A wild and windy road: 25 years as JYM program director

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Mark Ferguson
Dr. Mark Ferguson, JYM program director 1995-2020.

Dr. Mark Ferguson, JYM rogram director from 1995-2020, retired last May after 25 years at the helm. In this article, Mark gives us a unique view into the intricate program history on his watch as director. Read on for an insider look at JYM and Mark’s remarkable role as director in his own words!

In case you missed it, JYM published a special edition newsletter dedicated solely to Mark’s legacy, where this article first appeared with many photos and tributes from colleagues and alumni. Click here for The JYM Alumni Newsletter Special Mark Ferguson Edition. Again, we congratulate Mark on this huge achievement and wish him all the best for his retirement!

It was summer 1995 when Louise Speed picked me up from the airport and asked me what I thought about the idea of being the Program Director of the Junior Year in Germany programs in Munich and Freiburg. I was just returning from Germany where I had been researching early cinema in the industrial Ruhrgebiet. Four years earlier I had arrived at Wayne State University. Before that, I had a one-year sabbatical replacement position at Bates College in Maine and before that, I spent two years teaching at the Universität Essen in the Ruhrgebiet.

Even though I started at Wayne State in the fall of 1991 with a one-year lectureship (possibly renewable from one year to the next, but with no guarantee), I naively thought that if I just remained calm and patient, a tenure-track job might open up in Detroit. Life was good, teaching was fun and the biggest stress I had was whether to wait until 11 pm or midnight before walking over a few blocks to the Music Menu Cafe in Detroit’s Greektown to wind down after a “stressful” day of preparing for the next day’s classes. Little did I know how my life would change when I accepted the appointment as Program Director! 

The idea of becoming the Program Director of the Munich and Freiburg programs sounded like a lot of fun. For one, I figured I knew all about study abroad, after all, I had been an AFS student to Thailand in high school and a Junior Year in Freiburg student while an undergraduate at UW-Madison. Plus I had studied and/or worked in Mainz, Bonn, Berlin, Paris and Essen. What else was there to know?  Boy, was I in for a lesson!

mark ferguson
Mark Ferguson in the early nineties as an instructor at WSU.

At first, I needed to learn the basics, namely that the JY Freiburg and JY Munich were two separate programs with very different administrative structures (Munich was a stand-alone program launched in 1953; Freiburg was started in 1960 when there wasn’t enough room in Munich to accommodate student interest and then grew into a consortium of three other universities 1964-68). What I didn’t know, however, was that both programs were in trouble. The Freiburg consortium had become an unhappy marriage with irreconcilable differences and it soon would be up to me to shepherd the dissolution of that program. And the Munich program had barely survived a “perfect storm” of lower than anticipated enrollments coupled with a bad exchange rate and unsustainable fee structure resulting in a $90K deficit that Wayne State University covered on the condition that I would be the one to fix it or lose it. 

What was it like to be JYM Program Director all these years?  Well, one thing I found out quickly was that JYM had to be run like a business. JYM was (and still is) entirely self-financing, it gets no funds from Wayne State University to operate and pay the bills. And we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis (expenses for a normal JYM year today run about $800,000 or more). That is guaranteed to keep you awake at night! The only money available to run all aspects of the program comes solely from student fees paid to JYM.

My new job was to make sure that JYM could cover student and office rents; health insurance; university fees; office utilities, maintenance and insurance; all instruction; all salaries & benefits in both Munich and Detroit, etc. Gone were the days where all I had to do was teach and stay up late at night pondering pre-Freudian theories of narcissism in relation to narrative strategies in Rainer Maria Rilke’s prose! I now had a different kind of a job with different kinds of worries that got me up at 4 a.m. every day for the next 25 years. 

My day began by checking the USD-EUR exchange rate, diving into stock market futures and foreign exchange forecasts, reading about political or legislative developments in the U.S. and in Germany that might impact study abroad in general and JYM in particular and monitoring a wide range of trends in study abroad in Germany all that before I would turn to addressing things in Munich I needed to get to before their day was over (because of the time difference). The hardest part of my job was figuring out how to have two full-time jobs because for 25 years I was both a lecturer in the German department as well as JYM Program Director. I finally understood what real stress was all about. Not only because I had to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to run JYM, but even more importantly because people’s lives and livelihoods depended on me getting it right.

