From the time I first saw the skyscrapers of New York as a five-year-old German immigrant, my dream was to become an architect. When my cub scout “den” arranged a visit to the local paper in Cincinnati, Ohio, where my family settled, we were interviewed and asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. I am quoted as saying that “I want to make drawings for people’s houses.” My parents were both artists and their children witnessed how difficult it was to earn a living in the art world. Architecture was a way to apply art to make something useful for people without starving. I doggedly pursued my dreams, enrolling in the architecture program at the University of Cincinnati and working on building designs for an engineering firm. A serious disagreement with my professor concerning the evaluation of a major design project caused me to drop out of the program half way through my sophomore year.
After working in a sheet metal factory for two months, I knew that I had to get on with my education. I returned to the engineering firm (where I continued working part-time for 10 years), and the owner constantly nagged me to study engineering. But because foreign languages had always fascinated me, especially since I had to learn English after coming to the U.S., my new goal became to be fluent in many different languages. I decided to start with my native language, German, in which I had only very rudimentary communication skills that were falling into disuse. Although my mother had always encouraged me to become a teacher, I steadfastly resisted until, as a graduate teaching assistant helping Ph.D. candidates learn German, I was amazed to find that teaching was very exciting and rewarding—I loved it! In 1971, having completed all but the dissertation toward the Ph.D. in German literature, I came to Luther College, where I was hired as an instructor. After several years teaching in the university setting, I was surprised to discover that being at a small liberal arts college was many times more rewarding still. For the first time, my teaching experience and my rewards were put into a context: “a community of faith and learning.” A community in which the teachers learn as much, if not more, from the students.
Just as I was coming up for tenure, the language programs suffered downsizing and my position in German was cut. So when the college offered me the chance to retrain as an accountant and gain tenure if I earned an MBA and passed the CPA exam, I eagerly accepted this new challenge and learned some more about how a community supports its members.
As a young person, my goals were chosen in the mistaken belief of being in charge of my future. Looking back at the meandering path my career has taken, I realize that we are called in many and changing ways—that we are following that call, not leading; serving, not being served.
“For it is in giving that we receive.” The other day, I received two more messages from former students thanking me for having influenced their lives. If only they knew how such expressions of gratitude make all the difference in mine.