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Finding Home Away
Dispatches From CUA Alums Abroad

dirctional post and flags of various countries
Helen Bannigan needed a change. 1987 had been a rough year for the recent college graduate. In the course of a few months she had been devastated by the sudden death of her father, ended a serious relationship and lost her job. When she received news that the lease on her apartment was terminating, Bannigan (B.A. 1986) suspected that life was giving her a sign.

And so, inspired partly by her father’s love of travel, Bannigan sold her belongings — aside from what she could fit into a backpack — asked a friend to manage a few bills, kissed her family and friends goodbye and set out on a three-month trip through Europe. She toured museums and drank in beer gardens, slept in hostels and sang on street corners with local musicians. In the streets of those foreign cities she overheard phrases that had peppered her father’s vocabulary throughout her youth. Edward Bannigan had spoken seven languages and traveled the world as a sales representative for an international shipping line. Now, as his daughter traveled through Europe, she found her father’s “language” — an amalgam of phrases and words from his grab bag of languages — in the streets of Paris, Rotterdam, Munich and Madrid.

Bannigan calls the experience the best education of her life, as well as one of the most exhilarating, which may be why the trip stretched from three months to a year. Short on cash but not yet ready to return home, Bannigan dropped her bags in Paris — where she spoke the language — and applied for a job.

After eight years of French language classes, the 24-year-old was confident in her fluency. She had dissected French literature in college seminars, analyzing complex works for central themes and foreshadowing — surely she could hold her own in a conversational interview. But the brisk Frenchwoman conducting the meeting had a different assessment of Bannigan’s abilities. The interviewee had barely begun to introduce herself when the woman behind the desk curtly interrupted. “I thought you said you spoke French.”

Twenty years later, Bannigan still sees that exchange as a defining moment in her young life. Now she’s able to laugh about it. “It’s nice to be humbled,” she says. “I thought I could conquer the world — as most young people do when they’ve just graduated from college — and here was this woman to slap me right back in my place and remind me that I really didn’t know as much as I thought I did.”

Helen Bannigan, seated on the Spanish Steps in Rome, has called that city home for the past seven years.
Bannigan left the interview embarrassed and flustered, but also determined to truly learn the country’s language. And learn it she did. The American signed up for an intensive year of language study to prepare for the entrance exam at the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques (commonly known as Sciences Po) in Paris, and soon was taking foreign policy courses alongside native speakers. She went on to spend the next six years in that city, earning graduate degrees from both Sciences Po and the Sorbonne in foreign policy studies and in international relations and diplomacy.

Now the chief operating officer for an international public relations firm with offices in Rome, Paris and London, the expatriate says she would never have predicted that hers would be such an international life. Her home for the last seven years has been Rome, but she has lived in four different countries — acquiring three more languages besides French — since she left the United States in 1987. And these days when she gets critiqued for her language skills, it’s by her two young children, who, born in Rome, speak perfect Italian.

The United States is an expansive country. An American could spend a lifetime exploring new cities and landscapes, all without ever crossing our national borders — which may be why an estimated 70 to 80 percent of U.S. citizens don’t even own a passport.

So what makes some Americans go to the other extreme, leaving family, friends and familiarity behind in search of far-off lands and experiences? In a country where a majority of citizens still live in the state in which they were born, this concept of moving so far away might seem foreign, in and of itself. But to many expatriates, such an uncharted adventure seems as natural — and, ironically, as American — as apple pie. An estimated 6.6 million Americans (excluding those serving in the military) live in more than 160 countries outside of the U.S., according to the Association of Americans Resident Overseas.

Bannigan’s catapult into life as an expat was quite accidental, driven at first by the desire for a complete overhaul as well as the connection that Europe afforded to her deceased father. But she says she thinks it’s more than that: “There is something innate in some people that makes them attracted to living abroad and learning about other cultures, although I don’t know how much of it is nature and how much is nurture,” she says.

