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Cyndi Ochsner
Cyndi Ochsner (Chemistry)
A change of heart
By Cyndi Ochsner, Assistant Professor of Chemistry

I was exhausted. I could have slept anywhere except, apparently, on the plane. Had I really been on an overnight train from Vienna to Amsterdam two nights ago? The ferry to Dover, the bus ride from London to Newcastle to Alnwick during which I reorganized my two backpacks, the overnight bus to Manchester – all were now an ocean away.

We were leaving the 747 where I had been crammed in the middle of the middle row. As I waited to disembark, I eyed an attractive twenty-something, out of my league. Seven months prior I would have avoided eye contact, but I spotted his Tate Gallery poster tube and he saw mine. So we smiled. Although we did not know each other, we were part of the same club and because of this I asked him, “Dali?” I noted the surprise in his eyes. “Of course” was his reply. We were indeed members of the same club.

Twenty years later, it is my turn to encourage students to discuss study-abroad options. St. Norbert has developed partnerships with colleges that offer pre-approved science courses in locations like Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. I warn them, though: They may have the time of their life somewhere on the other side of the globe, and when they return to De Pere, they, too, will find themselves members of the club.

I left for Europe on a Tuesday in early February, excited and anxious to meet the 41 other students who were going with me. I had not spent much time thinking about the trip. I was going because my parents thought it was important, because my sister had been, and because I assumed it would add something unique to my life’s limited résumé.

I would live in the wall of the Duke of Northumberland’s castle, which sounded romantic and cool. Yes, it was – very, very cool! The second night in the castle, we had a party to get to know each other and Lord James, the duke’s youngest son, came. (Seriously, a man with a title?)

Listening to my British professors explain Moll Flanders and William the Conqueror was captivating. Standing at Hadrian’s Wall and hearing about the Roman Empire, or reading Wordsworth while looking out at a sea of daffodils, was experiential learning I could not have known in the U.S.

I suppose I am left-brain dominant, an analytical, linear thinker who loves the logic of science. I had never learned with my heart, at least not in the classroom. The Holocaust Workshop was to change that. For the first weeks of this course, we were safe in the castle learning of the events that led to the systematic, state-sponsored killing of more than six million Jews. We watched movies, read books by survivors, and were subjected to racism training by an expert skilled at creating situations meant to reveal our prejudices. What we saw was appalling and almost unbelievable, but I was able to process the imagery in an intellectual rather than emotional way. I had seen these images in high school.

But later, in Warsaw, we toured the ghettos for three days with our guide, Marian Turski. He was a Holocaust expert, Lodz ghetto resident, Auschwitz prisoner, death march survivor, and (gasp) a communist. We moved on to tour Auschwitz-Birkenau with our hero, who used an accordion-folded meter stick when he wanted to emphasize a point.

At the crematoria, our professor was overcome with grief while reading a poem, so Turski finished for him. It was difficult to see my adult male teacher break down and I remember kicking my foot in the dirt, dirt still white from the calcium of human bones. I was unable to emotionally check out. I was learning with my heart and it made me uncomfortable, confused and scared.

We returned via Berlin as the city was celebrating the reunification of Germany. Later that summer I traveled through Europe and Northern Africa. I was inspired to spend a subsequent summer in China and visit Japan. I’m not always able to put into words how those first seven months abroad changed my life.

It’s easy to tell others that I now love scones with clotted cream and PG Tips tea with milk and daffodils and sheep and castles and Tudor history and McVitie’s digestives and Lion candy bars, The Guardian newspaper and hand-pulled Belhaven 80. I could have read about these things in books, but those of you who are club members know that it is not the same.

Has it changed how I do science? Hard to tell, but it has definitely influenced my approach to teaching. How can I explain how the human immunodeficiency virus fuses with a host cell without discussing the epidemic in Africa? My goal is to inspire my students to continue in the sciences and challenge them to develop the HIV vaccine, or an inexpensive treatment that does not require refrigeration, and in return save a continent.

I’ve had a few students who just may meet my challenge and perhaps a study-abroad experience would help them to see further the positive impact their careers can have on people around the world.

Summer 2010 Magazine

Web extraLook here for web-only content that expands on topics presented in the current St. Norbert College Magazine (PDF).

Text ExtraThe education of a freshman president
Reflections by President Tom Kunkel in Trusteeship magazine.

VideoJohn M. Perkins speaks
The civil rights statesman interviewed on campus.

VideoPaul Tagliabue opens Sport and Society conference
The former NFL commissioner delivers his keynote address.

GalleryCommencement 2010
A gallery of images from “a ridiculously fine day” in May.

GalleryGwen Ifill’s Commencement address
The journalist and newscaster spoke to the Class of 2010.

VideoOn the road
Images and reflections from a sabbatical journey undertaken
by Brian Pirman (Art).

Text ExtraThe Yogurt Man Cometh
A chapter to enjoy from this travelogue in Turkey, recounted by author Kevin Revolinski ’90.

GalleryThe faculty in action
Professors as educators: teaching, advising, demonstrating, mentoring and working with students.

Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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