American peers can muster in a foreign language. "They blow us out of the water."

Not that Detrow has trouble talking in a foreign language. She's fluent in German, the language in which she immersed herself at 16 during a Rotary Club-sponsored youth exchange. In college, she followed that with a three-month internXchange Fellowship, a journalism program in which she interned as a staff reporter at a German newspaper, the Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten.

She also can jabber in Punjabi, learned in a U.S. State Department critical-language scholarship to India; that involved three months of 40-hour-a-week lessons. And she's fluent in Spanish, picked up some Portuguese during a month-long CUNY study-abroad venture and can chat in French. Macaulay's $7,500-per-student Opportunities Fund paid for her travel to Brazil and China over school breaks.

"You learn language strategies to fit together pieces of these dissimilar languages," she says. "While the grammar and vocabulary aren't always similar, your brain makes connections to aid your understanding. The key thing is complete immersion and complete shamelessness."

Macaulay and Hunter offered endless encouragement in her intellectual inquiry, she says. "Mike Lamb, Macaulay's associate director of immersive and personalized education, has been a huge support and major source of inspiration, motivation and encouragement as well as a good friend. At Hunter, I received much guidance from the teaching adjuncts in the gender studies program, who are mostly PhD candidates pursuing their own research while teaching. Though they aren't full-time faculty members, they provided me with much academic insight, and I owe a lot of my undergraduate success to them."

The idea for her research arose partly from her work as a teaching assistant at Hunter College in the fall of 2011, after she had graduated. "There are so many students who speak English as a second language," she says. "We talked about culture, race and identity in the classroom, and I drew on that experience for my Fulbright proposal."

Detrow has been admitted to an MA program in linguistics at Humboldt University in the former East Berlin. After that, she may get a doctorate. "But who knows? I like to write," she says. "I like to read and talk. I like to travel."

One way or another, she wants to delve into the sociological and psychological aspects of language. "If you grow up perceiving the world in multiple languages, it opens up social flexibility and room for interpretations," she says. "The semantics of different languages cause you to understand and see things differently. You become more flexible socially and, in the long run, politically."