I remember thinking when I first started that just maybe that course I took in Freiburg when I was a JY student where we read Marx’s Kapital (in the original, of course) would finally be useful. And actually, it was — but not as I imagined it as an idealistic undergraduate at the time. I was now on the “other side” and needed to learn all about business, something that my graduate training in 18th-century aesthetics and early 20th-century modernism didn’t really cover. Pretty quickly I had to learn all about German and EU labor law.

I had to learn about the ways that global politics, the price of oil, the stock market and U.S. Federal Reserve interest rates all impact foreign currency exchange rates because 80% of JYM expenses are linked to exchange rates and any bottoming out directly impacted JYM’s finances. I had to learn about the study abroad market for a program like JYM, who are our friends, who are our competitors and who are the faculty members, study abroad advisors and upper-level administrators across the entire U.S. I needed to meet. In addition, I had to learn about marketing and advertising, program development, alumni relations and of course fundraising. And then too I needed to learn how university bureaucracy operated in ways I never encountered or knew about before as a lecturer. 

I must admit, I never knew beforehand how much I would eventually end up really enjoying the competitive side of promoting JYM. I am so incredibly proud of the JYM program and its remarkable history as the first junior year abroad program in post-war Germany and as the longest, continuously running study abroad program in Germany. 67 years and counting!! But JYM’s longevity was not guaranteed. Study abroad was changing dramatically and at light-speed when I came on board. Whereas for most of JYM’s history there were few competitors (JYM, after all, re-booted study abroad in post-war Germany) and those programs that did exist were modeled after JYM, the “business” of study abroad was changing. Study abroad was becoming professionalized in unprecedented ways. 

By the time I came on board, the goal of universities and colleges was not to send students to study at foreign universities (which was the mission of the junior year abroad movement that began in the 1920s), but rather to get as many students as possible to have some kind of international experience. The old-fashioned and traditional notion of study abroad, which required a year-long commitment on the part of students who had prepared themselves linguistically in a second language, was looked upon as elitist and exclusionary. In order to make study abroad more diverse, study abroad became education abroad. Any type of organized educational experience abroad for which students were granted credit was considered education abroad. At education abroad conferences I even heard junior year abroad programs such as JYM referred to as dinosaurs, slowly waddling off into extinction, I suppose. As the number of education abroad programs hit the roof in the 1990s, a veritable education abroad industry emerged. And as the industry grew, education abroad became more and more professionalized. Standards of best practices were developed and expanded and developed and expanded, again and again, often drawing upon a new field of scientific research that expressed the value of education abroad in mathematical formulas designed to quantify not only a student’s experience abroad but also to legitimize and validate the profession of education abroad as a scientific discipline itself. (Wow - that was a mouthful, but true! Someday I may have to write more about that.) 

Yes indeed, study abroad as JYMers knew it decades ago had changed. But all of us at JYM met the challenges of a new era of study abroad head-on, while still remaining true to the spirit and mission of the program as it was first conceived. As with any organization, everyone at JYM has their role to play. And I feel so immensely fortunate to have worked with such a special team of special people over the course of 25 years. Dr. Hans-Peter Söder came on board as Resident Director in

Mark Ferguson and Louise Speed
The Dynamic Duo! Mark Ferguson with Louise Speed (Assistant to Director, JYF and JYM 1980-2018)

1994 and I joined the JYM team in 1995. Following in the footsteps of the legendary Dr. Marianne Riegler (aka FDR), the task was formidable and not easy for Hans-Peter (aka HP). In Munich, we benefited from the dedicated assistance of Helen Call, Phoedra Wickstrom and Lena Bittl in the front office during the early years, until we finally arrived at a stable team of Academic Coordinators with Sommer Forschner and Patricia Thill for the past 15 years. But the lifeline between the FDR era and Ferguson/Söder era was Louise Speed in Detroit, who stepped in to help administer both the Munich and Freiburg programs when Eleanor Tudor retired after her husband’s tragic death. Hans-Peter and I may have had a bunch of ideas about how to bring JYM into the 21st century, but Louise was always the ultimate go-to oracle we needed to consult before we acted on anything. It did not go unnoticed to either of us that she had a sign on her door which said: “Möchten Sie den Chef sprechen, oder jemanden, der sich auskennt?”!

