Program Aired Earlier in April on Maryland Public Television
University of Maryland University College’s (UMUC) rich history of globetrotting professors came to life recently with the private screening of a documentary that follows the university’s seven-decade mission of educating military personnel stationed overseas.
Entitled “Over There: The Adventures of Maryland’s Traveling Faculty,” the documentary follows the path of Maryland’s “Academic Foreign Legion” who adopted “Have Syllabus Will Travel” as their motto and hopped from military base to military base, sometimes in war zones, to offer college classes to the troops.
Inspired by a reunion hosted by UMUC President Javier Miyares in 2013 of the Overseas Marylanders Association, an alumni group of former faculty members and administrators that served abroad, the documentary was produced by Emmy-winning filmmaker Lauren Cardillo who used interviews with more than 60 past and present professors, historic video footage and still photographs to tell UMUC’s unique story. UMUC Senior Vice President Michael Freedman, served as executive producer and oversaw the four-year project.
The tale of these academic vagabonds aired on Maryland Public Television on April 15, and in primetime on April 18. View the program in its entirety here: https://video.mpt.tv/video/3011339953/
“It’s the tale of a great adventure, and it is so much more than that—a story of innovation and change, of vision and courage, of service and sacrifice by those who lived it,” said UMUC President Javier Miyares during his introduction at the screening. “Perhaps most of all, it is a call to action, a reminder to all of the role of higher education and how a willingness to learn and grow can change lives—and change the world in positive and lasting ways.”
The documentary opens with a boat trip by veteran professors on the Rhine-Neckar river at Heidelberg, Germany, the birthplace of Maryland’s overseas program, then hopscotches around the world allowing faculty members, administrators and former students to tell their stories of teaching and learning—sometimes under harrowing conditions.
In the film, Lisa Henkel, vice president of operations and planning at UMUC, relates a gripping account of a rocket attack on the U.S. Army base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, during a UMUC graduation ceremony, which, in seconds, transformed celebrating students and speakers into soldiers and generals.
“For a filmmaker, finding a story like this is like striking gold,” said Cardillo during a panel discussion after the documentary’s screening. “Here I could tell the story of this legacy of people who got themselves from country to country—every eight weeks—in the days before faxes and cellphones and computers. Somehow it all worked.”
Originally the College of Special and Continuation Studies branch of the University of Maryland College of Education, UMUC was the only institution in 1949 to answer the Defense Department’s call to provide an education to American military personnel overseas, first in Europe and then in Asia. In the ensuing decades, when competition for those Defense Department contracts became steep, UMUC has maintained its position largely on the reputation of its faculty members overseas, said John Golembe, former dean and director of UMUC Europe.
“There were special faculty members who had the desire to go because they felt that those were the students who needed it most,” said Paula Harbecke, a former director of both UMUC’s Europe and Asia divisions. She described the complexity of moving professors to military bases around the world, often on eight-week assignments—and sometimes into dangerous situations, such as the war in the Balkans in the 1990s—as the continuous reshuffling of a deck of faculty-member playing cards.
“I need an anthropologist—in Iceland—because they have requested an anthropologist [there,]” she said. “I look at my playing cards” and find an anthropology professor who could fill that assignment. “Whether it was Iceland . . . Korea . . . the Balkans, we were trying to ensure the faculty was there when they were needed.”
Alumnus Rich Blewitt, who represented former students at the film’s post-screening discussion, said that during his time as a Navy enlistee in Japan, UMUC truly turned his life around.
“I had bombed out of college as a freshman,” he said. “I was pretty down.”
Then one day while walking around the base, he said he spotted a UMUC office and a recruiter enticed him to walk in.
“That started a 40-year love affair with UMUC,” said Blewitt, who today is both a successful businessman and past chairman of UMUC’s Board of Visitors. “That day in April 1969 saved my life and created an appreciation I will never stop having.”
Henkel, a former director of downrange and Europe operations in UMUC’s overseas division, suggested that, for her, appreciating the full value of taking college courses to servicemembers overseas—particularly to those in war zones—came quickly after her initial trips to Afghanistan.
She recalled that on one of her first forays there, the commanding officer called her into his office with a question. Where was UMUC selling textbooks?
At her reply—the education center—she said that he told her to put up a warning sign there. The soldiers, he explained, wore Kevlar vests with individual plates to protect them from gunfire and, when bogged down with military equipment, soldiers were replacing those heavy plates with textbooks.
“Ma’am,” she said he told her, “I am going to need you to understand that education can do a lot, but it is not bulletproof.”
When a patrol comes back to base after losing a man in action, she said, they are required to go to a “recovery tent” where they stay together to grieve and decompress before being cleared to undertake another mission. There were only two reasons patrol members could leave that tent—to visit a chaplain or to get chow, she said.
“When we opened our fourth site in Afghanistan, we were told they [officials] wanted to add a third reason for leaving the tent,” she said. “And that was to come to a UMUC class.”
These classes were a safe place for the soldiers, Henkel said. They often would write things in their papers that they could not tell their fellow soldiers. Some would give a speech that they could not tell their sergeants or their families back home.
“I’m not saying we were on a par with God and food, but I was overwhelmed with the impact of our classes,” she said. “The professors carry so many of their students’ burdens. Our faculty were their light at the end of the tunnel.”
Golembe and former UMUC Vice President Julian Jones, both trained as historians, said they were aware that UMUC was making history with this ground-breaking overseas program. For Golembe, it was about reaching these students who probably would never have had a chance at a college education without it, thus changing their lives and the lives of everyone around them.
“We were constantly thinking about how we could preserve this as history,” Jones said. “We were almost thinking of it as Greeks thought about history. You want to preserve the great deeds of people in the past to educate those in the present and future. That is what I feel this documentary has achieved.”
What: “Over There: The Adventures of Maryland’s Traveling Faculty”
Originally aired: Maryland Public Television (MPT) on April 15 and MPT2 on April 18
View the documentary on the Maryland Public Television webpage here: https://video.mpt.tv/video/3011339953/
Visit umuc.edu to learn more about UMUC’s Overseas Marylanders in their own words.