Fairfield graduates put their talents to work overseas

Fairfield graduates put their talents to work overseas

by Nina M. Riccio M.A.’09

Preparing students to go out into the world as global citizens – that’s one of the hallmarks of a Jesuit education. In fact, Fairfield has made “global citizenship” the area of focus around campus next year. Lectures, events, and even theater will all be undertaken with a nod to the theme of global citizenry. So what does it take to become a good global citizen? Who better to ask than alumni who have chosen to live lives as expatriates in conditions that are are always challenging and eye opening?

Jarrett Basedow ’01, knew he wanted to study international relations when he came to Fairfield, but it’s fair to say he didn’t envision himself living in Tajikistan a few years after leaving campus.

“It was a six-week trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, that solidified it for me,” he said, speaking of a trip he took with history professor Dr. David McFadden just after his freshman year. “It was my first time leaving the country, and a great time to be in Russia, (about) 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I minored in Russian but don’t think I’m a natural linguist. What I did realize is that I respond well to intensive situations. I learned that seemingly daunting places are really not so daunting.”

A couple of years later, Basedow studied for a semester in Prague, and after graduation landed a four-year fellowship at the U.S. State Department. There, he was based in Washington, D.C. but focused on election support and human rights in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.

“The desire to communicate with others in their own language began at Fairfield, and that’s been invaluable,” said Basedow from Tajikistan, where he now works for Mercy Corps., examining products produced in the region where he lives and determining how the producers can boost profits through improved transportation or other means.

Stephanie Arapian ’05, now studying for her MFA in Acting International in London, spent a year and a half teaching English in China.

“The language barrier was probably my biggest obstacle. I spoke no Mandarin when I arrived and most causal pedestrians spoke no English. Language meant that no matter how much I learned about Chinese culture, experienced the food, the sites, talked to the kids or the staff, I was always going to be an observer. Everything would be filtered through an English speaker. By the time I left China, I had new knowledge of China and myself, but was still an outsider. I don’t think I expected anything different, but it was difficult to be confronted with that fact.”

Once her contract with the English language school expired, Arapian moved to Germany, where she continued to teach English and had more opportunities to get involved with regional theater.

“Germany was actually the first place I ever rented a flat for myself – no roommates, no housemates. Imagine all those things about your first flat,” she recalled. “Now imagine doing them all pretty much by yourself in a language you’ve just started to learn. Visas, rent, insurance, bills, taxes … It was challenging, and made me want to scream with frustration sometimes, but I managed to make a life on my own terms in a foreign environment. It’s a pretty heady feeling.”

Over and over, Fairfield’s overseas alumni speak of being well served by the open-mindedness that characterized their Jesuit education.

“I took a religion course with a Jesuit who focused primarily on Middle Eastern religions,” recalled Jean van Gysel ’90, a native of France. “That was an important step in my development because it taught me to try to stay open.”

Today, van Gysel is a property developer who splits his time between Spain and France and travels extensively in the Middle East. His latest project is developing a boutique hotel on the island of “Greece” for the ambitious The World project located on an archipelago off the coast of Dubai.

“I work with a team of Moroccan designers, Palestinian engineers, an Italian architect,” he said. “It’s proof that you can live and work with those of diverse backgrounds. It gets to the point of missing each other when we don’t talk everyday.”

“Learn to look at things through the lens of the local people,” advised John Flannery ’83, newly named president and CEO of GE’s business operations in India. He speaks from experience, having lived in Argentina and Japan with his family before his current move.

“Things are the way they are for all sorts of reasons in history. If you let go of your U.S. lens and get into the local flavor, it’s incredibly rewarding and universally fascinating.”

One of the benefits of his experience is the world-awareness he’s noticed in his three children. “They have a comfort level in dealing with those from radically different backgrounds, a flexibility and open-mindedness that’s huge,” he said.

Of course, it’s no secret that being perceived as an “American” overseas can be detrimental as well as powerful, noted the London-based Arapian. “I’ve been forced to criticize, apologize for, and defend my country on numerous occasions. And wow, have I ever learned about diplomacy, neutrality, and seeing things from all angles.”

It was a mission trip to Kingston, Jamaica, during a summer at Fairfield that opened the eyes of Kevin Yonkers-Talz ’92 to the harsh realities of the world outside his own.

An economics and psychology major, he went on to study theology and then found a way to blend it all when he took a position with Santa Clara University and founded Casa de la Solidaridad, a unique Jesuit study abroad program located in El Salvador.

The program he and his wife Trena co-direct is based out of the Jesuit-run Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), and offers students the chance to integrate direct immersion with the poor and rigorous academic study.

“What we hope to cultivate in our students is faith that does justice,” Yonkers-Talz said simply. As for his own journey: “I realized that I need constant contact with those on the margins to keep me grounded in global reality. It makes me a better Christian, and a better person.”

Fairfield not only planted the seeds of his global awareness, he said, but it gave him the space to reflect and make sense of his experience, and that’s something he works to continue with his students.

Though Fairfield was notably lacking in diversity when he was a student,* Flannery acknowledged that there “was always a culture of respect for the dignity of people. It’s critical to go into another culture with a sense of humility and respect.”

*Addressing the issue of diversity has been a major focus for Fairfield University in recent years. About 18% of the Class of 2010 is of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American descent.