Story By Derek Langhorn, Photo By Taylor Nichols
Q: Why did you want to work with international students?
A: That is a good question, I kind of came by this on accident. I was an international student here at Whatcom and the director at the time, Linda Cooper, asked me if I wanted to work for her, doing study abroad mostly. That kind of grew over the years to become a bigger job.
First I was mostly talking to domestic students, because study abroad of course, is for domestic students. Then I started doing activities with international students. … It’s just great to meet people from all over the world.… In this world, the future of the world depends on everybody working together. It doesn’t matter if you are from Indonesia, or China, or the U.S. or Europe. You need to get together and figure things out. So it is great to meet people, and see their perspectives, get to know a little bit about their culture, it is just a great experience. We are all human beings.
Q: Where were you born, and what was your childhood like?
A: I was born in Germany and I grew up there. My parents got divorced when I was twelve, so that was a little weird because at the time it was very unusual. Otherwise, my childhood was normal. I went to school, it was of course the Cold War going on in Europe so it was a little different than it was here, I can imagine.
Q: What led you to Bellingham?
A: … Basically the military. I was in the German military for a long time, 13 years altogether. In the last few years I became the partnership NCO [non-comissioned officer] in our unit between our unit, which was a German Airforce fighter wing [of the airforce], and the U.S. Army unit in my hometown of Augsburg in Bavaria, and those guys were military intelligence, so it was all “hush hush”. And of course, we had new airplanes that were also “hush-hush”, so it was kind of hard to find things; getting people getting together to know each other and talk about things, because you couldn’t really talk about your work stuff.
I made some really good friends and one of them invited me to come to visit her in Bellingham, and I did in 1992. I really liked Bellingham, and when my time was up [in the military] I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I wanted to study English, so I visited Bellingham. I visited some other friends that I made in Augsburg, I went to Arizona, and to the east coast, and Bellingham was the most attractive place to be. I am from Bavaria, we have the mountains, but no oceans, so you get the mountains here and the ocean it’s a benefit. The people are really nice, and I really like the area.
Q: What would you tell a student who may have not yet traveled? Do you think they should go out and see the world?
A: Definitely, that is the way to go. This [the world] is just a small place, it is getting smaller everyday. It is a global society, a global economy. The more you know about other people, the more you know about people, the easier you can deal with them in terms of getting jobs, finding jobs, keeping the economy going. Again, solving those problems that are coming up.
Obviously I tell that to my students in my history class. I will not get that old, it is your problems that you will have to deal with. Fresh water, environmental pollution, this is something you will have to face, and you can not do it by yourself anymore.
Q: What is the most satisfying thing you have experienced while working with international students?
A: Just to get to know them and learn about their cultures. You know we have all those stereotypes about people from other cultures, and getting to know them you find out they have the same problems in the end… There are very nice people, and there are not-so-nice people, it doesn’t matter what culture they are coming from. We have more in common than what divides us.
Q: What benefits do students receive from studying abroad?
A: First of all, earning credits while you are there for your degree program. You learn about another culture, meet people from all over the world, and also learn a lot about yourself. You develop.
We have many of our study abroad students leaving the country for the first time. … For them it is going away from home for three months, missing their friends, getting along in a foreign culture with a foreign language in many cases. So that is a pretty big growing experience for anybody, and you go through all those stages, you know: culture shock, homesickness… Different people experience it differently, but everyone experiences it on a certain level. You learn a lot about yourself.
How do I negotiate things? How do I get along with people? … It is a great experience to build your character.
Q: When you think back on your past, what would you say is your defining moment?
A: Coming from this very regulated military environment, going to school was a big change, and then starting to work with international students. Coming from the military environment to the civilian environment, which is also a foreign language environment, was definitely a defining moment. Starting a new life in the U.S. was my defining moment.
Q: What are some of your aspirations for the future?
A: Maybe getting a Ph.D. in history at some point. I want to travel a lot, see some of the warmer places in the world. I would like to see more of the U.S. I have visited 24 states, and not just airports, you have to get out of the airport for it to count. Learning more, reading more books, maybe writing a book, or a couple of books.
Q: After students move on, how would you like them to remember you?
A: Well, just like a friendly, normal guy with a strange accent. (laughs)
Q: Would you ever think of moving anywhere else, or is Bellingham the place you plan on staying forever?
A: Well you should never say never. I wouldn’t have thought 20 years ago that I would be in Bellingham with a master’s degree, but I really like Bellingham. Maybe later when I get older, I may look for some warmer places.
Q:Would you ever think about going back to Germany?
A: Well to visit yeah, but I wouldn’t want to live there anymore. I am an American, I have my citizenship and everything, so no. I mean the thing is about Europe, they think in smaller spaces. That is probably hard to understand, but they are just more restricted in their thinking.
I was telling a friend of mine the other day, that when I came here to study, I was in my mid-30’s. In Germany they would have said “are you crazy at this age to go to a university?” Here, nobody cares. It is just “yeah you want to go back to school?” Nobody finds that strange here. … They think in smaller, narrower dimensions.
Here you have much more opportunities. You asked me what my aspirations were, writing a book, they would say “you want to write a book? Weird.” Here nobody thinks anything about that, they just say “sure! You want to write a book? Write a book! Travel the world!” To give you a short answer, no I cannot imagine to live permanently back in Germany.
Q: What would you say is your favorite memory of working or being a student at Whatcom?
A: Coming back from a trip … hearing from them [the students] that they really enjoyed it, and it was great, and it is something that they would not have done by themselves, so you get this feeling that you really opened up a new aspect of life to them. … Getting them over certain barriers that they have in their minds. “I can’t do this,” or, “I don’t want to do this,” or “I am scared to do this.” … It is hard to just define one.