How UNO's Michael Thompson Weathered the Storm

Michael Thompson Web ExtraBy Christopher Connell

This is a Web Extra! for the September/October 2006 issue of International Educator.

It complements the article: "After the Storm."

Fate drove Michael Thompson and half a million others out of New Orleans in late August 2005, and perhaps it was fate as well that landed the University of New Orleans undergraduate at Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus in Germany, last October.

What else explains the coincidence that two months after Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown, Thompson found himself studying in a city whose heraldic symbol is the crawfish, that symbol of New Orleans’ gastronomy, bonhomie, and bon temps?

Thompson, a geography and art history major at the University of New Orleans, was torn between wanting to stay and help his hometown rebuild and taking the unrivaled opportunity to add to the German he learned as a boy when his father was stationed in Germany in the U.S. Air Force.

Seeing that mighty, red crawfish hovering above a castle on the city of Cottbus’s Web site helped Thompson make up his mind. “I realized I would be safe and happy in Cottbus. After all, to a boy from Louisiana, any place with crawfish has to be good,” he later wrote in the BTU Beacon, the international student newspaper. His article chronicled expeditions around Cottbus to capture images of flags, statues, murals “or whatever else I can find in the shape of a crawfish.”

Michael Thompson’s family traces its roots in New Orleans back to the 1740s. “I live in Bucktown, a suburb of New Orleans. My house is 12 blocks from the border of the city and from the famous break in the 17th Street Canal,” he said in an interview by e-mail from Germany.

At age 40, Thompson was close to finishing the undergraduate education he’d begun a quarter-century earlier when he finished high school as a precocious, fun-loving 16-year-old. His biography reads like a John Kennedy Toole fable.

Too much partying derailed that first attempt at a college degree. He spent most of two decades in and around the restaurant business in New Orleans, as a waiter, cook, bartender, and manager, then lobbyist and training director for the Louisiana beverage industry. That was “a fun job with lots of perks; it is great to know almost every bartender in the state,” he said. But he threw over that career to start college anew at the University of New Orleans in 2002. When Katrina hit, he was starting his fourth year as an honors student double majoring in art history and geography.

“I specialize in the study of Orthodox Christian religious art, icons, and in early-20th century European painters,” he explained. In geography, his special interest is European popular culture. Widely read and multilingual, Thompson served as a peer educator for UNO’s University Success Program, and tutored students in French (he’s fluent), physics, and other subjects. He spent six weeks in summer 2005 on a UNO honors tour of Greece (he slept at Mount Athos and other monasteries) and traveling on his own to monitor elections in Albania and visit ancient sites in Turkey and Macedonia.

Thompson, a bachelor, left New Orleans at noon on Sunday, August 28, 2005, with his car “filled with as much as I could pack into it.” He drove to the home of his uncle and aunt in Baton Rouge, and later “when it became apparent that we could not go home,” traveled with his parents and nieces to a sister’s home in Austin, Texas, two days after the hurricane.

Juana L. Ibanez, geography instructor and undergraduate adviser for UNO’s Department of Geography, lost her home in New Orleans, but quickly established contact with students and faculty from a second home in Jackson, Mississippi, through cell phones, e-mail, and a bulletin board she set up at the Association of American Geographers’ Web site. “That contact with Juana kept me going during the darkest days after the storm. She is my personal hero,” said Thompson. “While everyone else was falling apart, she literally pulled the entire department together in a matter of days after the storm.”

The University of Texas was the alma mater of Ibanez and two of Thompson’s mentors, Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Merrill Johnson and Ron Hagelman. Geographers there welcomed Thompson and gave him a place to work on his honors thesis, even while UNO quickly got classes of its own going online. Thompson signed up to take three online classes and, as a peer educator, to help teach two sections of UNO’s University Success class.

Then on Friday, October 14, Thompson got a call from Juana Ibanez. Brandenburgische Technische Universität (BTU) in Cottbus, a city of 110,000 between Berlin and Dresden, just 18 miles from the Polish border, had given the University of New Orleans five full scholarships, courtesy of the Deutsche Akademische Austauch Dienst, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

With supplemental funds from a Cottbus bank, Sparkasse Spree-Neisse, the grants not only covered tuition and travel, but also provided a generous living allowance. Thompson discovered that BTU offered a unique graduate program on World Heritage Management sponsored by UNESCO.

After initial reluctance, Thompson finally listened to his family and faculty and decided to go. Alea Morelock Cott, UNO’s director of international education, and Juana Ibanez both told him that he could do much more good for New Orleans “over there by letting people know about what was happening with us,” he recalled. He bought his tickets on Friday, October 21 and boarded a plane for Frankfurt three days later.

“I can’t tell you how warmly I was welcomed to Cottbus,” he said. “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Beate Körner and Kathryn Prouty for keeping me out of the limelight, and away from people who were very curious about me, and allowing me the time I needed to adjust to my new situation.”