Catholic University recently had a rare opportunity to learn about the psychology and lifestyle of expatriates from those CUA alums who have forged a life, and a home, away from the United States. Last July, about 80 CUA graduates living in the United Kingdom, Ireland and continental Europe — just a fraction of the more than 1,600 alums known to be living outside the United States — gathered for an alumni reception at Westminster Abbey in London. The occasion was, in part, the 30th anniversary of CUA’s Parliamentary Internship Program, the oldest American university program designed to supply interns to the British Parliament. An invitation to the event was also extended to other CUA alums living in Europe who had never been parliamentary interns. It was an opportunity to interact with fellow graduates and hear about new programs and strategic initiatives of the university.

In the course of organizing the reunion, the university contacted hundreds of CUA grads with addresses outside the United States. CUA Magazine reached out to some of them to uncover their personal stories: what took them away from the United States and what brings them back. Quite predictably, no two stories were the same: Some left for love, some for adventure, others for job opportunities abroad that led to new job opportunities in other countries. Most marvel at the paths down which life has taken them. But in each instance, an intellectual curiosity has driven them to go out, discover the world and find a home for themselves, far from the place of their birth.

Yvonne Salter-Wright met her British husband in Washington, D.C. The couple now lives outside of London.
That was certainly the case for Yvonne Salter (B.A. 1997). The youngest of seven, Salter grew up in a small town in northwest Pennsylvania. She was the first in her family to attend a four-year college. When she came to Washington, D.C., in 10th grade for a class trip, she knew she wanted to return for college.

After she enrolled at CUA, the world unfolded to Salter incrementally. She took a road trip to Florida her freshman year. “I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, there’s just so much out there,’ ” she says. Then, the following year, her work-study position brought her into contact with a group of British exchange students interning for U.S. members of Congress. One in particular, a young man named Jeremy Wright, caught her eye. They courted for the next three years. Salter herself took part in CUA’s Parliamentary Internship Program her junior year, spending her spring semester working in the European Union headquarters in Belgium and then the subsequent summer working for the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Wright proposed to her during her senior year.

Married almost 10 years, the couple lives outside of London and has a 3-year-old daughter. Rather than feeling like “an American in London,” Salter has embraced, and been embraced by, British culture and British people. Being married to an Englishman makes one feel less like an expat and more like a dual citizen with “one foot in both camps,” says Salter (now Salter-Wright).

“I have a lot of family members in the United States, so obviously I feel an amazing affinity for the country and I take an interest in U.S. politics,” she explains. “That being said, when we bought our first home, that was here in the UK; when I had my first child, that was here in the UK; and when I started my professional career as an administrator in higher education, that was here.”

It’s likely that such major milestones will continue to be based in the United Kingdom for Salter-Wright, whose husband, that former Capitol Hill intern, is now a member of Parliament, representing the cities of Rugby and Kenilworth, near Birmingham.

She notes that her decision to settle abroad has brought her American family closer in new ways, while expanding their cultural horizons. When Salter-Wright’s daughter was born, her mother came to England for 18 months to help care for the infant — as well as to experience her daughter’s new home. Salter-Wright’s father didn’t hold a passport before he arranged to visit his daughter and her family in England. By her family members’ third or fourth visits, Salter-Wright says, she began taking them a bit farther afield: first Ireland, then Paris. On her sister’s next trip, they plan to travel to Italy.

H. Stephen Phillips poses outside Alcázar Castle on a recent trip to Segovia, Spain.
When H. Stephen Phillips (B.A. 1990) graduated from CUA, he heard of a job opportunity with a conference and trade show organizer in Mexico City and found the position intriguing. Phillips had studied Spanish at CUA and had also lived for a year in Peru as a Rotary exchange student prior to college. He liked the idea of working in a place that would engage and sharpen his already-fluent Spanish language skills.

“I didn’t know anything about trade shows but I knew the language!” Phillips says. He still remembers the mixture of excitement, trepidation and apprehension he felt in taking that job. But, Phillips notes, “If you sit back, nothing comes to you, and if you jump, it’s not as scary as you think.”

