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Josef Mestenhauser

Professor emeritus Joe Mestenhauser

A global engagement

New U international award honors Josef Mestenhauser

By Gayla Marty

From Brief, November 16, 2005

You might say Josef Mestenhauser's global engagement began in 1948. As the Czechoslovak elections approached, the law student at Charles University campaigned hard against communist candidates. One day, he never came home.

Weeks from his degree, he had been arrested. Then he escaped prison, fled, and started over. From a refugee camp, he applied for a skiing scholarship in the United States and got it. In eastern Washington, Mestenhauser strapped on a pair of skis, earned a bachelor's degree in education, and applied for graduate school.

The young Czech arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1950 as a grad student in political science, glad to accept a job as an assistant to the international student adviser. There he worked with a growing number of students, like himself, coming to study in the United States in the wake of war and cold war.

Award for Global Engagement
November 18
3-5 p.m.
Cowles Auditorium
Humphrey Center
301 19th Avenue S.

The award ceremony will begin at 3 p.m. and will include an opportunity to hear Joe Mestenhauser speak about his current research and work. A reception will follow at 4:15 in the atrium. Everyone is welcome.

Beginning in a small office in Eddy Hall, Mestenhauser would build his career not only at the University of Minnesota but in the world. In the process, he would help to build the University's reputation as a formidable champion of higher education that transcended geographic and political boundaries. From graduate student to international student adviser to professor to Fulbright winner (four times) to honorary consul for the Czech Republic, he seems only to have gained steam.

Name a country, and Mestenhauser probably knows someone there--age 20 to 80--with Minnesota ties.

For his efforts, Mestenhauser will receive the University's first Award for Global Engagement November 18. The new all-University award will be given annually to a faculty or staff member, active or retired, in recognition of outstanding contributions to global education and international programs, whether in their field or discipline or at the University as a whole.

"Joe has served as both staff and faculty member and is a model for many of us," says Gene Allen, associate vice president for international programs. "But he has also led U.S. State Department trips, and he continues to be called in for international service and consulting. If there's one person that the alumni association needs in their Rolodex, it's Joe."

The new award fills a gap, Allen says. It's sponsored by the Office of the Senior Vice President for System Administration and administered by the Office of International Programs.

"If we aspire to top-three status as a university in this global era, it is essential that we recognize international contributions of our faculty and staff members--and in a multitude of ways," he says.

Professionalism has been a theme of Mestenhauser's career. He was instrumental in helping to build a professional organization for international educators founded in 1948--the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA)--and promoting professional standards for those working with students crossing international boundaries. The new award--by identifying excellence in global engagement and by recognizing outstanding work--is intended to serve as a resource to other faculty and staff, as well.

"Most of the reward system in international education has been intrinsic," says Mestenhauser. "This is the first evidence that there's an extrinsic value. It puts the University of Minnesota on the map."

"If we aspire to top-three status as a university in this global era, it is essential that we recognize international contributions of our faculty and staff members," says Allen.

Another theme in Mestenhauser's life has been interdisciplinarity--hardly surprising for someone whose own interests have always drawn on concepts from education, psychology, political science, speech communication, and other fields.

"A lot of what passes for interdisciplinary is really multidisciplinary," he says. Disciplinary boundaries often function like cultural boundaries, making communication difficult. His current reading and writing focus on comparative thinking skills and what it takes to develop them--a topic directly related to achieving interdisciplinary and intercultural thinking.

Thinking the impossible

For decades, Mestenhauser never thought he'd return to his homeland. He built a life in Minnesota (including a cabin), had a family, and dedicated himself to learning more about how people learn, think, and change their minds. He went down to the legislature to build support for international programs, he worked on community relations, and he traveled to the Philippines, Japan, Korea, and Germany for research and teaching. Within the University, he advocated for international students before they came, challenged them when they arrived, and urged them to complete their degrees and get jobs that made a difference in the world. He was engaged in the world himself, and he wanted Minnesotans to know they were, too.

Then the impossible happened: the Cold War ended, and in 1991 Mestenhauser was invited back to Prague to receive the law degree he'd earned. Since then, he's returned many times to work with Czechs, Slovaks, and other groups formerly part of the Soviet Union, now adapting to change, from markets to governance.

Mestenhauser still remembers one of his first days working at the University, when the phone rang. Who knew his number? he wondered.

"This is Lew," said the voice. "Lew Morrill. Welcome to the staff."

President Morrill talked with him for several minutes and then asked, "Do you know whom you report to?"

"The international student adviser--Forrest Moore," Mestenhauser replied and, hearing a pause, added, "and the dean of students, Professor Williamson..."

"No," the president told Mestenhauser. "The people of Minnesota are your bosses now. Remember that."

He never forgot.

Gayla Marty worked in international programs under Mestenhauser's leadership from 1981 to 1992.

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