I think we accomplished a heck of a lot during the past 25 years, especially given the challenges of 1994/95 when we started out with zero money in reserve and had to struggle tooth and nail for every student and for every step forward. In response to a changing study abroad student body as more and more students joined JYM from the social sciences and business, we introduced a number of new Program Features in Munich which have become stable components of JYM today, such as a one-semester study abroad option, internship opportunities and independent research projects. 

On the Munich side of JYM, we updated JYM courses (which in the past had been designed to fulfill broad general education courses), so that they took much more advantage of the unique cultural, historical and social assets that Munich has to offer. Whenever possible we wanted to include experiential components to JYM courses because this type of learning opportunity was not found in LMU courses. We also added new JYM Topics courses that responded to student interests in politics and public policy, ecology, sustainable energy, nature and the environment.

Mark Ferguson and Hans-Peter Soeder at the 50th celebration
Professor Hans-Peter Söder, Frau Dr. Marianne Riegler and Dr. Mark Ferguson at the 50th anniversary of JYM in 2003 in Munich.

We made independent study and internships credit-bearing coursework options with Undergraduate Research Project and Overseas Internship. And we responded to student extracurricular interests (that would vary from year to year) by arranging activities and excursions such as the European Cities Seminars, Italienische Reise, JYM Scholars program, Munich Summer Fellows program, JYM Summit Club and JYM Croquet Club and more. And we accomplished all this by still remaining true to JYM’s primary mission, namely to provide the support needed for students to take courses at LMU Munich. The proof is in the pudding, as Brecht said. On average JYM students would take well over 100 LMU courses annually. Not bad in an era when nearly all study abroad programs in Germany today are but a few weeks long and conducted in English!

On the Detroit side of JYM, I worked with Dr. Dallas Kenny to create German Bridge – die neue Brücke (1998-2003), a public and private sector partnership that connected German and German-American business interests with higher education in metro Detroit. This resulted in many guest speaker events video-conferenced between Detroit and Munich with members of the German government and representatives of German business. JYM even caught the attention of the State of Michigan which was interested in expanding its economic footprint globally, which resulted in two Michigan governors and a number of business leaders visiting JYM in Munich to talk about global workforce development. This was the time when I became very much involved with the German-American community in Michigan, where – because of the fact that there were 350 German companies at the time – I was able to help many JYM alumni find internships or jobs where they could use their German language and intercultural skills.

The Detroit side of JYM was also where we began efforts to re-connect to JYM alumni. When I came on board in 1995, we had just a handful of names and addresses of JYM alumni (on a reel-to-reel tape kept in a building for Parking!). Louise Speed and I spent many hours, weeks and months slowly hunting down alumni so we could invite them to JYM’s 50th-anniversary celebration in Munich in 2003. Today, I am super pleased that the efforts that started way back then have really flourished to the extent that we now maintain a connection to 83% of JYM’s 4300 alumni. I have always been so proud of JYM alumni who really prove to be a loyal group of program supporters by giving year after year to our JYM scholarship funds.

The ability of JYM to offer program scholarships at the level we do today makes JYM the envy of all other comparable study abroad programs in Germany. But I think it’s worth noting that this did not come about all by itself as if by magic. It took a lot of hard work connecting to alumni, building up relationships within and beyond the JYM community, countless hours of correspondence and meetings and get-togethers and attending events to promote the idea that giving to JYM is a worthwhile investment. It was difficult to get any kind of fundraising off the ground when I first started given everything else that needed to be done (not to mention moving JYM to a new location in Maxvorstadt) and for the first 15 years, I did all the fundraising entirely on my own. From 1995-2002 we had a total of only $19,290 in gifts to JYM’s General Scholarship Fund, which was our only alumni scholarship fund at the time. This amounted to a minuscule $2,755 in alumni giving annually. But ever since the 50th anniversary in 2003, alumni and friends of JYM have come forward not only to replenish our regular scholarship fund every year but also to help establish new scholarship funds to assist students in financial need. Thanks to the addition of four named endowed scholarships and 3 named annual memorial scholarships, in 2018-19 we awarded a total of $68,000 in JYM scholarships!