He stayed in Mexico City for seven years, doing everything from hiring to scheduling to managing the local office’s budget. It was little surprise, then, that when the company wanted to open an office in Colombia, they sent Phillips. And later, with a competing firm in the same field, he worked in Argentina. And Brazil. And Chile. Phillips says that working in so many Latin American countries taught him invaluable lessons about how to communicate with people from other cultures and how to understand the subtle differences between those cultures.

After 13 years in South America, Phillips returned to the United States and worked at the company headquarters in Portland, Maine, traveling across the country to New York and Los Angeles, managing trade shows just as he’d done in other lands for more than a decade. “I thought I’d be back in the U.S. forever,” Phillips recalls, noting that he had looked forward to living in closer proximity to his parents, sisters and nephews, and catching up with old friends from college.

But the transition back was more difficult than he’d expected. “I lived overseas for over 13 years,” he says. “You come back and there’s a readjustment period that people don’t appreciate. You have to acclimate yourself to life back in the United States — even if you are from here.”

For Phillips, the timing also made that readjustment tougher: He returned to the United States shortly after 9/11. “There were tremendous changes in the United States,” he notes. “The whole atmosphere seemed very different, and I was trying to get used to a country that I thought I knew. So it was hard for me to get my feet on the ground.”

Still, when an old colleague called him and told him about a great new opportunity with a British home-emergency insurance company searching for someone to start up their operations in Spain, Phillips initially declined, not wanting to move to Europe. But the more he looked at the business, the more it seemed like a good fit. His decision was motivated less by geography and more by career goals.

“I realized I’d been doing a lot of the same things in many different countries and I wanted to expand my business acumen. I was looking for something that was going to take me to the next level of my managerial career,” he recalls.

Three years later, Phillips is general managing director of the company, HomeServe, and has relocated yet again. Early last summer he moved several hours west to Madrid, to oversee the acquisition and integration of another company into the business.

These days, Phillips takes the long view of his life abroad and the experiences learned over nearly 20 years of being an expatriate. Although living in Peru as a teenager offered his first experiences beyond the United States, his time as a CUA junior in the British Parliamentary Internship Program was revelatory at a seminal time of his life — and a transformative time in international relations. He vividly recalls how that experience in Britain opened his eyes to Europe at a time when the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire were about to fall.

“It’s good for young people to stand up and look over the fence and realize it’s a big world — but it’s not necessarily a scary one,” Phillips says.

And thanks to globalization, it’s an increasingly familiar world. Phillips says there are things he used to miss because of living abroad, but with the rapid spread of globalization, more of his American creature comforts are available wherever he is. “Starbucks is a virus,” he jokes, “and it’s found on every street corner in Europe!”

Maria Spence with her two sons, Wes and Tyler, in St. Andrews, Scotland.
Maria (Pitarque) Spence knows a thing or two about the quest for something American in a foreign land. She’s lived in England for six years, but when a friend calls to say, “There’s a place in Ascot that sells saltines,” she still rushes out and buys eight boxes. “It’s those little things,” Spence says, speaking as a mom who has worked for the last decade to offer her two sons, when possible, the little comforts of home — even as the idea of “home” has become an increasingly fluid concept.

From early childhood, Spence (B.A. 1981, M.A. 1983) was no stranger to travel. The daughter of an Ecuadorian diplomat, she grew up in Washington, D.C., but spent summers in Ecuador. When she married Paul Spence, a University of Pennsylvania business school graduate from a small town in Pennsylvania, he had never even been on a plane. When his company, a local branch of Ernst & Young, wanted to expand beyond Philadelphia, the Spence family moved to Herndon, Va., where they assumed they’d settle permanently. Then the company asked Paul to head up the firm’s Asia practice, based out of Sydney, Australia. Just for two or three years, his boss said.

And so the Spences, who had two small boys, ages 7 and 9, and who had just finished fixing up their basement in Herndon, put the house up for rent. But after three years in Sydney, Paul was offered a job in Hong Kong. Then London. More than a decade later, they’re still renting out that house in Herndon, but life does not seem to be leading them back to Virginia anytime soon.

