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Monday, August 15, 2005

Dr. Susan Wolfe — touching lives
through the University Core Curriculum

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As a faculty member teaching in the University Core Curriculum, Dr. Susan Smith Wolfe believes she has an opportunity to reach out and unlock doors for USI students.

“The core catches people as they cross the threshold,” said Wolfe, associate professor of German. “It’s exciting to feel that you may be one of the first to make an impression.”

Wolfe is winner of the 2005 H. Lee Cooper Core Curriculum Teaching Award.

“We all have a duty to help students get oriented and get integrated into the University community and develop the kind of study skills and life skills that will help them be successful,” Wolfe said.

Teaching in the core curriculum is a challenge. “It’s more difficult than teaching our students majoring in German because those students [German majors] are committed with heart and mind and will follow your banner wherever you take them,” Wolfe said.

Her desire is to light a fire in the minds of students. She spends extra time with those taking classes in the core curriculum. “I think that’s crucial,” she said, “I had some great lecturers in college, but the ones that I had some actual contact with are the ones who changed my life.”

Wolfe meets individually with freshmen in core courses after the first exam and makes a point of talking with them before and after class. She investigates what other interests students have and helps them understand the advantage of combining those interests with foreign language.

An extra semester or year invested in education to pursue additional subjects can give students “a career that would only have been in their dreams,” she said. Language combines well with many other interests, including political science, business, and international studies.

Wolfe said, “Almost every German major we’ve had in the last few years has been a double major, opening themselves up for careers that take many paths.”

In language courses, three things are taught: the language itself, culture, and literature. One of the primary goals of the core is to help students develop skills in critical thinking. The teaching of foreign language lends itself naturally to that goal as students look at cultural values.

“We’re discussing many great universal questions that we’re all facing,” Wolfe said.

Her students study the geographic situation of nations and how it might impact them, national traumas and events that have shaped countries, and the nations’ responses to those traumas and events. They learn how school systems are different from country to country and compare constitutions.

”We end up discovering not who the German is, but why he is who he is,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe and her husband Dr. Donald S. Wolfe came to Evansville in 1984 when he accepted a full-time teaching position in German at USI. She taught four years as an adjunct in French and German. By 1988, growth in the German program indicated the need for an additional full-time faculty member. Susan Wolfe filled that position and has taught full-time since then. Her husband, an associate professor of German, is now retired and fighting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Eric Adams ’86 was a chemistry major taking second-year courses in German when the Wolfes arrived at USI.

He said, “I fell completely under their spell and chose to minor in German (rather than the traditional minors for chemistry of physics and mathematics).

“Becoming a student of Suzi’s involved far more than ‘learning German.’ Under her, I learned the following:

• far more about the English language and grammar than I had ever known
• history, including biblical, medieval, industrial revolution, and modern, more so than from any other coursework
• the arts, in particular the Romantic period
• an appreciation for literature, something completely atypical for me
• an understanding and respect for opinions and experiences so completely far removed from my own.

“Can you find a better definition of a teacher?”

Following graduation from USI, Adams received a scholarship for summer study in Regensburgh, Germany. Then, after earning a master’s in international business at the University of South Carolina, he returned to Germany to work for an international pharmaceutical company based there. In all, he spent about six years studying working, and living in Germany. Adams is now chief executive officer and president of enGene, Inc., in Vancouver, British Columbia. EnGene is a biotech company developing a technology that has the potential to help produce drugs that will treat several diseases, including diabetes, obesity, hemophilia, and anemia.

“In essence, Suzi (and Don) showed me that the world really is my oyster,” Adams said. “Everything she communicates to her students has a foundation in ‘Set your goals high. Reach for the stars.’”

Wolfe grew up in the high mountain country of northeastern Oregon. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Pacific University. She completed three advanced degrees — a master’s in French literature, a second master’s in German literature, and a doctorate in German literature — at the University of Oregon. She and her husband taught at Washington State University before joining USI.

Wolfe also has studied at the University of Aix-Marseilles in France, the University of Tuebingen in Germany, the University of Bonn in Germany, and the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi. She has lived abroad for about seven years, one year in France and six in Germany.

In 1990-91, she received a Fulbright grant to teach in Selb, Germany, a town five miles from the Czech border and 30 miles from the border with East Germany. She found it a fascinating time to be there because the Berlin Wall had recently come down and the two Germanies had not yet unified. East Germans were pouring over the border to buy products they had not been able to get for years. She witnessed the West Germans coping with new problems amid the euphoria.

Wolfe is USI’s Fulbright advisor. Students who have completed Fulbright programs for study or teaching abroad include Tracy Bee ’97, Kirt Page ’98, and Walter Jermakowicz ’03.

Wolfe said that many USI students have Fulbright potential. She encourages them and their advisors to be aware of award requirements. With two years of foreign language study, students are eligible for many Fulbright awards. Without the foreign language experience, they are eligible for perhaps only 10 percent of the possible awards. Students who apply for a Fulbright award, but do not receive it, may be eligible for similar awards given by a particular country.

“When you apply for a Fulbright, a country may offer you an award that you didn’t even know existed,” she said.

Wolfe also encourages students interested in German to participate in a summer language immersion program in Heidelberg, Germany. Three USI students completed the program this year with other students from throughout the world.

In spring 2003, Wolfe established USI’s first distance education courses in foreign language. Based on that experience, she has incorporated more emphasis on the visual and more listening exercises into face-to-face classes. She has long been known for a bagful of personable puppets whose actions and conversation help students deduce rules of grammar.

Wolfe is pleased that a number of her former students are teaching German in area high schools, sending well-prepared students to USI.

“No matter what subject you teach in the core curriculum, you are always bringing it back to the students’ lives, to their own culture, and to their own mores,” Wolfe said. “You are using another venue to help them discover who they are and why. If you can teach them that, you are teaching them to be the kind of people who will be informed citizens.”

Focusing exclusively on teaching, the Cooper Award honors a USI faculty member whose work in University Core Curriculum courses has been especially creative and successful in furthering UCC goals. The award is named in honor of H. Lee Cooper, an Evansville philanthropist and long-time USI supporter.

Presentation of the Cooper Award is a tradition at the Fall Faculty and Administrative Staff Meeting in August. The award includes a generous stipend, a plaque, and additional monies for travel and faculty development. As this year’s winner, Wolfe will deliver a presentation to the University community during the 2005-06 academic year. Details will be released at a later date.

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