Giving the gift of cultural immersion

Professor Emeritus of German Charles Connell knows what studying abroad can do for a student. 

Charles Connell, professor emeritus of German
Charles Connell, professor emeritus of German

Being immersed in another culture and language gives students perspectives and teaches them skills that they can’t learn in a classroom in the United States. Connell knows firsthand how transformative it can be—he spent four semesters as a student in Germany; 1956-57 in Munich, and 1963-64 in Berlin. He said those experiences were what set him on the path toward a career teaching German.

During his 44 years of teaching at Cornell (1968-2012), Connell was also involved in choosing students to receive financial aid to study off campus. That experience showed him that there wasn’t enough money to go around, and that more scholarships for off-campus study were needed.

So after retiring he decided to do something about that, and he has given a gift to start The Connell Family International Off-Campus Study Endowment Fund. He gave more than $100,000 to create the endowment—about 10 percent of the money he earned during his Cornell career, he said.

“It seemed like an important thing to do,” he said. “More money will help more students study internationally.”

Cornell’s language department has always promoted study abroad, and the German section encouraged its students to experience language as a way of life. In the 1950s through 1980s, this often happened through the programs of the School for International Study, based in Brattleboro, Vermont, which sent students to live with a German family for a semester. Later, students were able to spend time in Germany through enrollment in short language courses from the Goethe Institute, the Federal Republic’s cultural institute. It helps that the institute uses a calendar similar to One Course At A Time, Connell said, so students were able to spend four or eight weeks in Germany, immersed in the language, then return to Cornell and pick up where they’d left off.

The name of the fund hints at the Connell family’s deep connections to Cornell. In addition to his decades-long teaching career, Connell and his late wife, Felicitas Klein Connell, sent two daughters to Cornell—Deirdre Connell ’87 and Allegra Connell Frank ’88. Both Connell and his second wife, Barbara Christiansen, are honorary alumni of Cornell. Barbara’s late husband, Paul Christiansen, was a biology professor at Cornell from 1967 to 1995, her son and daughter-in-law, Dana Christiansen ’79 and Elizabeth Hicken Christiansen ’79, are both alumni, and her grandson, John Christiansen, is a member of the Class of 2015.