“Everywhere we’ve been, it has been new rules, new surroundings,” Maria Spence says. But she adds that it’s been a tremendous education for her sons, both of whom are now attending colleges in the United States. The younger one is adamant about living in the United States after college, while his brother is always anxious to return to England on his summer and winter breaks.

And while there are glamorous aspects to the Spences’ lifestyle (they met Prince Charles last summer during a dinner function at Windsor Castle), Maria is quick to point out that it’s not a fairy tale existence: “It’s not an easy life,” she explains. “You come with no networks, no doctors, no dentists. A lot of people think it’s glamorous, but the reality is you’re going to the grocery store, you’re picking up your kids, your husband’s late to dinner.”

While daily life as an American abroad may not be as exotic as one might assume, the various locations where the Spences have lived have afforded friends and family different places to come and visit — and also broadened the Spences’ network of friends. When the boys’ old schoolmates from Sydney travel to London, they alert the boys so they can all get together. When a friend of Spence’s mentions that another friend is traveling to England by herself, Maria is sure to hand out her number and be a guardian angel-abroad of sorts.

Globalization speeds along at a breakneck pace, and as university study-abroad programs grow, more young Americans are getting a taste of the world beyond the U.S. borders. (More than 220,000 American students studied abroad last year, a number that rises each year.) As alum Stephen Phillips puts it, these students are peeking over the metaphorical fence and finding a world beyond their own, one that is increasingly accessible.

Anecdotally, it’s easy to see a correlation between the increase in students studying abroad and the number of college graduates who then choose to pursue jobs and life experiences outside the United States, says Tanith Fowler Corsi, the university’s assistant vice president for global education and director of its new Center for Global Education (see Page 19).

“Once students go overseas, they tend to get a travel bug and to go back for several more international experiences,” Fowler Corsi says. “They then definitely consider living and working overseas.”

For Americans looking to make that move abroad, England becomes an obvious choice, thanks to its lack of language or drastic cultural barriers. London, especially in the financial sector, has for many Americans become a pathway for corporate advancement — the “new New York City.”

An estimated 250,000 Americans live in the United Kingdom, according to State Department estimates. Thanks to a common language, booming job opportunities and ties fostered through initiatives like CUA’s Parliamentary Internship Program, many of CUA’s alums living abroad can be found in the United Kingdom.

Courtney Campbell pauses for a photo outside of London’s “Big Ben” clock tower.

Courtney Campbell (B.A. 2000) was on the swim team at CUA, so studying abroad as an undergraduate wasn’t an option she could consider. But the allure of travel and living abroad persisted after college, and when her employer, Credit Suisse, announced an open position in London, Campbell says, “I jumped at the idea and have never looked back.”

She maintains that it was a great move, not only careerwise but also personally. “London is an amazing city. I have had some of the best experiences of my life here and made some of my best friends,” she says. “I have been able to see the world with all the traveling I have done.” She’s not exaggerating. Her passport became so filled with country stamps that Campbell recently had to have pages added.

This fall, she’ll have one more stamp to add to her collection: Hong Kong, where she’ll be moving for a job with UBS Investment Bank, her current employer.

L.R. Poos, dean of CUA’s School of Arts and Sciences, credits Campbell with the idea for an “alums in Europe” reunion. The pair met for coffee in the summer of 2007 in London’s Canary Wharf neighborhood, a financial hotbed that is quickly eclipsing Wall Street as the locus of global finance.

Campbell became an adult in the age of the Internet and online social networking, where every person, no matter their geography, is just a click away, so the concept of extending the CUA network beyond U.S. borders was a no-brainer. The fact that building a European alumni network was so obvious to this young graduate indicates that geographical borders are becoming less important, and that the world, especially to younger generations, is within easy reach.

“CUA holds alumni events in New York and other major cities, so why not Europe?” Campbell recalls thinking. “CUA has a diverse student body from all over the world. I knew there had to be many alumni living abroad who would really appreciate something like this: a chance to reconnect with former friends, as well as to make some new connections.

