Holger Wagner

Meet Holger

Majors and year of graduation: International Studies, Spanish; 1997 (Minor: Business)

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? What brought you to Northern Michigan University? What did you study?

I am originally from southern Germany and came to Marquette first in December 1992 to visit my pen-pal with whom I had been in touch since he visited my hometown in 1985 and stayed with me for a week. Up until then, the idea of studying overseas had not crossed my mind, but since I was going to finish up an apprenticeship in Germany in 1993, I thought “why not follow that up with studies in the US”. I popped into the admissions office, had a quick chat with a counselor, filled out the application at home, sent it in, received an admission letter, and the rest is history. I enrolled in International Studies with a business minor and later added Spanish as a major as well, because I had so much fun in the Spanish class and Prof. Compton was such an excellent teacher and mentor.

2. What are you doing now? Where are you? Where are you working?

 I live in Nairobi, Kenya with my family and work for an organization called Oxfam, one of the biggest humanitarian aid organizations in the world. My job is to look after projects and funding in Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The particular focus of my work is on supporting emergency projects in water and sanitation, livelihoods, education, and capacity building for local community organizations. I travel frequently to various project areas where access is possible. Given the situation in Somalia and in parts of Sudan, it is not always easy to get to specific areas.

3. Has your second language benefited your career? If so, how has it helped?

I enjoy speaking Spanish wherever I can, although it does not play a major role in my current job. The language of International Development is English, so there is very little room for other languages as the most common denominator among people from different places around the world is often English. I do have a colleague from Spain, who works with me in the Nairobi office, so I do get a chance to apply my language skills now and then. When I was still working in South Africa and was close to the border with Mozambique, the Spanish came in handy to understand Portuguese colleagues, although I claim no speaking ability in Portuguese.

4. Does your second language come into play outside from work?

There a few Spanish speakers in Nairobi, so apart from my good colleague from Spain, it is difficult to speak Spanish outside of that context. There is an annual Spanish Ball, however, but I have not been there yet.

5. Is this where you imagined yourself ending up after Northern?

The good thing is that I never imagined any particular place. I just knew that the time at NMU and the accompanying credentials would get me places and most of my career has been a mixture of personal tenacity, presented opportunities, good flexibility, and pure luck. I knew that I wanted to work in Africa and I left NMU in 1997 to move to South Africa. After that I knew that once arrived on the continent, opportunities would present themselves and an exciting journey would begin. It has so far been 1 3 years and I cannot wait to find out what is around the next corner.

6. What is a favorite memory you have from your language studying days at Northern?

I really enjoyed the journey from Spanish 101 over 201, then 305 to 405 and my independent study in South America. All along I was accompanied by Prof Compton and it was magic to see this kind of progression and increased passion about a language over the course of about 3 years. I remember the little quizzes on irregular verbs, which always brought me cold shivers as I never quite seemed to get these irregularities sorted out in my head. The struggle continues.

7. What advice would you give to students currently studying a language at Northern Michigan University, in regards to their future after college?

Study with gusto, find ways to apply the language as often as possible, spend time in the places where the language is spoken, learn as many languages as possible, and see with what other skills you can combine it as there is nothing more powerful than a person with three or four languages under his/ her belt and some sound technical knowledge. Especially in the world of International Development, this is a perfect combination.