Recent Ellsworth Community College graduate Conner Rieks has already been to Germany twice. Thanks to an expanded exchange program he’ll be heading back this year.

This time Rieks will have the opportunity to earn his bachelor’s degree free of charge.

ECC hosted 18 German delegates from the state of Saxony at the college’s Ag and Renewable Energy Center in Iowa Falls on Wednesday in order to expand an exchange student partnership with the Bachelor’s Academy of Saxony. ECC Provost Dr. Martin Reimer and BA of Saxony President Dr. Andreas Hansel signed a deal that will send Rieks and another ECC student to the school in Dresden, Germany.

The schools became partners seven or eight years ago because of an existing friendship between ECC Prof. Joerg Rochlitzer, a native of Saxony, and European Parliament member Dr. Peter Jahr. Rochlitzer and Jahr imagined an exchange program between the schools. Rochlitzer then sought out ECC Professor Kevin Butt to help turn the idea into a reality.

“It all began with a student coming here from Germany and us sending a student over (to Germany) to work with Dr. Jahr,” Butt said. “It eventually led to an interest in sending a couple agriculture students over to Saxony to experience German agriculture.”

The program slowly grew into a literal exchange program. Students from Ellsworth had the opportunity to spend three months in Germany. The program included studying at the BA of Saxony for five or six weeks before working at a practical internship. Rieks, for example said he spent his internship working on a German farm.

Speakers at Wednesday’s event talked about the commonalities bewteen Iowa and Saxony. Reimer compared the states’ hard working people and comparable populations — Saxony has around 4 million people. He said that both places are considered the heartland of their countries.

While delegates and ECC officials said Saxony and Iowa have a lot in common, Rieks said the land and type of crops are not the same.

“It’s a lot different,” he said. “They have a little bit of corn, but it’s mostly grassland and dairy cows.”

Reimer told the 100 or so people at Wednesday’s event that he found great joy and learning when he traveled the world after graduating college. He said he wants ECC students to have that same opportunity.

“The best way I can think of doing that is through these different types of exchanges,” he said. “Where people get to learn about new ideas, new cultures and different ways of doing things. Building a network that is not just local, but global. I want to bring students from abroad so that students who are not able to go some where are at least able to connect with people all over the world.”

Saxony Agriculture Minister Thomas Schmidt said the schools are standing at the beginning of a long-lasting, successful partnership. He emphasized the need for well-trained and qualified specialists in agriculture, and called the younger generation the guarantee for a peaceful and successful future.

Butt agreed. He said the exchange program is important because there are not enough young people coming down the pipeline to fill the needs of the future.

Jahr said the exchange program is important because education is only one piece of the puzzle. He said education is important, but it must lead to action.

“We have to know each other,” he said. “People must come together because common thinking and common understanding is so important.

State Sen. Annette Sweeney, of Buckeye, who accompanied the delegation to meet Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig at the state capitol on Tuesday, echoed Jahr’s sentiments.

“We need to be global and we need to build those relationships,” she said. “If you don’t have conversations and you don’t have relationships, then nothing happens.”

The exchange program had grown even before Wednesday’s agreement was signed. Groups of ECC students have traveled to Germany each of the past two years in May. Butt said another unique aspect of the exchange is the price tag. Tuition in Germany will be free — minus an $80 library fee — and the students will be paid for their internships.

“The students are really coming out ahead,” Butt said. “They’re also sponsored by a company. They must be sponsored to be there. It’s a good deal all around.”

As for Rieks, he might be the epitome of what the program is all about. He already has plans for his post-degree program in Germany.

“I’d like to go back to the farm (near Alden) and work with my dad,” he said.