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Long-lasting Benefits of a 1973 Fulbright Grant to Belgium-Luxembourg

When Dr. Mary Nilles received a Fulbright grant to Belgium-Luxembourg in fall 1973, she was a relatively new member of the City Tech faculty and director of the College’s fledgling ESL program. Her research interests included using 19th century American immigration history and literature in ESL and Developmental classrooms. She never thought then that four decades later she still would be researching and writing about patterns of Luxembourger immigration to the United States, involving other researchers in the U.S. and Europe in her work, and integrating the topic and the history and literature of many other immigrant groups into her classes at City Tech, as well as the graduate courses she taught in the School of Education at New York University.

Over the years, Nilles has created a series of books and articles on mid-to-late 19th century Luxembourger emigration, promoted the development of student exchanges with and tours to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. She also has contributed to the preservation of notable historic buildings erected by the immigrants, the establishment of the Luxembourg Society and Heritage Museum in Rollingstone, Minnesota and the national Luxembourg American Cultural Center in Belgium, Wisconsin. For her efforts in the fields of educational and cultural exchange, the Grand Duchy has twice bestowed on her its Order of Merit, as a Knight and an Officer.  

She has created a series of library displays on Luxembourger-American history and culture in the U.S. and in Luxembourg, beginning in 1979 with a major exhibition at the National Library of Luxembourg.  One very interested viewer of that display was His Royal Highness Grand Duke Jean.

“I was deeply honored,” says Nilles, “when the Grand Duke reviewed the display of photos and text on Luxembourgers in the Midwest. He had lived in the U.S. for a period during WW II and was very interested in the Luxembourger colonies like Rollingstone, Minnesota, settled by citizens of the Grand Duchy in the 1850s. I will always be grateful for his interest in and support of my work. Over the years an expansion of my early attempts to quantify Luxembourger immigration history occurred, made possible through others grants and awards, support from City Tech colleagues and students, and other individuals in Luxembourg and the U.S.”

After the 1979 display, Nilles worked with national television of Luxembourg (RTL) on the creation of a five-part series on emigration. More publications and short films followed. With support from four PSC and Mellon grants in the 1980s, and the opportunity to study with Professors Alfred Kazin and Richard Wade at the CUNY Graduate Center, she began to compare Luxembourger immigration from the 1850s to 1900 with that of a host of other immigrant groups of the era, setting the Luxembourger story within an economic and political context.

In the 1990s, her focus shifted as she became a Faculty Administrative Fellow at CUNY’s Office of Academic Affairs, surveying the ESL programs, libraries and archives on each CUNY campus and welcoming international visitors to The University. She returned to City Tech as the director of the Office of International Education, bringing to campus visitors from around the world and writing curriculum to tie these visits to specific courses. While directing U.S. Department of Education Title VI A and B grants to internationalize the campus and its curriculum, she continued her research into the history and literature of old and new immigrant groups. 

Between 2005 and 2009, Nilles received support from the Luxembourger Ministry of Culture and the 2007 Luxembourg and Greater Region Year of Culture program to coordinate a series of events that simultaneously would honor this initiative and the 150th anniversary of Luxembourger immigration to the Midwest. She created inter-connected teaching-learning, classroom and community activities and related K through university-level curricula. Wherever possible, the latter integrated the study of the Luxembourgers into the larger context of Midwestern immigration history.

Over the past seven years, hundreds of Nilles’ City Tech students have joined in the research effort. They read immigrant literature, visited research and archival centers, wrote reports and creative compositions, planned events and exhibits, and created posters and other visuals to promote exhibitions. They witnessed the preparation of a 2005 photo book on the Winona County Old Settlers Association, a 2007 coloring book for children, and in 2009 the development of an exhibition on diverse immigrant groups, “The Homes They Left Behind,” created through the international, cross-cultural collaboration of scholars from Luxembourg, the Midwest and New York City. Among them were Jean Ensch, a Luxembourger emigration-genealogy specialist, and Chief Leonard Wabasha, hereditary leader of the Dakota Nation. In spring 2010, Nilles and her students collaborated with selected faculty members and students from the Art & Design Department at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and Advertising Design & Graphic Arts students and Library staff at City Tech to present “Drawn Home,” a multi-media library exhibit on Luxembourger immigration to New York City and the Midwest. That exhibition later traveled to other campuses.

In June 2012 the final step in the seven-year research project was realized: the creation of a 65-minute documentary entitled “Hémecht: Luxembourgers Making a New Home in Winona County, Minnesota.” Woven into this film are many of the projects with which Nilles and her students have been involved, as well as the art work of students at City Tech and other institutions.  

The “Hémecht” script, written by Nilles and Ensch, examines the history and traditions of Luxembourger Americans in Winona County, Minnesota. It follows the immigrants as they arrive in New York City, pause briefly, and then move to the West. It also looks at a small group that settled permanently either in Manhattan, or in Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and near the current site of the City Tech campus. The film presents aspects of the Luxembourger culture that have remained vital 150 years after initial settlement and suggests how economic, social and political forces have shaped immigration patterns.

Nilles and Ensch worked in several languages, poring over historical documents written in English, French and German, hours of film footage and thousands of images. Professors at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and staff members at museums and archives in New York City and elsewhere in Europe and the U.S. assisted with the research. 

Many of the posters and other graphics that appear in and advertise the film were created by City Tech students, as well as artists in the Midwest and in Luxembourg, including a number of elementary school students. In Advertising Design & Graphic Arts, Professors MaryAnn Biehl, Steve Brodeur, Lloyd Carr, Libby Clarke, Anita Giraldo, Bob Holden and Joel Mason coordinated poster development; in the English Department, Professors Nina Bannett, Frank Masiello, Richard Patterson, Patricia Ruddin, and Judith Walter also lent support. Students Emmanuel Duarte and Zena Issac were helpful in the final phase of DVD production, and the cover was designed by 2012 City Tech graduate Shakema Knight.

The film was produced initially by Robert Pack at HBC Productions, Winona, Minnesota, then edited and enlarged by Erik Larson, film maker and animation specialist in the department of Advertising Design & Graphic Arts. It was funded by a grant from the Roots & Leaves Association, Luxembourg City, and through other private donations.


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