July 29, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Photos courtesy of Hannah Jeffrey and Ashleigh Ferguson.
Ashleigh Ferguson had a plan to do a school project on German chocolate, and she is so dedicated that she went all the way to Germany to get it done. Perhaps that summation is a bit of an exaggeration. However, the senior on South Carolina's swim team is dedicated not only to her sport, but to her academics as well, and a Maymester trip to Berlin and Munich with 16 other journalism students and two professors proved to be an unforgettable experience.
"I've always wanted to go abroad, and finding a trip that wouldn't interfere with training for swimming was difficult," Ferguson said. "This was only two weeks abroad and one week in the classroom, so I was able to keep up with my swimming. I really liked the culture and there was so much history there. It was easier to learn history by visiting these places than what you learn about them in a classroom."
During her two weeks in Germany, Ferguson, who is studying public relations, and her classmates conducted interviews and took a lot of photos for their multimedia project. Upon their return, they compiled their information into a portfolio which included a video piece, a written piece and graphic design piece.
"We were gathering information for multimedia projects from all over Germany," Ferguson said. "All four people in my group were either print or public relations majors, so we really struggled with the photography and video part. I was just really excited to go to Germany and work on my photography."
A member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll and an honorable mention CSCAA Scholar All-American, Ferguson had never travelled abroad before, and she did not want to be perceived as the "Ugly American" who knew nothing about the local culture.
"I didn't speak German at all before the trip, and I still don't speak German," Ferguson laughed. "Everyone in Germany speaks English though. It was really amazing. I can say simple words in German, such as `please' and `thank you,' and important phrases such as `Do you speak English.' That's pretty much what I leaned on. Everyone there wanted to speak English so they could practice with us. They were so willing to help us with our projects. It was really cool. We had one person in the class who could speak German. He wasn't fluent, but he could get by. We did stick out like a sore thumb, especially when we were all traveling together."
As for the project itself, her preparations actually began back in January.
"I'm a big chocolate person," Ferguson said. "It evolved from a project on German chocolate to a project on chocolate in Germany. In Berlin, we went to restaurant where every dish had chocolate in it. So our written piece was sort of a restaurant review with beautiful pictures of the food and a summary of what we ate, along with the ambiance. That was a magazine spread and it came out really nice.
"The graphic design piece focused on Ritter Sport chocolate, which is the like the Hershey's chocolate over there, and the more commercial chocolate as opposed to the real fine German chocolate. The video piece was really cool, and Dean (Charles) Bierbauer loved it. So that was cool. It detailed artisan chocolate versus mass produced chocolate. We had an interview with an older woman who had a small, family chocolate shop."
They don't want to promote it, but they don't want it to be forgotten either. It's interesting how they struck that balance of not glorifying it, but also not totally forgetting that part of history either.
Just like the United States, Ferguson learned there's not a shortage of chocolate-lovers across the pond.
"People in Germany love good chocolate, so they'll bring chocolate from a lot of other countries to celebrate it," Ferguson said. "We saw Swiss chocolate and everything you could think of. We went to all of the chocolate shops. We didn't actually eat chocolate everywhere. I did buy some presents for people though. We talked to people about chocolate, and we were sort of hoping they would offer to give us some since we were so interested, but they weren't giving out free samples, which was probably a good thing. My favorite was when we to this little Belgian chocolate shop and they had these little squares that you would stir into milk and it would make hot chocolate. It was so good."
Chocolate is not on the swimmer's competition diet, but Ferguson said she was able to keep it under control.
"What happens in Germany stays in Germany," Ferguson laughed. "Except the chocolate that I brought back of course. No, I did a good job of balance. My coaches liked the idea that I went, and they were very supportive. They didn't know about the chocolate project though."
While they did spend a lot of time working on their projects, the students did find plenty of free time to explore.
"We did bike tours in both cities, so we were able to see all of the major sites," Ferguson said. "We saw so many monuments. I can't even remember all of their names. The bunker where Adolph Hitler died is actually underneath a parking lot, and there is a sign to tell you that it's there. They don't want to promote it, but they don't want it to be forgotten either. It's interesting how they struck that balance of not glorifying it, but also not totally forgetting that part of history either."
In addition to seeing castles and the Berlin Wall, visiting the Dachau concentration camp site was a powerful experience.
"It was really heavy," Ferguson said. "We saw the crematoriums, and there were churches from every religion around there. We spent the entire day there. It was really interesting and important for us to see, so I'm glad we went."
Ferguson also did her best to keep up with her offseason training and had the opportunity to immerse herself into history.
"I had the chance to swim in the Berlin Olympics pool and the Munich Olympics pool," Ferguson said. "The Berlin pool was awesome. It was outside and it was one of the cleanest outdoor pools I've ever been in. It was beautiful."
Looking back, Ferguson enjoyed an amazing educational experience that exceeded expectations.
"I like to try new things," Ferguson said. "The food was amazing. The public transportation was set up very well, although we couldn't pronounce the words very well so we got lost a lot. I would love to go back. I would take some language classes next time."
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