CSB graduate to tell the story of Paul Bunyan to students in Colombia

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June 27, 2018

By Mike Killeen

Editor’s note: This feature story on Maya Hermerding ’18 is the fourth of seven feature stories that will appear this summer on the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University website featuring graduates who received awards from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

Maya HermerdingMaya Hermerding is going to see how the story of Paul Bunyan plays in Villavicencio, Colombia.

In turn, Hermerding figures to learn a thing or two about El Hombre Caimán of Colombian folklore.

It’s a good tradeoff for Hermerding, a 2018 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict with degrees in Hispanic studies and political science. The Brainerd, Minnesota, native has earned an award from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, sponsored by the Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Colombia.

She has two main goals when she leaves July 24 to teach at the Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia: improving her Spanish language skills and exchanging stories and folklore – like the story of the giant American lumberjack and his companion, Babe the Blue Ox.

That Hermerding would choose Paul Bunyan is not surprising. Growing up in Brainerd, she often visited Paul Bunyan Land, an amusement park which featured a giant statue of Paul Bunyan.

“My favorite part of going to Paul Bunyan Land when I was younger was when Paul would say your name entering the park,” Hermerding recalled. “He would share a bit about himself, and that sparked a curiosity in me to read more about the legend.

“When applying for the Fulbright, it only seemed natural to infuse a bit of my homeland into my new home, Colombia,” Hermerding said. “I am excited to explore the commonalities between stories like Paul Bunyan from rural Minnesota and El Hombre Caimán from rural Colombia to understand how the cultures play out.

“I hope to build strong connections with my students through intercultural exchange. I will be leading a traditional folklore literature and video group,” Hermerding added.

That’s exactly what the award is intended to do.

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.

This year, seven CSB and SJU graduates received the Fulbright awards. In the last five years, 30 students or graduates from CSB and SJU have earned Fulbright ETA awards. SJU graduate John Beckius was recently added to that list.

Hermerding said she has faced a long journey to receive the award, which included a study abroad trip to Viña del Mar, Chile, during her junior year at CSB.

“I first heard of the program my first year on campus (2014-15) as seniors that year applied for their respective countries,” Hermerding said. “Since then, I have taught both English and Spanish courses in the United States and Latin America to prepare my teaching skills for Fulbright.

“I strongly believe in the organization’s mission of intercultural exchange – exposure to individuals who are different from ourselves makes us more informed and empathetic,” she said.

While in Chile, she visited Argentina and Peru. Colombia will mark her fourth South American country.

“I want to experience as many Latin American cultures as possible so I can help inform people in the United States that the countries do not have one homogeneous culture, but instead a vibrant array of identities,” Hermerding said.

CSB and SJU students interested in applying for a Fulbright Award for the 2019-20 academic year should contact Phil Kronebusch, professor of political science and coordinator of competitive fellowships at CSB and SJU, or Lindsey Gutsch, program assistant for undergraduate research and competitive scholarships at CSB and SJU.