Gus Gaston knew the question would be coming: “How much German do you know?”
“I have a long way to go on the German, so not very much,” Gaston said with a laugh. “I have a 45-day streak on Duolingo, so ‘Yay, me.’”
With that came another laugh.
Language immersion will be coming very quickly. A Brock Scholar as a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student, Gaston is heading to Germany in July after being selected as one of 75 finalists for the 2023-2024 year of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals.
The annual fellowship, funded by the German Bundestag (federal legislature) and the U.S. Department of State, provides 75 American and 75 German young professionals the opportunity to spend one year in each other’s countries studying, interning and living with hosts as part of a cultural immersion program.
Gaston graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in art: graphic design in December 2022.
“My application was built around studying contemporary street art and how it grew out of German expressionism. As I started really digging into the application, the fire was in me 100%,” Gaston explained.
According to the fellowship program, the core of CBYX is cultural diplomacy achieved through components including placements throughout Germany, language training, university and community involvement and work experience. Finalists were selected for “their flexibility, independence, open-mindedness and mature sense of adventure.”
“Gus’ creative energy, powerful curiosity and just plain lovely personality will serve them well in Germany,” said Dr. Linda Frost, dean of the Honors College. “Gus has already demonstrated a strong affinity and aptitude for international travel and work, and I know this is going to be an amazing experience for them and everyone with whom they interact.”
Gaston will head to Washington, D.C., for an orientation seminar in late July before flying to Germany. The program’s timeline calls for a two-month language immersion and a semester at a yet-to-be-determined university before embarking on a five-month internship in one’s career field.
A Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences graduate, Gaston admitted, “I don’t know what I want to do long-term.” A year in Germany allows for the opportunity “to keep all options open.”
“I’ve talked to some alumni of the CBYX program,” Gaston said, “and they’ve told me, ‘Some people go to Germany already knowing what they want to do and where they’re going to be, but the truth of it is you don’t know who you’re going to meet. You don’t know what you’re going to get interested in between when you arrive and when you start your internship.’”
A year ago, Gaston was finishing a mural project at Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center under the guidance of former UTC graphic design lecturer Derek Witucki, now a graphic designer and assistant professor at PennWest Edinboro in Pennsylvania.
“I found Gus to be incredibly driven in the work that they do and they want to engage with other people, with communities, and in taking on bigger projects,” Witucki said. “I knew that Gus’ plans were to travel abroad, and this particular opportunity seems very well tailored for Gus’ interests.”
The process behind the Reflection Riding experience and how it was funded was the foundation of Gaston’s honors thesis.
“My paper was talking about how that money was managed and how artists were in and out of that project for various reasons, but I did a lot of research driving around and studying the murals in Chattanooga,” Gaston said.
Sherese Williams, director of Operations and Admissions for the Honors College, was on the thesis committee.
“One of the things that the thesis focused on was the process of creating a mural, but also looking at muralists and mural art in Chattanooga and doing a lot of deep diving,” Williams said. “I’m excited to see how they incorporate the street art that they see in Germany into their own personal art.
“Gus is very reserved when you first meet them, but the more you get to know Gus, the more Gus speaks their mind very fluidly. I love that about them. Watching them blossom from freshman year to now has just been a joy.”
While Gaston gained valuable travel experience visiting Kenya and Brazil last summer, the year in Germany will be a whole new experience. They are excited and ready for that educational journey.
“When I first started looking into this program, it seemed like a really good fit for me,” Gaston said. “I’ve never lived out of Chattanooga before; I’ve never moved away, so this is obviously going to be a growing experience. I’ll learn German and I’m excited to be immersed in that culture.
“Germany is rich in art and design history. One of my favorite design movements is the Bauhaus School—it’s a lot of bold colors, geometric shapes, typographic experiments—and I am really excited to look into that. The Bauhaus School is still running, so I could potentially study there or maybe get an internship related to that.”
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A story about Gaston wouldn’t be complete without mention of a Guerry Center family connection.
Gus’ parents, UTC alums Cindy and Cody Gaston, were married on August 7, 1993, and the wedding reception took place in the Guerry Center.
Cindy, a member of the University Honors program as an undergrad, received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1993; she later earned a master’s degree in school leadership in 2011. Cody graduated from UTC in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
“There’s this picture of them from the reception where the sun is shining through really, really nicely through the window,” said Gaston, referring to the Guerry Center’s Reading Room.
Twenty-nine years later, the Gastons watched their child—a Brock Scholar—participating in an Honors College commencement celebration event in the same room.
“Watching them, I felt like it was a full-circle situation,” recalled Williams of the December 2022 commencement event. “They had their UTC love story and they had their beautiful child, Gus, who came through Brock.
“You could see how proud they were of Gus.”