The largest study abroad trip: experiencing the Berlin Wall fall

Photo courtesy of Stephen Gardner

By Elise Crosley | Reporter

Imagine walking between East and West Berlin, where the Wall had once been, hobbling across the crushed concrete beneath your feet. Baylor, through BearsAbroad, takes hundreds of students across the globe every year to study abroad and experience new cultures. One specific trip to Berlin was much different than any other Baylor study abroad experience.

Around 200 students, with only ten faculty members to chaperone them, traveled to Berlin with one of the university’s study abroad programs, Baylor in Great Britain. They happened to be going the summer directly after the Berlin Wall had fallen.

“When you looked [where the Wall once was], you could see the West already starting to help the East rebuild. There would be these big electric cables, big bundled cables, that were running from the West over to the East. It was like if you’d cut your arm and it was starting to heal and nerves were beginning to be reattached. It looked like the beginning of the healing of that area,” said Dr. Stephen Gardner, director of the McBride Center for International Business.

The falling of the Berlin Wall was unexpected and happened quite suddenly. Dr. Julie deGraffenried, associate professor of history, teaches courses specifically on the Cold War and has studied the falling of the Wall.

“In a surprise announcement on a night in November 1989, the government declared that the border between East and West Germany — symbolized by the wall in the city of Berlin — was open. Crowds rushed the wall from both sides, chipping and smashing at it until it fell in big pieces, with great cheers and celebration. It was all televised — I still remember watching in amazement. That was my freshman year at Baylor. There was this sense that everything we’d grown up with, especially relating to the Cold War, was about to change,” deGraffenried said.

This specific study abroad trip was so large because many people wanted to observe this historical event.

“That was a very interesting trip with a big crowd. Normally faculty members do not want to manage 200 people at once and move them from place to place. That’s the largest one we’ve ever had and probably ever will have,” Gardner said.

Gardner led the trip alongside past faculty member Dr. James Vardaman. Although he died, his wife Elizabeth Vardaman remains at Baylor as the associate dean for engaged learning. She attended the trip as well.

“Students and faculty saw the evidence of a city long-divided, of checkpoints and the Brandenburg Gate. The students walked through the history of World War II and the detritus of war and conflict. The city was amazing and baffling; the trip was exhilarating and troubling — so all in all, it was unforgettable for all 200 of us,” Elizabeth Vardaman said.

While Vardaman said the trip was unforgettable, Baylor is not planning on taking that large of a group overseas ever again, making Baylor in Great Britain’s 1990 trip to Berlin a unique, historical experience.