“Tearing Down Walls” examines relevant and timely issues facing young people in the U.S. and Germany, endeavoring to connect and foster understanding. Episodes have already featured several Chargers, who shared their own ideas, experiences, and reflections.
December 10, 2021
Savannah Papuga ’21 A.S., ’22 has a firsthand understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. She’s even co-authored a journal article with three of her fellow members of the University’s School of Health Sciences reflecting on what they learned from navigating the effects of the pandemic. She recently had the opportunity to engage with German citizens, learning more about COVID’s impact across the Atlantic.
Papuga was a guest on an episode of “Tearing Down Walls,” a program that aims to connect and foster understanding between young people in the United States and Germany. She discussed the publication and the lessons she and her fellow Chargers have gained living and learning amid the pandemic.
“It was an honor to have been given the opportunity to take part in the program,” said Papuga, a dental hygiene major. “Being able to contribute to the discussion on behalf of the publication made me realize how far-reaching information in literature can be. During our conversation, I learned that German universities responded to the pandemic quite similarly to those in the United States. Last year we both transitioned from in-person learning to only seeing one another via Zoom and other virtual platforms.”
‘I was inundated with ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions’
WNHU, the University’s award-winning radio station, formed a partnership with sunshine live, an online electronic dance music station based in Berlin, last summer. sunshine live created “Tearing Down Walls” to examine issues facing young people in both countries.
The monthly program is hosted by Sylvia Cunningham, an American journalist and audio producer who went to Germany on a Fulbright grant – the Young Professional Journalist Program – four years ago. Cunningham, who had always dreamed of working in radio in Berlin, says sunshine live hoped to continue the legacy of English-language radio while exploring the modern transatlantic relationship. Specifically, she says sunshine live hoped to investigate the tensions between the U.S. and Germany while also exploring what unites both countries.
“One of the aspects that propelled sunshine live to develop “Tearing Down Walls” was the visible fractures in the U.S.-German relationship,” she explains. “The perception of the U.S. to Germans took a nosedive in the years that followed the 2016 election. As a journalist arriving in Berlin in 2017, I felt those fractures too, and I was inundated with ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions about the state of U.S. politics.”
‘This was an exciting and unique opportunity’
Cunningham took the lead on developing the format of the first show. Through her reporting, she had learned about the importance of the U.S.-Germany relationship from older Germans who lived through World War II and the Cold War.
After covering events at which Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the shared democratic values between the two countries and their history, Cunningham was eager to learn more about the relevance of the U.S.-Germany relationship to young people. A Connecticut native who recently became a dual citizen, Cunningham brings her own in-depth knowledge of both countries to each episode.
“I love my vantage point from a place between both countries,” said Cunningham, who is also a freelancer who produces, narrates, and translates documentary films and magazine programs for Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. “Still, I feel the gentle tug of whichever place I’m not in, and ‘Tearing Down Walls’ is one way to keep me connected to both countries. It was a great moment when I found out the partner station to this transatlantic show was in Connecticut. I was very excited to have that home state connection and return to my roots, in a sense.”
Cunningham says the relationship with WNHU is a key consideration when preparing each episode. She and the show’s producer, Monika Müller-Kroll, have included University of New Haven students and faculty members such as Chris Haynes, Ph.D., a political science and national security professor, and Mike Lawlor, J.D., a criminal justice professor. They also collaborate with Bruce Barber, general manager of WNHU.
“I can’t tell you how excited I was when the management team at sunshine live reached out to us about a partnership last summer,” said Barber. “The collaboration was facilitated by President Kaplan’s son, who is currently living in Germany, who introduced us to Petra Lemke, the managing director. I’m always looking for ways to engage our students, faculty, and community members in meaningful conversations, and it quickly became apparent that this was an exciting and unique opportunity.”
‘I've been able to incorporate all the recording skills I learned’
The show has already fostered engagement among members of the University community, as alumni such as Khaaliq Crowder ’21 and students including Papuga and Nico Zachman ’22 have been featured in episodes. Zachman, a music and sound recording major, curated the music for the first show, and he discussed his work during his appearance.
“I tried to choose music I knew and liked that also fit with the vibe of the sunshine live playlist,” he explains. “I learned that across the Atlantic, the German audience had a very niche taste in music, yet it was similar to Americans’ tastes in a lot of ways. Even though I've been focusing more on the broadcasting and journalistic sides of music during my time at the University, I've been able to incorporate all of the recording skills I learned in my classes and apply them to ‘Tearing Down Walls.’”
Crowder was featured on the second episode of the program, which explored LGBTQ+ rights in Germany and the U.S., bringing together guests from both countries to discuss activism and achieving acceptance. Passionate about giving back to the Black and Brown LGBTQ+ community in his home state of New York, Crowder says it was a fascinating conversation that taught him about Germany’s laws and the challenges facing the German LGBTQ+ community.
“I loved learning more about what's going on in another country regarding social inequality issues,” said Crowder, an associate social media producer for Entertainment Tonight. “As an American, I find it's so easy to get caught up in what we have going on here, especially during COVID, and we may forget about global matters that affect the marginalized. The show is so vital because cultural understanding, discussion, empathy, and ways to strategize policy changes are necessary for progression, solidarity, and allyship between our countries.”
‘It offers a differing perspective’
The show’s themes are related to current events, including the German election, climate change, and cannabis policy. Discussions have focused on how the U.S. and Germany handled travel, cultural offerings, and university life during the pandemic, as well as progressive change in each country.
Cunningham says the program is focused more on what people in each country can learn from each other, rather than their differences.
“My favorite part about hosting ‘Tearing Down Walls’ is bringing together guests on both sides of the Atlantic,” she said. “The best are those surprising moments when someone says, ‘huh, I didn’t know that’ or ‘I didn’t think about it that way.’ I also love when there’s laughter and little moments of connection. We can learn a lot from listening.”
Papuga, the dental hygiene major who discussed her experiences during the pandemic on the program, says being on the show was a wonderful learning opportunity. She hopes it will also offer lessons to students and educators in the U.S. and Germany.
“This show is important because it offers a differing perspective on the way we each handled COVID-19,” she said. “Using other countries to guide our practices for returning to in-person learning helps ensure that we are offering the best opportunities to students and faculty. By trading lessons with Germany, we can better equip universities with the resources needed to educate the next generation with or without a pandemic.”