Wanderlust: Jennie Wallace '02
Jennie Wallace ’02 didn’t even know what “Je ne parle pas Francais” meant* when she moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in 2002 to pursue a Diplôme d’Êtudes Approfondies (master’s degree) in international relations from the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Études Internationales. A few years later her Arabic was nonexistent when she began to tutor a Tunisian army major in security policy. And how good was her Tibetan this past July when she walked into that Buddhist monastery outside Kathmandu?Let’s just say she was ready to fall back on her Arabic if she had to.
Above: Jennie Wallace at her new home in College Park, Md.; with the ascetics at Pashupatinath, a prominent Hindu temple near Kathmandu; with her class of young Nepalese monks.
Wallace’s wanderlust dates back to her junior year abroad in Florence, Italy, but it was her years in Geneva that showed her just how wide her horizons could be.
“I’m driven by a curiosity to understand unfamiliar cultures,” she said. “This has motivated me to learn languages, live abroad, and travel whenever and wherever possible.”
Wallace always wanted to have a better understanding of world politics, but in Geneva she began to wonder why countries and individuals behave the way they do. “I wanted to understand how political, religious, cultural, and personal motivations shape their actions.”
Even though she spoke no French—“it was a baptism by fire,” she admitted—Jennie learned a great deal from her classmates. “The Institut had small classes that encouraged discussion. The opportunity to learn from my peers, who had such an array of backgrounds, was one of the most important benefits of studying in Geneva. It provided a variety of perspectives on world issues.”
After earning her degree, Wallace joined the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, which trains diplomats, military officers, and civil servants in international peace and security policy. She coordinated a course in security policy and taught a weekly reading seminar for participants who weren’t native English speakers.
Wallace recalled working with one student, a major from Tunisia, who was “eager to learn but didn’t have the English skills to express himself or totally absorb what he was reading. It was such a wonderful experience to see the light bulb switch on when he understood something I explained.”
A light bulb also switched on for Wallace: She discovered that she wanted to teach, preferably at a college. So she enrolled at the University of Maryland to pursue a Ph.D. in political science, with a focus on environmental cooperation and security in Southeast Asia. “I’m interested in seeing how the environment can be used to build cooperation between countries that have a potential for conflict.”
But first, summer beckoned, the last before another five to seven years of study. So Wallace took a vacation. To the Riviera? To an alpine spa? Think again.
She went to Nepal to volunteer in a monastery, teaching English to monks. Wallace had 45 students, boys from five to 16, in two classes. Some were orphans or from remote villages that didn’t have schools, while others were given to the monastery as spiritual offerings from their families. She taught the students English grammar as well as a little geography. “I would hang up a world map and we’d play geography games. This probably reflects my bias toward the study of international relations!”
Her classroom was divided in half by a partial wall. A senior monk taught Tibetan on one side while Jennie conducted her lessons on the other. “Sometimes I was trying to teach over the sound of 45 monks chanting in Tibetan, and sometimes their lesson would be drowned out by my kids shouting the ABCs.”
Nepal was “an incredible experience” that taught her a lot about herself and the world. “In the West,” she explained, “we forget how much we can learn from the people and cultures of the developing world. My time in Nepal reminded me to slow down and enjoy the beautiful day, and to appreciate how much I have, while at the same time knowing that happiness is not based on material wealth.”
An important lesson, well worth traveling for.
*“I don’t speak French.”