More than 1,000 of BTU’s nearly 5,000 students are international, and two programs are offered entirely in English. Thompson quickly made many friends, but found his German classmates more eager “to practice speaking English with a native speaker” than to help his German. “I always spoke German with the people in Cottbus and other places, but at the university I almost always spoke English,” he said. Faculty members were also grateful for pointers, including an architecture professor who was surprised to learn that the correct name for Charles der Große in English was Charlemagne.

Thompson originally thought he’d return home when the DAAD grant ended in February, but other opportunities soon presented themselves to him and other students from New Orleans. “Like all UNO students, I was told about an offer at the University of Orléans in France. This was tempting since I am the French tutor for UNO, and I love that country. Another offer was from the American College of Thessaloniki in Greece. As a Balkans and Orthodox art specialist, this was very tempting,” he said. But his experiences in Germany had been so enriching that he would end up choosing Phillips Universität in Marburg.

“This offer was funded by the government of Land Hessen, the government of the state where Marburg is located. Just after the storm, the grant from Land Hessen allowed seven Louisiana students to go there to study—five in Marburg, two in Frankfurt, and one other in Bavaria,” he said. For the second semester, “there was an allowance for five more Louisiana students. When I expressed an interest in Phillips, they created a sixth place for me. In the end, 13 Louisiana students ended up in Marburg.”

Thomas Komm, the head of the Foreign Office at Phillips, secured the grants from Land Hessen and laid out the royal carpet for the academic nomads from New Orleans. Thompson arrived in Marburg on February 28—Mardi Gras Day. Thompson placed in the third of four levels in the intensive German course. That was not quite advanced enough to enroll in regular classes taught entirely in German.

In one class taught by Bernard Poulelaouen, who is Breton, “we spoke French with each other, but I had to speak German with his assistants. The class was in English, so sometimes I had trouble figuring out what I had to speak in that class,” he said.

These escapades in Europe were hardly out of character for Thompson. “Through a combination of hard work, determination, and plain, old dumb luck, I have had many extraordinary experiences in my life and education,” he said. “My mother has long called me ‘Uncle Mame’ because I have chosen to live my life just as Auntie Mame did in the Broadway play and movie.”

Thompson’s family gave him strong moral and financial support during the year abroad, and he had the enthusiastic backing of UNO faculty and “the best international education office in any American university.” He relished the idea of helping UNO build ties to new partners overseas. “Alea made sure I understood that part of my job in Cottbus and Marburg was to make the contacts and act as a bridge between those schools and UNO. I am happy to say that we will soon have those formal ties,” he said.

Thompson found keen interest among German students in U.S. higher education, especially among those who, like Thompson, aspire to earn Ph.D.s. “They did not like some of our practices, such as testing throughout the semester and the general lack of team projects and presentations, but overall they admire our system greatly,” he said.

They also were struck by the technical research capacities that Thompson could tap even remotely. “I would often show my friends such research tools as LexisNexis and the ability I have through the UNO library system to get information online, and you would have thought I had shown them the Philosopher’s Stone,” he said.

When two professors from the Universidad de Zaragoza in Spain who were leading a computer seminar “found out that I was from New Orleans, they asked many questions about how UNO created our virtual university in such a short time. I showed them our tools, such as Blackboard, and demonstrated how our classes worked. They were astonished. They had seen nothing like this before,” he said.

But Thompson also found much to admire at the German universities he attended, including “hugely talented faculty” and ready access to museums and other resources. He also liked the longer, less frequent classes and the emphasis on giving presentations. “I would love to merge the best of both systems together to create the ideal system,” he said.

Now back at UNO completing his double major, Thompson will get an opportunity this year to encourage U.S. citizens to study abroad in Germany as a Young Ambassador for the DAAD. The German exchange service inaugurated the program in 2005-06, selecting 15 U.S. undergraduates who had just returned from studies in Germany. They receive an expense-paid, two-day trip to New York City to learn about the full range of international education opportunities open to U.S. students, not just in Germany but around the world. DAAD publishes their names and contact information on its Web site, and picks up the expenses for events the Young Ambassadors hold on their home campuses.

“Kathryn Prouty at BTU thought I would be an excellent candidate for the job, and she suggested I apply. I strongly felt that I had to do something to repay the tremendous generosity of the German people not only to me, but to the people of New Orleans,” said Thompson.

Thompson remains torn between geography and art history. “I’ve always joked that I want to be the first director for American art at the Louvre,” he said. Now his dreams include the possibility of returning one day with a Ph.D. to teach at BTU in the city of the crawfish.

For Thompson, “the crawfish has become a symbol of determination, rebirth, and safety that will forever be linked to my time at BTU,” he wrote in the BTU Beacon.

Christopher Connell is a veteran Washington, D.C. journalist and former assistant bureau chief of the Associated Press.