“Living abroad can be very lonely sometimes, away from your family and friends,” Campbell notes. “An event like last summer’s gave us a chance to see a familiar face or meet someone who shares some of your roots: a CUA education.”

Bannigan still delights in returning to the United States to visit friends and family: She returned in August eager to introduce her 3 year-old daughter, Gaida, to a beloved aunt for the first time. But much as Bannigan’s accent no longer betrays any hint of her New Jersey roots, time has also dulled her definition of words like “home.”

“The United States is where I go to visit extended family and friends, and is, of course, the base culture that has formed who I am,” says Bannigan. “Even though I've been in Europe for 20 years, my ‘American-ness’ is still much stronger than my ‘European-ness’ and I suspect always will be.”

Despite the passage of time abroad, Bannigan’s love of the United States remains unflagging, even if living in another country has made that love less biased or unconditional.

“For me, seeing the negatives of your homeland, which become so visible from afar — and loving your country in spite of it — is a much stronger patriotism,” Bannigan says. “I equate it to true love in a romantic relationship — unlike puppy love, where blind passion makes you oversee all faults. True love allows you to see all the blemishes, but have a basic respect and honor that endures the test of time.”

Where, then, is home for Bannigan? For most of her younger years, she would have said it was in the United States, but after six years in Paris, did that become home? Did Portugal? Did Spain? Was home simply where her bags were unpacked? The answer became clear with the birth of her first child, Hunter, now 5 years old: Home is where her family is.

It is a sentiment Maria Spence echoes: She packed up her younger son for college this fall, where he joined his older brother in the United States. So for Spence, a large chunk of her “home” is now back in the United States.

For Stephen Phillips, home right now is in Madrid. “When you move enough, home really is where you pay rent,” he says with a laugh. But he is quick to qualify: “The United States is home when I come to see my parents and family, but home is where I live as well.”

For Phillips, home is a fluid concept, although with a few constants. “My horizons are broad enough now, and I’m used to living in so many different places, that I will retire to the two most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.” One of those places is his parents’ town, a small colonial village in upstate New York. And the other? “I haven’t discovered the other one yet,” he says. “I’m still discovering new places.”

When Away Is Home
Not all CUA graduates are U.S. citizens. Thus many of those alumni who are living abroad began their global journeys at Catholic University, or at an even earlier age. Many foreign-born alums came to the United States as young adults with one goal in mind: to study at an American university or, more specifically, at The Catholic University of America.

Pursuing higher education in the United States can offer an international student a gateway to a life and career in America. But a degree from an American university is also an opportunity-opening credential in the international marketplace — regardless of where one plans to pursue a career. The desire for a world-class education has brought foreign students to CUA year after year, enriching the campus community with an infusion of cultures from abroad. In 2008, 8 percent of CUA’s graduate degrees were awarded to non-U.S. citizens. Eight of last year’s graduating seniors also hailed from beyond U.S. borders. Nearly 400 non-U.S. citizens are studying at CUA this year.

CUA Magazine interviewed two foreign-born alums who attended last summer’s Westminster Abbey reception so that we could share their stories of life at home and abroad — terms that have, for both, proved synonymous.

Gian Paolo Potsios and (from left) son Allesandro, wife Susan, son Guiliano and dog Spencer, in their London home.
Gian Paolo Potsios (B.A. 1982) grew up in Rome, but spent his formative summers working in Washington, D.C. From the age of 16, he could be found filling odd jobs at District hotels each summer: first as a bellboy, then as a concierge or managing the front desk on the graveyard shift. As he prepared for college, Potsios knew he wanted to study in Washington, and Catholic University in particular impressed him as offering a truly American college experience. He was accepted to several D.C. schools but decided on CUA, where he studied business with the goal of a future job on Wall Street. Those plans hit a road bump, however: After graduation, he was drafted into the Italian army. By the time he’d completed his year of military service, his post-graduate visa to work in the United States had expired.

