(Posted July 24, 2018)

Photo: Rick Hamilton

Photo: Rick Hamilton

Huntingdon, Pa. -- Before Dennis Wilt had attended Juniata College, he had only been out of the country once—to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. While at Juniata, he studied abroad in Mexico, Germany and the Dominican Republic. After his graduation from Juniata this past May, he’s on his way to living and working in a fourth country: Graz, Austria, the second largest city in the European country, thanks to a U.S. Teaching Assistantships program in Austria (USTA-Austria).

Wilt’s passion started at Altoona Area High School, where his teachers helped him identify an inclination for learning Spanish and German languages and cultures. There, he became a leader in Foreign Languages Club, participated in marching and jazz band and helped with the school’s literary journal. Outside of high school, he volunteered for the Gloria Gates afterschool tutoring program and the Wehnwood United Methodist Church. Just as Taylor Johnston, a high school senior when Wilt was a freshman in high school, announced she was attending Juniata College, Wilt’s social studies teacher, Eric Zolnak, a 1995 graduate of Juniata, also helped him find the College.

At Juniata, Wilt found his intellectual home. In addition to taking Spanish and German language courses, he studied abroad, first through a course at the College called Cultural Learning Tour, which immerses students in community development in the Dominican Republic. There, Wilt helped teach English songs to children. Next, he visited Orizaba, Mexico, on an Eagles Abroad Scholarship, where he interned at the Fortin de las Flores School. During his junior year, Wilt studied abroad in Guanajunto, Mexico, in fall and spent spring living and learning in Marburg, Germany.

But, there was a time, during the beginning of his intermediate German coursework at Juniata, when he didn’t think he’d be able to accomplish so much international study.

“When I enrolled at Juniata, I was placed into an intermediate German course, where the instructor spoke to us entirely in German,” Wilt says. “Pretty much no one was at her level. A lot of people dropped the first day and I was considering it, too. But Professor Judith Benz reassured me and I stuck with it. She even recommended me for study abroad, which was a big step for me.”

Because Benz’s recommendation to study abroad, Wilt said his German improved immensely.

“Using the language everyday was such a big help in preparation for this transition to Austria,” Wilt says. “Her support was phenomenal.”

Wilt made the most of his study abroad experiences, building a network of peers from other colleges in the U.S. as well as Germany, Pakistan, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan. Several of these colleagues helped him with his USTA-Austria application, which he earned.

The USTA position will enable Wilt to teach English to future elementary school teachers at a university, Kirchliche Pädagogische Hochschule Graz.  There, he’ll be mentored by professors in the department, which is something that will make Wilt feel at home.

Wilt’s connection didn’t end at Altoona Area High School when he graduated and went on to Juniata. Between his semesters studying around the world, Wilt also earned secondary teaching certificates in German and Spanish from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And a few of his mentors helped him along the way. Wilt student taught at Altoona High School with his former Spanish teacher, David Poole, and Sandra Mitchell, who teaches German. 

Whether he chooses to return to Pennsylvania to teach or continues to pursue his doctorate after his sojourn to Austria, Wilt is convinced, “Regardless of what I do after I finish my USTA experience—public school teaching or pursuing a PhD—this is a good stepping stone. With that experience, I’ll be able to find other opportunities.”

Wilt says he is incredibly grateful to his mentors at Altoona Area High School and Juniata College for the opportunities both have unlocked.

“Both schools gave me opportunities to go where I had never gone before,” Wilt concludes.

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.