Intermenno - Frequently Asked Questions

I once posted to an Intermenno discussion board (which doesn't appear to exist anymore) on the MCC website and offered to answer questions about the program and my experience. Although I'd like to write a personal reply to each person, my time is limited, so I thought I'd post this list of questions and answers here for everyone to read.

Disclaimer: These answers are based on my personal experience. I am not a member of the Intermenno Committee, nor a spokesperson for the program. I just went on the program and enjoyed it, and want to spread the word about it.

If you still have questions after reading this, please send me an email (jason at alumni uwaterloo ca).

Q. What is Intermenno?

[the following answer was taken from the Intermenno home page]

The Intermenno Trainee Program is a one year exchange program, administered by the Intermenno Committees of Europe. Young people, between approximately 18 and 27 years old, spend a year in Europe. They work and live with European Mennonites and thereby learn to know Europeans, their culture and their language, firsthand.

Q. What is a "trainee"?

Participants in the Intermenno program are called "trainees".

Q. Does anyone have trouble getting accepted into the program?

I think that the numbers of applicants has been down in recent years, and the committee has had more placements in Europe than they have had trainees to fill them. But they have to try and make sure that your expectations line up with what the program can offer -- neither they nor you want to find out two months into the year that it's not at all what you wanted.

Q. Do you usually go to the country of your choice?

I don't think all of the applicants get their choice, but the committee does their best to place everyone and meet everyone's wishes. If you tell them (for example) you've already been learning German and that that's what you're interested in, your chances of going there would be good.

Q. What kind of placements are there?

In my year, work included:

  • farm work
  • child care
  • work in vineyards, orchards
  • church caretaking
  • work in conference center: kitchen
  • work in conference center: cleaning rooms, etc.
  • working in a garden center (lilacs)
  • nursing home
  • working in a family-owned store

Some jobs are available only in some countries, and the placements change over time.

Q. Are the positions paid or volunteer?

The way it works is that the work you do pays for pretty much all of your expenses. The host covers your room and board, and gives you about 200 DM (about $100 US) pocket money each month. They also pay the intermenno committee an amount each month, which the committee uses to cover the costs of your flight, health insurance, travel expenses to and from the conferences, and a few other things. So except for a few incidental expenses in the application process (there is a fee for applying for a visa, and you have to get to Akron for the orientation -- are you from Pennsylvania?) you can basically get by without having anything saved up.

Q. Is there any coverage of health insurance or anything else?

Health insurance is included at no extra cost. See the above question.

Q. What are the costs of travel/lodging/food or does that depend on the situation?

Room and board is included (see above).

However, if you want to do lots of travelling (on weekends and holidays), your expenses will add up quickly. What a lot of trainees do is buy a special train pass (called Eurorail or something like that), which can only be purchased in North America(!) (its target market is North American young adults travelling in Europe), which allows you a certain number of days of travel within a few months. They are a few different plans available. So if you're going on a long trip, to Italy or something, you might need 2 travel days to get there. On your travel days you can take pretty much any train or combination of trains you want (except a few express trains). If you're going a longer distance, it can save you a lot of money. Another way to save money is to visit the other trainees at their placements, since you usually get a few meals and a place to stay, too.

When I was there I did use up some savings that I already had; I think about $800 CDN (~==$600 US) during the year. I saved a lot of my pocket money each month, used my savings to buy train tickets, and was able to see quite a lot. Some trainees spent a lot more than I did, but some spent less, too.

Q. What did you do to prepare for the year?

I brought along a journal, a camera, my guitar, a travel guide, a German/English dictionary, some English novels a backpack full of stuff. I think the program gives you a list of certain things (such as a sleeping bag) which you should bring along. It's important to be able to carry all of your things, as you will be travelling by train to your placements.

Start reading the travel guide before you leave; it will contain a lot of useful tips.

Apply for your visa as soon as you possible can, as it's been my experience that this can take longer than it's supposed to. It's very stressful to be mere days away from your planned departure date without a visa in hand.