And so Potsios knew he’d have to make his way to Wall Street through the back door, working for an American company overseas. He took a job with Citibank and spent six years with the company in Rome, Milan and London. While in Milan, he met his future wife, Susan, an American expat working for Bank of America. The couple transferred to Atlanta and was married there. Potsios eventually became a vice president with Citibank in Atlanta. After three years, he was transferred to New York, where both of the couple’s sons were born. He moved with Citibank to Warsaw, Poland, for three years and then to London as a managing director for the company. In 2007, he left Citigroup after 22 years to form Europa Partners Ltd., an independent corporate finance advisory firm. He is now a senior partner with Arch Financial Products LLP.

Both of his sons are in high school in London, but when they graduate, Potsios and his wife will probably move yet again: this time back to the United States. And as his oldest son, Alessandro, 15, begins the college search, Potsios has only one requirement: His choice must be an American university.

“At the undergraduate level, I think the American educational experience is absolutely critical,” Potsios says, adding that he feels the European model promotes memorization above critical thinking. “The [European educational] system does not require personal initiative. No one tells you, ‘Go and find the answer,’ the answer is simply given to you,” he says. For someone who has spent his whole life going out into the world — all parts of it — to find answers, that distinction is critical.

At 81 years of age, Julianna (Baltazar) Nermark (B.S.N. 1953) has seen plenty of the world, and returned from each adventure with rich stories. Born in the Philippines, she came to the United States to study nursing at CUA. After graduation, she enrolled in a nursing master’s program at Columbia University.

When the then owner of The New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, needed to hire a nurse for a few days, he chose Nermark. A few days turned into several years, and in the process, Nermark met some of the day’s most influential Americans, including President Harry Truman, a frequent dinner guest.

While living in New York, Nermark met another man who would prove to be most influential in her life. Gunner Nermark, a Swede, was “bumming around” the United States for a few months when he met the young Filipino nurse. They courted, married and moved to Sweden in 1964. But settling in another country and starting a family (the couple have two adopted children from the Philippines) didn’t stop Nermark’s desire to see the world — or to pursue her calling as a pediatric nurse. She volunteered often over the course of her career with Children International, participating in monthlong mission trips to places like Turkey and Norway.

When the couple finally retired in 1992, they found a rather unconventional way to relax: a seven-month backpacking trip around the world, stopping in Finland, Russia, Singapore and the Philippines.

These days, Nermark has slowed down her globe-trotting — but not by much. When she received the invitation to attend the CUA reunion in London, she quickly booked her flight, even though she knew it was unlikely that other `53 graduates would be in the room.

Like so many in this increasingly tech-driven world, what she doesn't see of the world firsthand, she accesses through the Internet, using new technologies like Skype to keep in touch with friends.

“She has friends all over the world,” her husband clucks. “She’s on the phone most of the time.”

CUA Opens Center for Global Education
The staff of CUA’s Center for Global Education, from left: Rita Barriteau, Gudrun Kendon, Madison Bolls, Ella Sweigert, Tanith Fowler Corsi and Helene Robertson.
The number of American undergraduates studying abroad is rising every year. In an effort to meet the anticipated demand among CUA students, and among foreign students who wish to study at CUA, the university established a Center for Global Education in January. The center serves as the coordinator and facilitator for the logistics of the university’s global education efforts — for students studying abroad as well as international students studying on CUA’s campus.

Tanith Fowler Corsi, who was hired in January as CUA’s first assistant vice president for global education and the director of the center, says that one of its goals is to make study-abroad opportunities available to CUA students across all majors and situations. Realizing that such opportunities are hardly one-size-fits-all, the center will increasingly offer short-term summer programs and customized study tours for students who are not able to go abroad during the regular academic calendar.

Among Fowler Corsi’s other priorities: launching an additional, non-parliamentary internship program in London and increasing enrollment and programming in CUA’s new academic facilities in Rome.

“The first thing students think they’ll learn about is the country they’re going to,” Fowler Corsi says. “But they really find out who they are, and gain a better appreciation for themselves and their own country.”

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Revised: November 2008

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