Public policy administration major Tommy Ruether to take part in Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange

Tommy Ruether in the St. Louis Mercantile Library

Tommy Ruether’s fascination with Germany can be traced to his family heritage and growing up in Washington, Missouri. The public policy administration major is getting a chance to experience life there as part of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. (Photo by August Jennewein)

It was all still a little hard for Tommy Ruether to believe.

He was driving in his car down Natural Bridge Road earlier this spring on his way to class at the University of Missouri–St. Louis when he looked around and started thinking how he’d soon be trading those everyday surroundings for views and a life experience he’s only before imagined in Germany.

Ruether, a senior majoring in public policy administration, learned in March he was one of 75 Americans selected from an applicant pool of about 600 to take part in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals. They all embark in late July for a year of language immersion, study and ultimately work abroad while 75 Germans travel to the United States for a similar experience.

The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of State.

“Even talking about it now, it’s really hard to swallow that that’s where I’m going to be,” Ruether said. “I won’t be in my car because I’ll be taking public transit. The scenery will be different, the architecture, the language, everything. I’m still wrapping my head around it.”

American participants in the program spend August and September undergoing intensive language training in Cologne, Radolfzell or Saarbrücken. They then move on to a permanent placement elsewhere in the country where they live with a host family and spend four months studying at a German university before transitioning to a five-month internship in their chosen career field.

Ruether has had a fascination with the country about as long as he can remember. It might just be what happens when you’re from a German-American family in Washington, Missouri, near the heart of Missouri Rhineland.

His high school, St. Francis Borgia, offered two languages – Spanish and German – and family members encouraged him to take the latter as a nod to his heritage.

“I formed really good relationships with my teachers,” he said. “They were some of the best I had, and something about German teachers, they just have this charisma about them that keeps your interest. They wanted you to experience life outside of the states, and they want you to be outside of your comfort zone, and I was just really inspired by that.”

His interest in German has not wavered. He’s continued studying the language enthusiastically since beginning college at Webster University, transferring the following semester to UMSL and eventually making the decision to pursue his BSPPA after a brief period weighing a major in international business.

He will hold a German minor when he ultimately graduates, and that background was no doubt an asset when he was applying for the youth exchange.

Ruether, who has received a Chancellor’s Scholarship and a German Scholarship during his time at UMSL, is hoping to complete the remaining coursework for his bachelor’s degree with two electives in his time abroad.

He envisions a future working in emergency management, maybe for a government agency like FEMA.

“I guess growing up when I was younger, I was taught that it’s the right thing to do to volunteer,” Ruether said by way of explaining how he arrived at his intended career path. “I just enjoyed giving back to people, and then moving from a small town to St. Louis, not that I experienced a disaster, but I definitely understood what it’s like to feel displaced and to feel very uncomfortable.”

He’d like to help bring comfort to others in moments when they’re most unsettled.

As a requirement to complete his degree, Ruether had to do an internship. With the help of Professor Terry Jones, the internship coordinator for UMSL’s public policy administration program, he landed a position working in the communications department for the local Red Cross where he received course credit and wrote press releases and helped maintain the organization’s social media channels.

He also had the opportunity to shadow the Red Cross’ disaster action team.

“They’re the team that is known for responding to disasters,” Ruether said. “In St. Louis we don’t necessarily have something every day, but we do have home fires a lot, so the Red Cross responds to home fires. They’ll help the people recover if they need immediate assistance or lodging or help figuring out where to go from there.”

Ruether noticed his time in college starting to near its conclusion last fall. He realized he had a desire to live and study abroad before it was over.

A friend he made during his semester at Webster had taken part in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, so he reached out to her to ask about the program and later spent several weeks going back and forth before finally deciding to apply.

It was over winter break that he found out he’d been one of the 150 students selected for interviews from the roughly 600 applicants.

His grandmother accompanied him on a trip to Iowa State University in Ames, where he met with the program officer Katie Novy and a pair of German professors. They tested him with a series of behavioral and situational questions to determine his fitness to become, in a sense, a cultural diplomat, representing the United States abroad.

Ruether’s grandmother was also the first person he notified after getting the call in March that he’d been chosen as one of the 75 participants.

Though it was his interest in German largely driving his desire to be part of the program, the experience could prove worthwhile for his intended career.

“Germany is always known for being organized and innovative,” said Ruether, and he believes that applies to the way the country deals with disasters. “If I’m interested in emergency management, I think it’s important to learn from a country that’s so advanced. The way they take care of disasters is very different from what we do.”

He realizes there’s a chance his time abroad might prompt him to reconsider or adjust aspects of his future.

“Right now, I’m dead set on emergency management, but I could come back and maybe I’ll want something else governmental,” Ruether said. “But still having that experience that I did work and that I was a cultural diplomat. I think that will really help me stand out and get that year of government experience that I need moving forward.”

The UMSL Experience

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