By Laura Barlament
JACK DENYS ’64, from Brooklyn, was an English major headed for a career in the Lutheran ministry.
Barbara Hittl ’69 had just discovered her love of the German language and declared it as her major.
George Laszlo ’72 was a biology major who intended to follow his father’s footsteps into medicine.
Glen Tottser ’71, a sociology major, came from a blue-collar Philadelphia family who never traveled farther than a summer vacation at the shore.
Wade Appelman ’86 was a business major looking for adventure.
It may not seem like an obvious choice for people with these majors, backgrounds, and ambitions, but all of them spent a semester or a year in an obscure Austrian town, Bregenz, for the Wagner College Study Program. The program opened its doors 50 years ago this fall, and operated for more than 25 years.
All of them returned with new experiences and perspectives that permanently influenced — and in some cases, significantly changed — their life paths.
Today, we’re living in a world that has shrunk drastically, as transportation advances and communication technologies have drawn all parts of the globe into an ever-closer web. On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Bregenz Program, once a crown jewel of the College curriculum, it’s a good time to ask: What effect did, and does, studying abroad have on people’s lives? And where have Wagner’s study abroad programs gone in the years since Bregenz?
According to a 1972 report by Gaspard Pinette, the Wagner modern languages professor who founded the program and served for many years as its director, student demand for study abroad was growing in the late 1950s. Grappling with the difficulties of assigning credit for courses that Wagner students took through other colleges’ overseas programs, Dean Adolph Stern proposed that Pinette look into establishing a Wagner campus abroad.
It so happened that “a young Fulbright assistant” was working at Wagner at the time, and he came from somewhere near Bregenz.
Pinette, who had earned his Ph.D. in Germany, hit it off with the town leadership. The mayor offered the use of local facilities at a reasonable rate; by the program’s ninth year, it occupied two buildings owned by the local government: A former palace held the classrooms, and the so-called College House provided space for a library, recreation and study rooms, and apartments for proctors and deans. Students lived with local host families. Pinette and local professors provided instruction in English (except for the required German coursework) in history, art history, literature, philosophy, religion, and a few other disciplines.
Students from all majors and many different colleges and universities flocked to the Bregenz Program: By 1980, it had enrolled more than 1,000 students from more than 200 American institutions.
THE ABOVE-MENTIONED JACK DENYS of Brooklyn was there in the program’s first year. “We were the pioneers,” he says with a laugh.
That group’s experience set the tone that would define the program’s success: The emphasis on great European cultural achievements and sights; the friendliness, charm, and slow pace of life in Bregenz; the majesty of the surrounding Alpine terrain; the adventures of independent travel to many different countries, made accessible through Bregenz’s central European location; and group bonding that has made the “Bregenzers” a distinct fraternity of Wagner graduates.
For Denys, the most important part was meeting people — people whose background, language, and religion may have been quite different from his, yet with whom he found he shared much. In Bregenz, he found Austrian guys his age to drink beer with and discuss anything from everyday life to world politics. He remembers that one of their families couldn’t afford a phone, yet he noticed expensive art books in their home. “So you knew what the priorities were,” he recalls.
He still gets goose bumps telling about a trip “behind the Iron Curtain,” to Hungary, in the depths of the Cold War — the Cuban Missile Crisis happened during his year abroad. In Budapest, Denys and his travel buddy met a young man about their age, who took them to his apartment, where he lived with his mother. The man’s father had disappeared after being involved in the 1956 uprising, and his girlfriend had escaped to Switzerland, but the young man was stuck. Taking the train back to Austria, Denys remembers discussing with his friend that “we knew we could become free again, and this guy can’t. It was very powerful.”
For Denys, the year away from home solidified his life goals. He got married, went to seminary, and became a Lutheran pastor. But the Bregenz experience lingers. To this day, he goes to Bregenz reunions. Of the original 55 participants (eight of whom have since passed away), about 30 members are still in touch and contribute to an annual newsletter published by Carole Hrubec Chapman ’64.
THE BREGENZ GROUP OF 1969–70 (seen in the photo above, taken on a tour of the Berchtesgaden, Germany, salt mine) has also stayed remarkably close. Celebrating their 40th anniversary a few years ago at George Laszlo’s home in the Poconos, 35 of the original 52 participants showed up, coming from as far away as Hawaii.
For several members of this class, the year in Bregenz set them on a new course in life. Laszlo started at Wagner with the class of ’71, majoring in biology and intending to become a doctor, like his father. But after Bregenz, where he took courses in religion and philosophy and art history, he switched his major to philosophy and took an extra year to graduate. In Bregenz, he says, “I had the time to think about what I was doing. In a foreign environment, I could be myself. It afforded me the time to grow up.”
Laszlo focused his career on software systems for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, and he worked with clients around the world, especially Switzerland and Germany. “From my perspective, studying philosophy was the most important thing I have ever done for my career,” he says. “It teaches you to apply logic, reasoning, and discipline to everything you do, and to understand people. For your personal life as well as business, it’s invaluable.”
Laszlo went to Bregenz with the full support of his parents; as Hungarian immigrants to the U.S., they came from that cultural realm. But for Glen Tottser, another 1969–70 Bregenzer, traveling to Europe was like going to the moon. “I remember my father said, ‘Why should you go when I’ve never gone?’” It was a “pipe dream,” he says. Yet, because the Bregenz tuition was slightly less than regular Wagner tuition, he went. For the first time, he was exposed to art history, classical music, Alpine skiing — a different way of life. He found a new family in his host family. Since then, they have stayed in touch and exchanged many visits, and Tottser has traveled all around the world, including Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. “I never would have done these things if it weren’t for Bregenz,” he says.
