A linchpin is a pin passed through the end of an axle to keep a wheel in position. It plays an essential role, which is why it is frequently used to describe someone who is vital to an organization.
It’s the word that GSD Chair Charlotte Melin reaches for to describe Dr. Helena Ruf’s connections to many different areas of the department. It’s easy to see why: Ruf teaches German language classes, coordinates the first-year German program, is the Director of Language Instruction for one of the largest programs of its kind in the US, and serves as a co-chair of the departmental outreach committee, among many other things.
Falling in love with German
Ruf loves having a job where she is able to speak German every day and share her passion for the language and culture with colleagues and students. She didn’t always have those career goals in mind, however.
When she first stepped on campus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, her dream was to of become an agent for the FBI. “My whole entrance essay for UW Madison was about wanting to be a profiler,” she laughed. However, “after learning more about it and meeting FBI agents through my minor in criminal justice, I eventually came to the realization that it just wasn’t for me.” She began searching for another area of focus and came across an opportunity to study abroad in Germany.
Ruf had already completed her foreign language requirements through German language classes, and wasn’t particularly interested in language study at that point. But when an advisor encouraged her to consider studying abroad, she plucked up the courage to spend an entire year immersing herself in German culture.
“The rest was history,” she explained. “I came back to finish my majors in German and psychology, and I decided to go to grad school for German because I fell in love with the language.”
Spreading the word about studying languages
Since joining the GSD department in 2012, Ruf has taken on a number of roles. She teaches German language classes, coordinates the first-year German program, and, as Director of Language Instruction, is responsible for shaping the department’s language curriculum as a whole so that it will be both effective and attractive to students—which is where outreach comes into play.
The departmental outreach committee is a working committee that consists of a small number of GSD staff members and graduate students. They strive to develop the best strategies for spreading the word about studying languages.
“It’s tricky sometimes, but we do our best to figure out what our department offers that people might need,” she explains. “For example, one of the main ‘selling points’ for studying German is that Germany is a great country for business, engineering, STEM fields, and there’s a huge focus on sustainability.” Connecting students and professionals in those areas with German language instruction can be life-changing.
Often, Ruf paves the way for successful outreach strategies by devising connections between the curriculum and tangible opportunities for students to put their language skills and cultural understanding to use, as when she began arranging for GSD majors to experience what it’s like to teach by signing up as undergraduate teaching assistants for designated beginning and intermediate language classes.
On-campus outreach means letting students in other colleges within the University of Minnesota know how taking foreign language classes in GSD complements all aspects of their studies.
But the work of the outreach committee goes beyond campus and is largely directed towards high schools, especially those with College in the Schools programs for the German language. Members of the department work with the Germanic-American Institute and the Twin Cities German Immersion School, as well.
Ruf is often the first point of contact when anyone in the department has an idea about how to engage with the greater community, but she emphasizes that it’s a team effort on the part of the outreach committee. “This job gives me the opportunity to affect change and make things happen,” she says. “It’s a very exciting and rewarding experience, and I wish I could do even more.”