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May 30, 2002

Working abroad is worth exploring: Pitt staffer extols virtues of working overseas

What do stray cats, gun-toting hitchhikers, Albert Schweitzer, human teeth on display, a diplomatic reception for the king and queen of Greece, a pink elephant, and spectacular vistas of mountains and villages in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa have in common?

They're all part of a new videotape produced by Pitt's E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms Programs, promoting international employment opportunities. Titled "Working Abroad Is Worth Exploring: From West Virginia to West Africa," the 37-minute tape narrated by Bruhns uses a compilation of her personal color slides from the 15 years of government service she and her husband Fred performed prior to Maxine joining the Pitt staff in 1965.

The Bruhnses spent on average one-two years each in Austria, Lebanon, Jordan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Germany, Greece and Gabon, covering a rich assortment of cultures, religions, customs and cuisines, various forms of government, and conditions of both poverty and wealth.

The promotional tape is geared toward middle school and high school students, offering some basic recent history of the featured countries as well as tips on what to study and where to look in preparation for international job opportunities, but it will appeal to all who are curious about working and living abroad. "The purpose of the video is to give students a personal view of why they should learn languages and study other cultures," says Bruhns, who financed the project as a labor of love and is distributing the video free of charge to schools requesting a copy.

"Whenever you see Americans overseas, be they ambassadors, missionaries, United Nations teams or (like Fred Bruhns) refugee experts, there is also support staff who manage the communications center, housing, schools, libraries, secretarial and motor pool staff," Bruhns says in kicking off her appeal. "There are jobs out there for you."

She adds that there are more than 75 international job sources, including the World Health Organization and other United Nations wings; the Peace Corps; religious and charitable non-profit agencies; medical, scientific and environmental research and service organizations, business and trade companies; journalism and media jobs; academic and student exchanges, and positions in engineering, law, medicine and education.

"So keep an eye out for job opportunities as I show you how I lived abroad and loved it," Bruhns advises viewers.

The idea for the videotape originated in 1993 when Bruhns was invited to talk to students at her high school in Bridgeport, West Virginia, about her international experiences. "I also wanted to make something to preserve our experiences that can be viewed at my funeral," she confides with a twinkle in her eye.

"I always took slides wherever we went," Bruhns says. The videotape includes shots of Maxine and Fred's wedding reception sans her parents, who didn't approve of her marriage choice. "After we were married, though, my parents forgave us and became very fond of Fred. Lesson: Marry the right person no matter what."

German-born Fred Bruhns (born Friedrich Karl Otto Bruhns) was active in anti-Nazi youth activities and spent two years in a juvenile prison before sneaking out of Germany illegally to France. He later emigrated to the United States, served in the U.S. Army in Italy and then enrolled at Ohio State where the pair met before marrying shortly afterward.

In 1948, Fred Bruhns was hired by the U.N. International Refugee Organization to help resettle World War II refugees in Austria. Maxine found an administrative job there with the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. This was the first of several government assignments that led the girl with hillbilly roots and a West Virginia accent to experience quite a lot of the world.

She credits her affinity for and desire to learn languages as a key to enjoying her experiences. "I speak good French, flawed German and I can get by in Farsi and Cambodian. I also can curse like hell in Arabic," an important talent for marketplace bargaining, she says. But she adds that exposure to a wide range of cultures and customs is irreplaceable as life-experience. "I draw on my international experiences every day in directing the Nationality Rooms Programs."

Following the Austrian tour of duty, the Bruhnses traveled for six months on back roads through France, Spain and North Africa. Later, the couple toured Turkey, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia between assignments. "Another advantage of working abroad is that often there are places to visit which are nearby to where you're assigned and easily accessible and usually inexpensive for weekends or when you're vacationing," she points out.

From Austria, the couple spent two years as students at Stanford. Fred studied sociology and refugee migration patterns, while Maxine studied psychology.

In 1954 Fred won a two-year Ford Foundation fellowship to study Palestinian refugee attitudes in Lebanon and Jordan. During that tour, Maxine earned a master's degree in educational psychology at the American University of Beirut.

From Lebanon, the U.S. Department of State hired Fred in 1955 to work in South Vietnam. There he headed the refugee resettlement effort of some 800,000 mostly Catholic Vietnamese who were making their way south following the 1954 division of the country at the 17th parallel. Maxine distributed supplies through CARE and taught English to South Vietnamese military personnel.

In 1957 the couple was transferred by the U.S. International Cooperative Agency to bordering Cambodia. Fred served as program officer, planning economic aid efforts. Maxine taught English to a group of Buddhist monks, who ordinarily are segregated from women. "They were forbidden contact with women," Bruhns says, "so when I passed them a book, I had to put it on the table first. But they liked me. They ended up calling me 'mother.' One of them would stop by our house at all hours, and ask, 'Is my mother here? Is she okay?' which drove my husband crazy."

In 1959, the government transferred Fred to Tehran, Iran, at that time headed by the Shah and friendly to the U.S. Maxine studied Farsi and taught English at the Iran-American Binational Center.

"As with Lebanon, Vietnam and Cambodia, Iran later became a hazardous place for foreigners. We always seemed to be a hop ahead of disasters," Bruhns acknowledges, but she still endorses international living and travel, even in the post-Sept. 11 world. "As my husband often says, 'Taking risks is the only way to live life.'"

Bruhns points out that American embassies are always reliable sources of information about the stability of a country, where travel is discouraged and what problems to look out for.

"Embassies brief you on a country's protocols and customs," Bruhns says. "In government service, you're usually assigned to where your skills and training are most needed. My advice is: Learn languages; develop your skills at saving souls, lives or minds; check with the embassies, and when you see trouble in a foreign country get away from it, however tempting it may be to watch."

Other stops for the Bruhnses included Germany in 1960, where Fred represented the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and Athens where in 1961 he became the special delegate of the commission, resettling Albanians, Romanians and Armenians displaced by the two world wars.

The couple also lived in Gabon, West Africa, where Fred served as chief of the U.S. Economic Aid Mission. Bruhns says her most memorable African trip was visiting the famous humanitarian physician Albert Schweitzer at his jungle hospital in Lambarene in 1964, a year before his death at 94.

"I am led past a line of patients waiting for their single dose of medication," her videotape narration reveals. "Just inside the door, I am greeted by Dr. Schweitzer himself sitting with his skinny cat at a simple wooden table writing letters. He speaks German with me and invites me to spend the night. … [He] was delighted with the American honey and seeds I brought him." Bruhns adds that some of the pictures of the visit were taken by a Peace Corps volunteer from, of all places, West Virginia.

In 1965, the Bruhnses came to Pittsburgh where Fred earned a Ph.D. at Pitt and was hired as a faculty member at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

Maxine says, "I found the perfect job at the University working with the city's ethnic groups to build nationality classrooms representing their culture." The work continues to take her all over the world looking for authentic artifacts appropriate to the design and construction of planned classrooms and feeding on her love of other countries developed from her extensive travels. This summer she's hoping to travel to Rwanda to observe certain endangered species.

For more information on the working abroad videotape, call the Nationality Rooms Programs at 412/624-6150.

–Peter Hart

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