I always felt that one of the unique features of JYM was its affordability. Being based at a public university, I felt JYM had an obligation to keep the program fee as low as possible while at the same time high enough to cover our expenses. Compared to other junior year abroad programs in Germany with fees ranging from $35,000 to $74,000 per year, JYM has always been at the bottom of the list in terms of its fees. Even at $28,000 per year for tuition, housing and insurance, JYM is $16,000 less than the only other junior year abroad program in Munich (if you deduct $4000 from JYM’s program fee, which is the average full-year scholarship amount, JYM is $20,000 less than that other program in Munich!). I must admit that I really did enjoy the challenge of competing with big-name schools, wealthy schools and huge non-school study abroad providers and feel pretty good that JYM has always been able to offer more for less and still make the numbers work. 

Since 1995 I raised more than $3.2 million for the JYM program and nearly all of it for scholarships. Having significant scholarship funds available for students in need of assistance allowed us to keep the program fee in check and it was really quite fun to distribute awards to deserving students. There was even one eight-year stretch when we did not increase the JYM program fee at all! And I am so thrilled that JYM finally has a program endowment with the JYM Next Generation Fund to help cover essential operating expenses, which in turn should also allow JYM to keep the program fee affordable moving forward once its grows to a substantial level.

But of course, as much as it makes me feel good to list my fundraising successes, none of it would have been possible had it not been for the enthusiasm, engagement and incredible generosity of our alumni and friends of JYM. To all the former JYMers who give back (or pay forward, however you wish to call it) year after year by donating to our scholarships funds and to all those special people who have gone above and beyond by establishing endowed and annual scholarship funds (you know who you are!), I thank you most profoundly and hope that others will be inspired by your generosity, whether towards JYM or towards some other cause they are passionate about. 

I have always said that nobody really knows what we do behind the scenes at JYM (and I’m sure that everyone on the JYM team in Detroit in Munich will agree with that!). From the students’ perspective, they arrive in Munich where everything has been set up for them in advance and then they just take off on their JYM journey. And that’s the way it should be. But it is nice to be appreciated because working invisibly behind the scenes at JYM can be a thankless job. What ultimately motivated me day after day was to hear from so many alumni over the course of the past 25 years about how JYM impacted their lives.

For me, I’ve learned that the lasting impact of the JYM experience outlives any individual moment. It’s one thing for a recent returnee to come back and say how great it was to have done such and such while on JYM, but it’s quite an entirely different thing when former JYMers take the time to send a postcard, a letter or an email many, many years later – after all the dust of time has settled – to say that they recently were thinking about their JYM experience and just wanted to let us know how deeply meaningful it was for them. That’s the moment when all our work behind the scenes is validated and that’s the moment we secretly do the happy dance!

I never got that tenure-track job I dreamed about in graduate school and once I became JYM program director, I gave up looking for it. In retrospect, I consider myself to have been all the luckier for it and incredibly fortunate instead to have been involved in a cause greater than myself over the course of my career, greater than any one college or university, greater than any one course I designed and taught (of which there were many!). I must admit, I won’t miss the stress of the job (I’ve passed that on to my friend and competent colleague Prof. Lisa Hock!), but I will miss going through the old files from back then and rescuing more bits of JYM history I’m sure still deserve to be discovered.

As we all are well aware, JYM is confronted with unprecedented challenges because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But I am confident that JYM will successfully navigate the unknown and creatively respond to the new circumstances of study abroad in Germany moving forward. After all, JYM has always been “ein Experiment” that has adapted to circumstances year after year for 67 years. As long as there are students willing to embrace the challenges of long-term study abroad in a language not their own and as long as we continue to support them, JYM will flourish. And if my health holds out, I look forward to celebrating 75 years of JYM in 2028! Until then, I thank you all for enriching my life. 

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