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Laura Skandera Trombley Headshot

Breaking Bad in Bavaria

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The best preparation I ever had for becoming a college president wasn't the Harvard IEM seminar or the administrative program at Cornell. It was breaking my ankle in Bavaria.

During grad school, I wound up teaching at the Katholische University in Eichstaett, West Germany, as it was called at the time. A destination for religious pilgrims, Eichstaett is one of the most religious and conservative places in Germany. I moved to this city of saints and bishops from Venice Beach, California, arguably one of the most irreligious and liberal places in America.

Prior to my departure, the university sent a telegram asking about my religion. Despite being an agnostic, it seemed more appropriate somehow to respond Lutheran, as that was what I had been baptized. I found out later that the university had never before had a Protestant American Lektorin and administrators weren't sure they wanted to start.

Students in my American literature seminar at the Katholische University told me that I was the first Protestant they had ever known. They considered my religion to be far more exotic than my nationality. In town, little old ladies would elbow each other and gawk at me, the tall American, the Auslander (foreigner).

At least I think that's what they were whispering -- for the most part, I couldn't understand a word anyone said. In Eichstaett three dialects come together to form a unique dialect. The only people who spoke the German that I had studied were professors. Outside the classroom, I just responded "yes" or "thank you" to anything anyone said to me. I was so terrified of talking on the phone, I wrote out what I wanted to say beforehand.

In hopes that I might learn enough of the local language to be able to buy wurst, I joined a "German for Foreigners" course. By the end of each 90-minute session, our instructor had absolutely convinced us that we would never, ever be able to understand or speak Bavarian or Bayerische. We would nod, thank her and walk out the door into an unintelligible country. We would then pile into a local cafe, order kaffee und kuchen and converse for hours in our only common language -- Bayerische. In that café, I became part of an eclectic, international band of students who discovered that communication, empathy and compassion have a grammar all their own.

Then came Fasching -- Bavaria's version of Mardi Gras on steroids. During the last days before Lent, there are parades, masquerade balls and excessive drinking. In other words, this most conservative and religious place gets its freak on.

I attended my first and only Fasching ball at a seminary dressed as an American tourist. Surrounded by young seminarians in Tina Turner costumes, I was dancing to Bruce Springsteen when my most pious university student -- filled with Fasching joie de vivre and Eichstaett Hofmühl beer -- tossed me into the air without warning. When I landed, snap went my ankle.

At the hospital, a jolly doctor wearing a white coat and clogs informed me in English that I had broken my "jumping bone." My subsequent cast was a study in Germany thoroughness that made walking almost impossible. When I arrived back at my apartment, my landlady looked at me and said, "And now you will go home." As soon as she uttered those words, I became absolutely determined that not only would I stay, but I would prosper.

Why didn't I hop on a plane and fly back to sunny California? Like my broken "jumping bone," my cultural dislocation had begun to mend. After all the anguish and angst of being an Auslander, I began to enjoy the challenge of being among the minority in a place that wasn't used to outsiders.

As president of Pitzer College, I strive to make students from all corners of the world and all walks of life feel at home on campus. We have created an inviting campus café, established an orientation adventure program that allows new students to bond with each other and developed a mentor system that matches incoming students with upper-class peers. All students are welcome in my office and I invite them to my home.

I also encourage our students to travel into different cultures and distant lands where they will initially, profoundly, not feel at home. Where they will live with families who don't share their language or religion or love of cold pizza. As my Bavarian broken ankle taught me, feeling fragmented and dislocated can reset something in your bones and change your perspective for the rest of your life.


This column is adapted from a speech Pitzer College President Laura Skandera Trombley gave at TEDxFulbright in Washington DC on April 5, 2014. To view the speech in its entirety, please click here.