[ Editor's note: This story first appeared in The Insider, from WWU Advancement. It is republished here with permission. ]
It was an inspiring history professor, Dr. Wil Boyd, at Valparaiso University who encouraged his then-student Tom Roehl to seek out broader horizons, an experience that has served the College of Business and Economics professor of international business extremely well ever since. “I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin,” says Roehl, “and Professor Boyd always said, ‘You small town kids, you’re so smart and you’re so diligent but you don’t have any guts, you don’t know how to operate outside your comfort zone.’ He pushed us to embrace different ideas, to embrace different cultures. He sent students all over the world, out of a small liberal arts Midwestern school. I thought I was going to study abroad in Latin America – I was planning to be a Latin American specialist until Japan changed my mind – but Boyd said, ‘I can’t find anything in Latin America, all we got is Japan. And besides, it doesn’t matter where you go – you’re going to learn a lot anyway, so try it.’” So off Roehl went to Japan to teach English.
He maintained 15 different clients in order to make enough money to live, teaching a rich range of people from all walks of life: neurosurgeons, middle-school students, television cameramen. “I had so many different experiences that no matter what I faced later, I always had a little bit of sense of what direction I might go in, a solid starting point,” Roehl explains. “And that is so important in international business, in an arena where you have this constant stream of unexpected situations that you have to face. I tell my students that it comes down to relationships plus analytics and you gotta be good at both. But if you are good at both, you’ve got a really fascinating career.”
The Junko and Tom Roehl Fund for Promotion of Student Study Abroad will support Western business students studying in foreign countries, particularly students who elect a fully immersive experience by becoming a regular student at one of Western’s partner universities. As Roehl sees it, those experiences increase the quality of the learning and work that students achieve at Western.
“It makes the learning experience more valuable and stimulating, and it encourages a natural growth of diversity” says Roehl, regarding the opportunity to study at one of WWU’s partner schools in Germany, France, Finland, Sweden, the UK, Canada, Japan, Korea, Taiwan or Australia. “This is also about reaffirming and building on Western’s relationships, so there’s an institutional as well as individual benefit. Every time one of our students goes on one of these direct exchanges, we get a student from there over here. And then you get all kinds of possibilities: when the Paris shootings took place, we gathered the French foreign students who were here and our students who had studied abroad in France or wanted to, and just spent an hour and a half talking about the issues. If we hadn’t had those students here, we could not have done that. Having a program like this is a really powerful contribution and I want to encourage that. I want to encourage this idea of going and being immersed in other things, other cultures, other places.”
Currently, Roehl’s international business projects class allows teams of three international business undergraduates to work with local companies to research export markets. The more than 100 projects have led many of the appreciative companies to contribute to a fund for study abroad. But looking ahead, Roehl decided, it was time to set up a fund to maintain support going forward.
Still an effective and happy professor at 70, until he retires, Roehl’s social security is not really needed and he’s utilizing two years of social security checks to establish the Junko and Tom Roehl Fund. “I hope that others who find themselves in this fortunate situation will consider funding something special at Western,” he says. “Supporting an activity that allows our students to have as rich an experience as possible during their time here is what it is all about.”
Roehl is always trying to figure out how “to grab people a little bit,” aiming to be a source of inspiration and support for his students just as, a generation ago, Professor Boyd inspired and encouraged him. “At the moment, we have relatively few students who study abroad,” he says. “And that experience is so powerful in getting people to understand the issues of diversity that everybody’s talking about. In order to handle those issues easily, you have to be comfortable talking about things that are quite different from what you’re used to. And what better way to understand and adjust to differences than to immerse yourself in another culture?”