Ben Hurst is full of surprises, not the least of which is where he’ll be in five months: Teaching English to German students, in German, in Germany.
The Fulbright is a tremendous honor, a prestigious program within the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Ben makes the ninth UAA German language student to win this award. In the past, two Spanish language students also won, and this year, the Fulbright program selected a second scholar from UAA. Crystalyn Lemieux, who is Tlingit and grew up in Haines, will go on a Fulbright to Canada next year. We’ll follow with her interview in Seawolf Weekly soon.
Ben, a December 2015 graduate, finished with a degree in German, a minor in psychology and a deep passion for history—all earned as an undergraduate here at UAA.
During last December’s holiday break, instead of basking in his new-found, post-college freedom, Ben realized something important about himself. As he put it, with a quick laugh: “Oh crap! I actually kind of like learning!” In fact, he deeply missed the stimulation of professor-led discussions in history, psychology, German culture and literature. He missed thinking about ideas that were new to him, a situation that had become integral to his UAA undergraduate experience.
Ben remedied his withdrawal symptoms by coming back to campus spring semester for one more brainwave infusion—a German literature class on Franz Kafka. That class also helped him stay fresh with language skills while he awaited word on the Fulbright.
Now he has the green light. In mid-September, he’ll head for orientation in Cologne, then travel to the state where he’ll teach, Lower Saxony. That happens to be the same state where fellow UAA Fulbright scholar Oliver Petraitis is just finishing his first year in Germany. Oliver is in Westfalia; Ben still awaits his city assignment.
Makings of a Fulbright scholar
What does it take to win the mind- and life-expanding experiences that are the Fulbright? A short conversation with Ben reveals some of the stellar qualities he brought to his application: how much he values classroom engagement, a well-developed work ethic, and how carefully he’s thought about his future.
He’s been to Germany twice already. As a Service High School German language student, he spent two weeks with a host family in Hamburg, one of about 14 students on the trip.
How did he ever manage to choose German as a college academic career, all the way back in high school? He answers with self-deprecating humor: “All of my friends decided to do it. We didn’t like any of the other languages offered. So it was just peer pressure, and a 14-year-old mentality.”
Whatever the motivation, the language stuck.
His second trip to Germany came at the end of January this year, when for about two weeks he visited his brother, now serving as a Russian language specialist with the U.S. Army there. His parents and grandparents gave him the trip as a gift.
The two brothers are twins, and very close. (“I am six minutes older than him,” Ben makes the point.) Together, they visited his old high school host family in Hamburg, and Ben enjoyed traveling the country with his now much fuller understanding of German culture. “It was cool to have the freedom I didn’t have when I went in high school,” he said.
But what’s Australia got to do with it?
Good question, but remember we said Ben was full of surprises. For example, his unexpected dream job in life is to eventually find work as a fire fighter.
“That one is strange,” he acknowledged, smiling. “When I was really young, I always wanted to be a fire fighter, or a construction worker.” That drive dissipated over time, but then re-emerged in an interesting way—on a trip to Australia. Once again, Ben was visiting his peripatetic twin, Sam.
Sam skipped college in favor of adventure travel and Ben, mid-way through his own college career, took a several-month trip to visit him. Together they did a lot of backpacking in Australia, and Ben spent time pondering his future: What did he really want to do with his life? “What is something that can help the community and that also seems fun to me?” he asked himself. “What’s a good way to give back?”
The idea of fire fighting returned in full force, for many different reasons. Ben said he’s never been attracted to the nine-to-five idea, or maximizing his earning potential in some quest for the American dream. “I just want to be comfortable enough so that I’m not drowning in debt, and I have a job that I enjoy and that helps the community grow,” he said.
A word from his professor
Natasa Masanovic, chair of the languages department and Ben’s German professor and Fulbright mentor, praised her student. “Ben has shown one of the biggest progresses I have seen in a student. He came here with a big motivation to learn German and to know all about the German culture, and he has achieved all of that.”
She also knows he’ll be visiting German fire fighters during his Fulbright year, which she sees as a terrific way to engage in the local community.
She, too, remembered a big change in Ben after his deep-think trip to Australia. She had encouraged the trip, even though it meant taking a semester off from school. These opportunities don’t come later, she told him.
And, “when he came back, I could see the progress, the maturity in him,” she said.
She describes Ben as a very humble person who needs to be reminded that he is, indeed, such an achiever. “I tell him all the time,” she said, “he is a very good human being with such a good heart.”
She saw his character in action over and over in group discussions, when students spoke together in German.
“He was a wonderful peer to his classmates,” she said. “When they do group work, he was so forthcoming, so supportive. He would just listen until the end of their conversation and then he would come up with this polite version in German to say, ”That’s great, and let me add this….”
He has everything to be successful, she said. “He will do great things.”
Unbeatable work ethic
One does not major in German language and culture, minor in psychology and take more history classes than needed—without possessing a serious work ethic.
It’s clear Ben’s view of how work gets done comes from his parents, local “front-of-the-house” restaurant managers who’ve graced many of Anchorage’s finest dining spots.
Work life began when the twins were teens, Ben remembers. His dad had befriended an owner of a local food truck who needed workers. He decided his two sons, then age 14, needed jobs. Their learning curve was steep, Ben remembers. “It was really going from never working, to working every day for a very demanding boss.”
But Ben stuck with it. He ended up working nine summers for the food truck, including managing it and supervising all the other workers. He’s also worked four years of summer shifts at The Bridge, a catering operation that opens for dinners during the heavy summer season.
With family in the business, and his own near-decade of food work experience, Ben says he can read the staffing/problems in a restaurant in seconds. But he keeps it all to himself. He’s just so happy to eat food delivered by someone else, he generously foregoes any criticism.
Parting words for fellow students
When I asked Ben what advice he’d recommend to new students at UAA, he knew the answer immediately.
“What I have noticed in entry-level classes with a lot of freshman students, they’re afraid to raise their hand and make a comment. I say, ‘Just ask.’ No one cares. The professor won’t belittle you. So ask your question, say your comment. It’ll engage you, and it will engage the professor, too.”
He said he also figured out that college was much more than work force development. “I figured that out in Australia. I went to school, not for a job, but for the learning.” He credited professors like Ian Hartman and Bill Myers in history, and Eric Murphy in psychology.
“There are great professors in every department,” he said. And of his Fulbright mentor: “Professor Masanovic is so welcoming, so kind and warm-hearted. She wants you to succeed, and you know that from day one.”
Written by Kathleen McCoy, UAA Office of University Advancement