fyi – Karen Wachsmuth

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By Tiffany Hung, fyi
Photo by Tom Jorgensen

For Karen Wachsmuth, finding a sense of place in a world bigger than herself was a journey best exemplified by The Odyssey, an epic Greek tale of someone finding his or her way back home. The University of Iowa International Programs outreach coordinator, who was born in New York City, found a place she called home through traveling.

“Traveling makes me appreciate home more, and I think that’s what home is all about: how much more that place means to you,” she says. “I love to travel but I know where my center is.”

Wachsmuth received a master’s degree in choral conducting from the Juilliard School and a doctorate in choral conducting from the University of Colorado. Her professional emphasis is in choral and orchestral conducting as well as voice and piano performance. She studied abroad in Germany for a year at the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart and later wrote a book on Hungarian music. Music took her to several countries; her travels prompted her study of several languages.

As a musician whose education and professional work span many international traditions, Wachsmuth has found a natural fit in her work at International Programs. Wachsmuth recently spoke with fyi about her work, which allows her to continue exploring international education and connect students and faculty with the larger Iowa and international communities.

For many students going to college, their sense of home and place gets whirled around. For you, how important is defining “home,” and what does home mean to you?

For many people there is a need to feel they belong in a community, in a place. Getting involved with the community and familiarizing yourself with a global perspective, something bigger, it keeps you from losing a sense of place—instead it enlarges it. I’m at home here but I also can be at home somewhere else.

Home is where I’m able to feel safe, do work that I feel is important, and where I am able to fulfill my passions; therefore my definition of “home” can change. I was born in New York. Every time I go back it still feels like home—there’s an incredible energy there. But I don’t desire to live there anymore, which made me realize that home can be many different things. I call New York home because it’s a strong association but at the same time I call Iowa home too. I’m happy to be in Iowa where life is much easier, negotiable, and quieter.

Why is it important for Iowans to be more internationally aware and to be open to traveling abroad?

There’s been a huge emphasis on studying abroad, in response to an increased interest from students. More people realize the importance of understanding other cultures in the business/working world. Our closest trading partners are coming from Asia, and we need to be able to communicate with them and to understand how they think. There’s a place for each student to be involved in this movement toward globalization, and there are many opportunities through International Programs, including workshops, lectures, and internships.

For me, traveling and learning about countries and their different cultures enriches my life to an incredible degree. I’m not limited to just one way of thinking and I’m able to understand cultural events, to communicate better with others around me. Open dialogue makes the world more accessible.

What would you tell students who have never traveled outside the United States and may be afraid to leave?

People all over the world welcome those from different countries, despite what people may have heard in the past. They are interested in you and will extend their friendship and hospitality willingly. Once you start on that journey, the majority of those experiences will be positive. Learn about where you’re going—the customs, the languages. Make those connections from the beginning and then just be fearless.

International Education Week is coming up. Could you briefly touch on what International Education Week is, what features can be expected, and why it’s important for surrounding communities?

We have a chance to embrace the world, to demonstrate to the community and to rest of the world our passion for learning about the world’s traditions, exchanging knowledge, and working together on global issues. As the chair of International Education Week I am in the unique position of discovering those faculty, staff, and students who are passionate about the work they do in various countries around the world. The breadth and depth of the international involvement here at the University is extraordinary!

This year, we are showcasing the outstanding work of the Global Health Studies Program. Students and faculty have worked with the elderly in India, used the Ponseti method to treat clubfoot in Guatemala, and performed general health assessments for the minority Roma population in Slovakia. And the annual International Day celebration will focus on attitudes, services, and adaptations around the world for persons with disabilities. More than 300 junior high students from across Iowa will get a chance to interact and learn about major global issues through demonstrations and performances.

You’ve traveled to Norway, Denmark, Scandanavia, Hungary, Turkey…where else would you like to visit?

Before I die I want to go to Wimbledon. I used to play tennis and it really has the longest most elegant tradition for a sport. There are many traditional events and etiquette and I think it would be fabulous to go there.

What’s something you enjoy in your free time?

I really enjoy figuring out the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. My father used to do them—I could never understand why. Later in life I came to enjoy them. It shows you just how creative and clever your unconscious mind is. One part of the puzzle always seems elusive, but if you revisit with an open mind, most of the time you can solve the problem. It shows me that problem solving is not always conscious or deliberate, and there’s something very creative about it.

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