CSB graduate to continue passion for using voice to teach

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June 22, 2020

By Mike Killeen

Amanda standing in front of landmark

Amanda Bjerke '20 during summer 2019 while attending a three-week education seminar titled “Mit Deutsch in die Zukunft” (With German in the Future) at the University of Leipzig in Leipzig, Germany.

Editor’s note: This feature story on Amanda Bjerke is the first of five stories that will appear this summer on the CSB/SJU website featuring graduates who received awards from either the Fulbright U.S. Student Program or the Fulbright Austria-United States Teaching Assistant program.

In eighth grade, Amanda Bjerke was a quiet girl growing up in Elko New Market, Minnesota.

Not even 10 years later, that quiet girl will be standing in front of a class and using her voice to teach – in Germany, no less.

Bjerke, a 2020 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict who majored in German, was named a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), sponsored by the Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Beginning in January 2021, she will teach in the Baden-Württemberg state in southwestern Germany, bordering France and Switzerland. 

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program places recent college graduates as English Teaching Assistants in schools and universities overseas. The ETAs improve international students' English abilities and knowledge of the U.S., while enhancing their own language skills and knowledge of the host country.

ETAs may also pursue individual study/research plans in addition to their teaching responsibilities.

Since 2013, 39 students or graduates from CSB and Saint John’s University have earned U.S. Fulbright ETA awards.

Bjerke credits the Speech Team at New Prague (Minnesota) High School – which she joined in eighth grade – with helping her find her voice.

“This program helped me to develop my identity and how I expressed myself,” Bjerke said. “I was a very quiet girl growing up, and still am in many ways, but this program helped me to break out of my shell.

“To this day, I still get an adrenaline pump when I speak in public and I truly enjoy public speaking. There is something magically powerful about standing up in front of people, knowing that they are all attentively listening to what you have to say,” Bjerke said.

“While I learned a lot about various topics from my competitors, I think the biggest thing that I learned from being in Speech was how valuable my voice is. There is not a single person on this Earth that is exactly like me, or you. I have my own message to share with the world, and being in Speech helped me develop some of the skills I need to share that message. Those skills also have led me to look at the world, and the human experience in general, in a different way that allows me to learn about it with an open mind,” she said.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that she is interested in starting a Speech Program in Germany.

“I am very passionate about potentially starting this program because I know how transformative it was for me and many other people,” Bjerke said. “The possibilities for personal development are endless with this type of program. Many people fear speaking in front of others, and so mastering this skill is a whole other level confidence.”

One of the main reasons she believes speech is so important is due to the growing significance of social media and online connections.

“I enjoy social media, do not get me wrong, but there is a significant difference between text communication and verbal communication,” Bjerke said. “Physical human interaction is also extremely important, which I think many people are realizing after spending months in their homes with limited interaction outside their families. Speech provides that human interaction and teaches one about how important spoken word really is to the human experience.”

Bjerke is also passionate about teaching German. Earlier this year, she received the “Future K-12 German Teacher” award from Delta Phi Alpha, the national German honor society that promotes the study of German language, culture, history and civilization, as well as recognizing excellence through academic achievement and student scholarship.

“I am proud and honored to have received this award and to be recognized for the work I am doing,” Bjerke said. “For me teaching a language is more than just that; it is providing students the means to look at life from another social, cultural, historical and philosophical perspective. Teaching and learning another language opens many doors to understanding the world and experiences of someone else.”

In the meantime, she is serving as a German language counselor at the Concordia Language Villages (Bemidji, Minnesota), being held online this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although we cannot be together in person this year to celebrate our love for language, villagers can still live and speak the language within their own home communities,” Bjerke said.

With her Fulbright award, Bjerke has been selected to be part of the Diversity Program, which assigns about 20 ETAs to schools with a high proportion of students with immigrant/minority background. She taught as a student teacher in the St. Cloud, Minnesota school district working with students who have similar backgrounds (her minors are in secondary education and teaching English as a second language).

“I am hoping to use my experience and knowledge to particularly focus on these students and provide them a culturally diverse and intersectional perspective of America,” she said.

“I am most excited to learn about and form relationships with my students,” Bjerke said. “That has always been my favorite part about teaching; I get to play a role in another person’s life and learning through language.

“As I establish new connections with my students, I hope to lead by example in reminding them that kindness and compassion are key characteristics of the human race,” Bjerke said.

CSB and SJU students interested in applying for a Fulbright Award for the 2021-22 academic year should contact Phil Kronebusch, professor of political science and coordinator of Competitive Fellowships at CSB and SJU, or Lindsey Gutsch, assistant director of the Academic Center for Excellence and Success at CSB/SJU.