I bought a "German Rail Pass" from a travel agency. Check with your local travel agent about the different options for railway passes for Europe (or for specific European countries), as they can be quite economical if you plan to take any longer trips.

I talked quite a bit with a few former trainees that I knew and heard some of their stories. After I had applied for Intermenno (and started talking about it all the time) I found that I knew four Intermenno veterans. They told me about many stories about their adventures and experiences.

That was probably some form of preparation for me, since it gave me an idea of what I might experience, including a balanced view of both positive and challenging aspects of the year.

I would recommend visiting with anyone you know who has lived in Europe, and listen to some of their stories.

Q. Where did you go?

I went to Germany in 1996-1997. Intermenno has placements in the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. Because the languages differ, if you go to one country you generally stay there for the year, even though you may switch placements halfway through the year. You can switch between Switzerland and Germany though, because the placements are mostly in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

I lived in Hannover for the first half of the year, and in southern Germany, west of Karlsruhe, just across the border from the Alsace region in France, in a little town called Goecklingen. It was beautiful there.

Q. Was language an issue?

Heck yes! If you're not interested in learning a language, you may not want to do Intermenno. I was interested in learning German, and had taken 101 (intro course) at university before I went, so I could at least introduce myself in German. Many of the other trainees didn't know any German or Dutch, and that's ok too. At the first conference (before you go to your placement) you get a real rough language primer. Once you get to your placement, you'll learn by necessity.

Learning a language was one of the primary reasons that I went on Intermenno. I took along my German textbook along so that I'd have something where I could look up language structures (new verb tenses, endings) as I was beginning to hear and notice them and not just have to rely on "assimilating" everything in my head. This was helpful for me, but not all people learn languages the same way.

I also got a library card so that I could borrow and try to read childrens' books, and tried to talk with my co-workers and host family as much as I could. By the end of the year I didn't have any trouble carrying a conversation, and could understand a lot of German.

Some trainees who weren't as interested in learning a language (some were there more to travel, etc.) didn't make as much progress, but most could easily understand German/Dutch and could speak enough to make themselves understood (and that's what's important).

Other notes:

  • If you want to learn Dutch/German, you may have to ask people to speak to you in their own language. Most Europeans can speak at least some English, and especially younger people are eager to practice their English. Just say 'nein'. :)
  • Newspapers are hard to read, because they're usually very concise, and journalists try to word things in interesting ways (just like in English).
  • Some trainees took language courses while in Europe. This may be possible depending on your placement.

Q. What did you spend most of your time doing?

Single most time-consuming activity? Sleeping.

After that would be the time I spent working at my two placements. You're generally expected to work about 40 hours a week, but you get holidays and weekends off.

You also get four weeks (20 work days) of vacation throughout the year, during which you can travel, visit other trainees, etc.

In addition, you attend five conferences throughout the year -- essentially retreats where the trainees get together a few days. The beginning and ending conferences are each about a week long, and there are quarterly conferences during the year (2-3 days each).

During my vacation I went travelling -- sometimes with other trainees and sometimes alone. If you live close to other trainees, you can visit them on weekends, or do shorter trips.

Q. Was the work meaningful?

I don't think I would describe the work I did as meaningful in the sense that I felt I was accomplishing a larger purpose by doing the work.

Sure I got bored with it sometimes, but on the whole I enjoyed the simplicity of it. To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, I had been studying math and computer science before going on Intermenno, and most jobs I had had prior to Intermenno were "thinking" jobs (technical support, programming, etc.) So I appreciated that the Intermenno work I did allowed me to visit with my co-workers (in Hannover) and my host family (in Goecklingen) at the same time and gave me time to let my mind wander freely. It was also nice jsut to get a taste of something different.

Q. Were you directly involved with a church/ministry?

I attended church when I was in Europe, but I wasn't involved in a leadership position, if that's what you mean. Intermenno is a cultural exchange program, not a missions program.

