The Czech Connection

By Susan Alexander

International Education. Office for International Student Services. Havel Society. Center for Intercultural Learning and Community.

These four campus groups probably have several links, but the one that struck me the other day was the Czech connection, Joe Mestenhauser.

I first met Joe as a member of the Havel Society Committee. Now under the auspices of CILCE, the Havel Society is a collaboration between House of Hope Presbyterian Church and the University of St. Thomas with the cooperation of the local Czech community. Every year, the Havel Society brings a visiting scholar to the campus and the church to discuss and enhance civil society.

The program began in 1999 with a state visit by Vaclav Havel, then-president of Czechoslovakia,  a hero of the Czech Velvet Revolution and a great proponent of civil society. In large part because of Joe’s history, the group was able not only to bring Havel to campus but also to take his name – the only organization in the world allowed such an honor. Other Havel Society speakers have included Rigoberta Minchu, a Nobel laureate from Guatemala, Secretary of State Madeline Albright and social entrepreneurship guru David Bornstein.

What brings me to think of Joe right now, however, is his connection to our International Education and OISS. Last month, these offices participated in a presentation by Joe on the history and the future of international education. After escaping communist Czechoslovakia in 1948, Joe came to the University of Minnesota doctoral program in political science. During the course of that study, he observed the shared experience he had with other international students – accents and war experience, both hot and cold.

That observation led Joe to initiate Minnesota’s first center for international education.  St. Thomas’ own director of international education, Sarah Stevenson, got her start there, working with Joe as an international student mentor. Sarah has been a real blessing to St. Thomas international activities as they have expanded over the years.

International Education and OISS do much to foster and integrate globalization at St. Thomas. Next week, you could find out about Poland at the OISS Culture Link tea. In the Grill you could check the time in Kathmandu on one of the international time zone clocks. Any time, day or night, you could check out study abroad options on the International Education website. You could join the Globally Minded Students Association; you don’t have to be an international student to be “globally minded.” Member or not, you should definitely enjoy at least one GMSA dinner held every April.  The food and entertainment are as interesting as they are enjoyable (I will admit that having the belly dancer wear a long-sleeved shirt might have been a bit puritanical, but she was still very good).

Yes, this campus has grown increasingly global (and more fun), but some of the same issues for international students noted by Joe in the 1950s still exist. There are still students coming here with very difficult war experiences – one of our students is a Lost Boy of Sudan, and others have experienced civil war in Uganda and the Congo.

On the lighter side, we also have a few intercommunication and accent issues. The video for Professor of the Year Agapitos Papagapitos made hay of the difficulty that students and colleagues have with the pronunciation of his name. When the Economics Department hired AP, I recall phoning Terry Langan to offer him a job as well. I told him that Agapitos Papagapitos already had accepted a position. Terry admits thinking, “How will I ever learn to pronounce Agapitos Papagapitos?” Well, Greek now runs trippingly off all our tongues, at least enough to call AP by name now and again.

Greek, Czech, Saudi, Chinese, Japanese, French, Burundian . . . our connections are growing and strengthening. With unprecedented and unpredictable global challenges, we all need our connections.