Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Mark Twain, 1869
Even to me, my expat life sounds exotic: over the past seven years, I’ve lived on three continents, four countries and five cities. I’ve moved from Boca Raton, Fla., to Chicago to Yong-in, South Korea, to Heidelberg, Germany, to the Netherlands. But I’m not alone.
I’m mostly not alone, sometimes, in these far-flung locales when my husband isn’t TDY (temporary duty) or in a phase of pre-deployment, away on deployment, trying to return from being deployed (dust storms delay flights) or otherwise detained “in the field” – and when he’s in the field, he’s literally in a field playing a very grown up, very serious game of Capture the Flag. I married an Army officer. I married the military. And, here I am, age 35. Expat. Non-traditional graduate student. Army wife. And to my Dutch neighbors’ consternation, abysmal gardener and planter of upside-down tulip bulbs.
In my past life – the life I led before becoming a military spouse – I was an educational social worker. But, when my last blind date turned from “he’s cute” to “I do,” and I found out we’d be celebrating our first anniversary in South Korea, it gave me a chance to re-evaluate my professional goals. I had a degree in special education and a concentration in psychology and sociology from Youngstown State University, but I was burned out from teaching and the social work. So when I wasn’t dodging sidewalk drivers in Korea or haggling for “best morning price” on mink blankets, I started shopping around for online graduate degree programs. But nothing interested me – MBAs? International business? Ugh! Not my pot of kimchi. I kept looking. We traveled. And my world view expanded.
The Great Wall. The Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an, China. Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul. Chakri Mahaprasat Throne Hall in Bangkok. Then we found ourselves living in Heidelberg, Germany. And between pre-deployment field exercises and TDYs, we zoomed along the Autobahn and traveled, and I killed our plants. The Rijksmuseum. The Altes Museum. Fort Breendonk. The Vatican. Then . . .Deployment. And the black hole of being left alone in a foreign country. No family, only our “military family.” Two 15-minute phone calls a week – that is, if the lines weren’t disconnected while we talked. Unless you’ve been there, you can’t know that feeling of helplessness and frustration. “I love . . .,” click, the phone’s dead. Please, God, just let it be the phone.
If I’m honest with myself, it was those disconnected phone calls that helped re-solidify my goals of earning a graduate degree. I remember thinking, if my husband doesn’t come back in the same condition he left, I don’t want to have to go back to teaching or social work. This combined with the fact that my husband had his master’s degree, had spurred my ego (hell, he couldn’t be the only one with a master’s degree in the house!) to find a program. Now that I had a little life experience under my belt, I firmly knew where my interests lay – in travel, in history and in museums.
Three months after my hero returned from Iraq, we moved to the Netherlands and were sitting in our introductory Dutch language class at the military education center. During een tien minute pauze and for the zillionth time I checked out the graduate program brochures . . . and came across one I had never seen before: the University of Oklahoma’s College of Liberal Studies (CLS) Museum Studies Program. I snatched it out of its holder and went back to my seat. I set the crimson brochure down in front of my husband and said, “I’m doing this.” I hadn’t even looked inside, but I knew it was for me. I had walked through some of the world’s most spectacular archaeological sites and museums, and at every one of them I wanted to know, “What in the world goes on behind the ‘staff only’ doors?”
A month later, my husband was in Afghanistan. I tore up the back yard and when my frustrations were raked and pounded and planted (upside-down) into the ground, I applied to OU’s CLS Museum Studies Program. After almost five years of searching for a graduate degree, I started classes in September 2007.
At first I felt at a disadvantage because I live overseas and was sorely out-of-touch with American culture and society, but the further I got into the curriculum, the more I felt the opposite. Distance learning fit into my time schedule, not me into it, and even more, it’s personalized. For example, I read extensively about climbing, so for my World of a Museum class I created, staffed and cut the budget for my imaginary Montana Mountaineering Museum (M3); and for the Museum Architecture class, I designed the M3’s building to include a climbing wall (even though I relocated it to Denver). In a fantastic turn of assignment-meets-reality, I actually came face-to-face with a far-flung reference I had cited – the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara, Nepal – this past December when my husband and I traveled through India and up into Nepal. Who knew? The CLS Museum Studies curriculum is challenging as it is comprehensive and allows each student to solve real-world problems from their own perspectives – even when those perspectives are viewed from across the Atlantic.
But without a doubt, the most rewarding aspect of participating in the CLS’s Museum Studies program has been my involvement in the curriculum-bound museum project that I started last summer. My first hurdle was to find a local museum or historical society willing to work with me in my native language. After consulting with the local OU representative, I called the U.S.-run Netherlands-American Cemetery and Memorial to see if they could use an indentured grad student, and as it happened, they could. Their parent organization, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) in Washington, D.C. had required the 24 overseas ABMC sites to document all privately erected monuments and memorials dedicated to U.S. service members since WWI for their internal database. I spent last summer – and will spend this coming summer thanks to Professor Gail Anderson taking me back as an Independent Study student – crisscrossing the Dutch countryside to finish documenting all 124 (at last count) privately erected WWII monuments and memorials in the Netherlands. I couldn’t do that from a classroom.
As a military spouse who is mostly, sometimes, alone, I’ve squared myself with the fact that physical distance will always separate me from one thing or another, but it is that separation that gives me a unique perspective to realize there are no barriers – to love, to learning or the love of learning, military spouse style.
Boland earned a Master of Art: Museum Studies degree in summer 2009.