This past March just before we all had to socially distance, I had the pleasure to have lunch with one of our alums, Eric Eissler, who recently returned to Pittsburgh as a successful young professional after some time abroad and in the Midwest. Eric graduated from Pitt with a German major, background in Linguistics and Certificate in West European Studies in 2009. As we all remember, this was not an easy year for entering the job market which was strongly felt by those with humanities degrees. Yet, as Eric put it: “If you have the, will, energy and determination, you can craft a career path for yourself with any degree.” He is now working as a Software Developer for a major corporation here in Pittsburgh even though he left Pitt without a computer since degree. “Aber eins nach dem anderen” - since Eric’s career path took some interesting twists and turns.
Studying in Götting, Germany for a semester had not quelled Eric’s “Wanderlust” nor his interest in learning foreign languages. His original intention was to work his way across Europe and learn more languages right where they are spoken and eventually apply for graduate studies in Germanic linguistics. With unemployment in Europe high, chances to get a job as a foreigner were slim at the time. So, Eric switched his timeline and decided to frontload his graduate degree. Well-equipped with Swedish he learned through Pitt’s LCTL-Program (Less-Commonly-Taught-Languages), he applied for M.A.-programs in Germanic Linguistics in Europe which he pursued for a year at the University of Lund, Sweden. In the end, Eric switched majors and moved to Malmö, Sweden, whose university he left with an M.A. in European Studies. Universities in most European countries do not charge any tuition, but they typically also do not provide scholarships and financial aid is not available for non-EU citizens. Living frugally, as Eric told me, he managed to support himself by language teaching in an adult continuing education program in Malmö.
I asked Eric to compare life abroad with our lives here in the US and he spontaneously said: “Oh, it’s so different!” Pressed on what’s so different, he emphasized two aspects which he felt were key to life in Sweden, Germany and other European countries he visited. For one, he said, he liked that cities are the center of life which means that there is no urban sprawl, no need to own a car, especially not since public transportation is very well developed. Not having to maintain a car helps everyone hold down cost of living which was important for Eric as an international student but also has ecological benefits. The second thing which Eric found impressive, is the “collective mentality” of Europeans that they are willing to support individually a common cause. He explained it with respect to the ecological mindset Northern Europeans have in comparison to Americans. The called the Swedish recycling system “fantastic,” meaning well thought out but its success in reducing landfill, carbon emission etc. is due to everyone pitching in because everyone feels individually responsible for the common good of protecting the environment.
Despite Eric’s enthusiasm for Germanic languages, his concept of Europe expands beyond the borders of the EU. When the opportunity presented itself to work for a translation company in Turkey, he moved to Istanbul where he worked and lived for two and a half years. I guess, Eric saw the puzzled look on my face when he admitted that, yes, his Turkish was close to zero when he moved but improved rapidly once there. Eric credited the Turkish people with his ability to pick up their native language so fast. He told me that “Turkish people love America and Americans” and were always eager to talk to him. He was also quite surprised at the number of US franchise brands - including Popeye’s ! -, you can find in Istanbul in comparison to Sweden or other European countries. In Turkey, Eric’s German language skills came in handy, especially in the beginning of his stay. Having studied Germany intensively at Pitt, he, of course, knew that many Turkish people have German language skills for historical reasons but more recently due to the strong labor migration ties between the two countries. Naturally, I asked Eric about what was challenging for him in Turkey. At first, he said that he was simply overwhelmed moving from small Malmö with a population of around 320 000 people to bustling metropolis of Istanbul with a population of 20 million people.
Eventually, Eric felt it was time to head back to the US, especially since a job opportunity offered itself in Chicago and his soon-to-be Turkish wife was there, too. While working in Chicago, he realized that getting some academic credential in Software Development and Website Design would be beneficial for the professional career he developed out of his intense interest of and expertise in foreign languages and cultures. Getting admitted to this “boot camp” like program (Eric’s term) at Northwestern University was not easy. Obviously suspicious of an applicant with degrees in the humanities – German B.A. and M.A. in European Studies from abroad -, Eric had to report for an interview at Northwestern University and was asked whether he felt prepared to handle this rigorous professional program. So, here is Eric’s persuasive reply: “Aside from my native English, I speak three foreign languages fluently – German, Swedish and Turkish. Once you have learned one foreign language, you can learn others much more quickly and easily. And, coding is after all nothing but the various languages through which we communicate with the computer.”
On this insightful note, let me just say “Welcome back to Pittsburgh” and congratulations to Eric and his wife on the arrival of their daughter this summer. (By S. von Dirke)