Pinette’s 1972 report included the factoid that by 1972, eight Wagner students in the Bregenz Program had married Austrians. One of them, Barbara Hittl Garzon, another member of the 1969–70 group, is still living in the Bregenz area. Garzon had transferred to Wagner College for her junior year, as a German major; she went to Bregenz as a senior, and never returned to Wagner, having finished her degree through her Bregenz coursework. She began teaching English and math in a nearby school, and there she met her first husband. That marriage ended in divorce, but she married again, to an Austrian. By now, Garzon has spent more than half of her life in Austria. “I love Austria and wouldn’t want to move back to the U.S.,” she says. Still, she stays in touch with her Bregenz classmates, including her roommate, Patty Flynn Moore, who has lived in Bangkok for many years.
PINETTE RETIRED IN 1976, and was succeeded by a few different directors and coordinators — most notably, James Mittelstadt, who served as director from 1979 to 1986. During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the program suffered enrollment declines. As a result, it started recruiting and enrolling non-U.S. students, especially from Thailand, where Mittelstadt had taught previously. Some of those enrolled at Wagner in Staten Island as well.
Meanwhile, students like Wade Appelman were still greatly enjoying and profiting from the Bregenz Program. He attended during the fall of 1984, his junior year, looking to “round out” his education. He fondly recalls spending at least half of every week traveling all around Europe on cheap train tickets, as classes were held only Tuesday through Thursday. For him, it became the perfect preparation for his future career in international marketing, with frequent world travel. “Even today, the experiences I got through that semester — especially the travel — being street-smart and city-smart were the most valuable part,” he says. And, he acquired a breadth of experience and an ability to empathize and listen to others that are essential in sales and marketing.
BY THE LATE 1980s, the Bregenz Program was becoming untenable for the College to maintain. It wasn’t as cheap as it used to be, and Wagner itself was in a financial crisis that brought it to the verge of closing its doors. Bregenz had changed, too, and the city was selling the buildings Wagner used for the program. In 1989, President Norman Smith made the decision to close the campus.
But that was far from the end of study abroad at Wagner. A young, dynamic faculty member had come to Wagner in 1989 to teach Spanish. Marilyn Kiss, who had been inspired by studying in Spain as a college student, added study abroad advisor to her professorial duties in 1991. Over the next 17 years, she influenced and helped hundreds of students to study around the world, primarily through Wagner College’s affiliation with an organization called IES (originally, the Institute for European Studies, later changed to Institute for the International Education of Students).
Primarily, language majors who wanted to be immersed in the language and culture they were learning took advantage of study abroad. But there were also students like Jessica Friswell ’06, an English major with minors in Spanish and sociology/anthropology. She struck out on a program called the Semester at Sea — literally, a ship-based university, which took her to 10 ports on three continents for study and community service work. She followed that up with a summer in Peru, devoted to learning Spanish and volunteering for a nonprofit development organization.
After graduating from Wagner, she completed a master’s in anthropology, environment, and development at University College London — and even during that time, she went further abroad, completing her fieldwork in Cameroon with traditional hunter-gatherer people (as seen in the photo at the top of this page). “I’m fortunate that by the time I was 23, I could say that I had been to every continent apart from Antarctica,” she adds.
Now an AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteer in Boston, she says, “I encourage every young person I know to study abroad as a way to expand their horizons, meet new people, learn about a new culture, and have an opportunity to examine the world from a non-American perspective.”
SINCE FRISWELL GRADUATED in 2006, study abroad at Wagner has been going through a growth spurt, adding programs, options, and niches for students with different interests. Today, about 30 percent of Wagner students have a study-abroad experience by the time they graduate.
The first new program grew out of Professor Mohammad Alauddin’s work with the water contamination crisis in Bangladesh. Wanting Wagner students to see and understand this issue, he created a course, Environmental Pollution and Health, that included a short trip to Bangladesh. Based on this model, the College launched Expanding Your Horizons, which offers spring semester courses with short-term travel to points around the world, giving students first-hand experience of the course topic.
“In Expanding Your Horizons, students learn how exciting, exhilarating, and transformative study abroad is,” says Marilyn Kiss. “It gives them a nibble, and then they want to bite off summers or a semester.”
At the same time, the College has increased options for affordable longer-term study abroad programs. The College has signed agreements with four foreign universities, in Israel, Spain, and France, and with St. John’s University’s Rome campus. Wagner students continue paying Wagner tuition and keep their financial aid to go to these campuses. More agreements are in the works with universities in South Korea, Greece, and Slovakia — the last being very close to Wagner students’ old stomping grounds in Bregenz.
Wagner’s newest agreement, signed this fall with the Kibbutzim College of Education in Tel Aviv, Israel, showcases the College’s goal to create study abroad possibilities for students in various majors. Physician assistant students also may complete one of their required rotations abroad, at a psychiatric treatment facility in England.
The director of Wagner’s Center for Intercultural Advancement, Ellen Navarro, is expanding the array of possibilities even further by increasing the number of Wagner-approved study-abroad consortia whose programs students can use, while continuing to pay Wagner tuition and keeping their financial aid packages.
Navarro’s office brims over with brightly colored brochures, posters, flags, maps, and clocks showing the time at points around the world. Paris, Tokyo, Morocco, and New Zealand are but a few of the contenders competing for attention. When students venture in for advisement, Navarro says, she quizzes them about their interests and goals. Then, she presents them with an array of options. In London, for example, three different programs offer connections to five universities. You can stay on campus, live with a family, or find your own apartment. You can be part of a small cohort or a large international group.
“I tell them go shop to see what you want to buy,” Navarro says. “Because there’s something for everyone.”
READ MORE: Wagner alumni on the art of living abroad …