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Army veteran builds college study-away experiences into a lifetime of cultural immersion

By Ben Gillespie ’07


Before coming to PLU in the spring of 2000, Washington state native James Kozak ’03 served a demanding four-year tour of duty in the Army, which took him to Thailand, Korea and the Middle East.

I was going to all these places and seeing all these new things, but the Army doesn't do a very good job at helping you digest all of that. I discovered how important having an education was. - JAMES KOZAK '03

“To a 19-year-old who has never been out of the country,” Kozak said, “the Middle East is exotic.”

But even though the military introduced him to these foreign lands, Kozak soon found that he was unable to appreciate the different cultures as much as he would have liked.

“I was going to all these places and seeing all these new things,” said Kozak, now 28, “but the Army doesn’t do a very good job at helping you digest all of that. I discovered how important having an education was.”

After fulfilling his military commitment, Kozak wanted to do two things: travel more and go to college. Sorting through schools, he said it became evident that the opportunities for structured international studies were greater at PLU.

Soon after enrolling, Kozak took advantage of some of the many PLU programs designed for cultural exploration.

As well as taking intensive courses in anthropology and global studies, Kozak participated in numerous study abroad programs. He spent his sophomore year in Thailand.

While traveling, Kozak said he focused on learning the fundamental structure of languages in the countries he visited, not on perfection.

“I didn’t try to learn the language to become fluent,” he said. “I just figured that learning the language is part of learning about the culture.”

After returning from Thailand, Kozak turned his attention to Chinese studies, which he decided to pair with global studies for a double major. He then set course for Beijing, where he spent a summer and fall.

As Kozak reflected upon his undergraduate career, he realized that he did not spend much time in Parkland.

“I was off-campus for half my time while at PLU,” he said.

For his senior capstone project, Kozak used a Wang Center grant and a Gilman scholarship to make a short video about urban living in China. The film was shown during the PLU-hosted China symposium in spring 2003.

After graduating, he received a Freeman Foundation grant to create a promotional film for PLU’s Chinese Studies Program.

Kozak is now fulfilling a two-year service commitment to Teach for America, a national service program for recent college graduates, as a middle-school special education teacher in Baton Rouge, La.

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© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Spring 2006

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