Q. What were your greatest difficulties?

My first placement was at a conference center, and I had a room there, but there was no "host family" at that placement. There were two trainees there, we had each other, but I did spend a fair bit of time alone. Not being able to communicate very easily was frustrating, as it's can be difficult to make social connections. While this placement had it's pluses (no host family means that we had a lot of independence), it was also located quite far away from other trainees, so we couldn't go visit others on weekends.

Another challenge (in the first few months) was being far away from close friends and family, and not having much of a social network. I made a few friends, though. In Hannover former trainees had passed on a list of "contacts" in the city -- people who had gotten to know trainees, and who were willing to have you call up and invite yourself over. We did call up some of these people and got to know them.

I remember spending a lot of time reading and playing guitar (I've always found music to be a pretty good outlet).

Things improved as the year went on and I built deeper relationships (especially other trainees -- some of whom I still keep in touch with). In the second half of the year I was closer (geographically) to other trainees, and did some travelling together with them.

It's quite a step to spend a whole year in a country where you don't know the people or the language. You grow.

Q. What did you learn?

That's a difficult question to answer. I think one of the most important things is that I learned that we really look at the world through a pair of lenses (our culture). In other countries the world looks different, and people understand things differently. But it's only when you spend a significant amount of time somewhere else that you recognize that you've been looking through your "North American" lenses all your life, and you see them for what they are. I think that spending a year outside of North America has enriched my life in that it has allowed me take a look at the world through different lenses.

There are plenty of interesting and friendly people out there to meet. One time I got to talking to a young guy on a train ride who turned out to be crazy about Canada. When he heard that that's where I'm from he pulled a few travel magazines out of his suitcase (about Canada), and showed me where he'd like to move. Banff, of course. Europeans have some stereotypes about us, just like we have about them. :) We continued to have interesting conversations for the remainder of the trip, and it turned out he was staying in Hannover for a few days (where he grew up), so we got together once more a few days later.

It's a beautiful world out there. Go camping if you can.

If travelling by car, make sure you've got enough gas. On the other hand, you might miss out on an adventure. Take your pick. :)

Q. Are all placements "good"?

All placements are equal, but some are more equal than others. :) You might find some jobs more enjoyable than others, and some people (hosts) easier to get along with than others.

For choosing the first placement, the best you can do is look at the categories of work available (i.e. farm work, child care, conference center work, nursing home work), and let the committee place you. You don't really know enough about any of the placements to know which you'd prefer; there's some luck involved.

In the second half of the year you move to a different placement and the committee will try to put you at one of your preferred placements (you'll have a better idea then about what there is).

I had very good placements and enjoyed them both. I worked in a kitchen of a conference center for the first half of the year. It was different than most placements, because there was no host family (we had our own rooms at the conference center), and there were two trainees working there. It was nice because we had a lot of independence and could do our own thing, but it would have also been nice to have a host family to get to know and do things with.

In the second half of my year I lived with a host family and worked in their vineyards/orchards. The host family was wonderful in making an effort to get to know me, visiting with me and doing things with me. I was their tenth trainee, and they still kept in touch with many of their previous trainees (a few were there to visit during my time there.

Some of the placements are more interesting than others though (and some are more challenging), and some people in my year didn't enjoy their placements.

Q. What kind of travel opportunities did you have?

On Intermenno you get four weeks of vacation during the year. If you have the money, you can do whatever you want. People go to England, Scandinavia, Italy, France, etc. Some even go to Greece (although that's pretty far -- takes a few days just to get there).

During my year I visited quite a few places within Germany (Frankfurt, Ruegen Island, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Halle, Munich, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Cologne, etc.) I also visited France (Paris, Trosly), Italy (Rome, Florence), Luxembourg, Belgium (Brussels, Brugge) and the Czech Republic (Prague).

Trainees usually get an invitation to join a Swiss Mennonite youth group for a skiing trip over New Year's. I went on this and spent almost a week in Switzerland skiing and taking part in the other activities. It was a lot of fun!

In my year it was possible to stay in Europe past the end of the program (up to a few months) to have more time to travel. I don't know whether this is still an option.