I Never Made it to Indonesia – Peter Koehn ’66

I Never Made it to Indonesia – Peter Koehn ’66

Interviewed by Sophia Gourley ’19

SG: So I had a chance to look at your webpage and learn a little bit more about what you’re doing at the University of Montana. But I would love to hear more about what else you’ve done since leaving Trinity and what led you to this position.

PK: I spent a lot of time overseas. My first job after graduate school was in Ethiopia. I taught there for two years at the premier university of Addis Ababa. Then after that I was hired at the University of Montana and that was sort of a dream job for me, because I had been to Montana once with my family when I was in high school and I just fell in love with the countryside. I was excited to get to Montana and that worked out. Later on I had other opportunities to be abroad. I was a Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria and I taught for two years there. I had the opportunity, at the invitation of one of my former students, to teach for a semester and at the University of Namibia right after they received independence. In fact, my student was one of the few African members of the University of Namibia right after independence. And then later on I was the Director of International Programs for the University of Montana. So I spent lots of time abroad in that job, mostly in Asia.

SG: Wow! So it definitely sounds like you traveled a lot since graduating for Trinity.

PK: Yes. I wanted to mention about that I always felt thankful that I went into an office at Trinity and found some of the materials about this opportunity to do a summer study at the University of Vienna summer school and I applied and was accepted. I managed to save enough money to be able to get there and do that. It was my first overseas experience and it dramatically changed my life. It wasn’t like the Rome program that Trinity is actually a part of, but it is because of the materials that they provided that I was able to take advantage of that.

SG: Wow that sounds great! So you went in the summer in between the summer of your sophomore and junior year?

PK: Exactly. I had some great professors that were all from the University of Vienna. And so I could study European politics and study about the formation of the EU because the very early stage of European currency was being established and it was a great introduction to European politics for me.

SG: So is there anything else you wanted to kind of add in regards to your current experience?

PK: My greatest passion right now is global public health. I was selected to be in the first group of Fulbright New Century Scholars, a program that was established in the Fulbright program several years ago and unfortunately has now been discontinued. It was a very exciting program because they funded you to do research overseas and they funded you to go to three conferences, two of which were in Europe and one of which was in the United States and they brought 30 of us together for those conferences where we worked on some kind of a collective initiative and we each had our own individual projects as well that we would continue to do research on and report back to the group as a whole. So we had an experience that really made from the work that I had been doing with refugees into the whole issue of refugee and migration health. And that was what I did my research on in Finland interviewing doctors and nurses who worked with patients who had come from other countries. So after I got back to the University of Montana, I decided that I’d like to do something in that area. I established the minor in global public health and that’s been my passion ever since. I really enjoy teaching students who are from many different fields including political science. They’re mostly from community health and sometimes they are pre-med students. It is a great interdisciplinary program and I get a lot of satisfaction from having students from different departments in my classes, and it has been really inspirational for me. And we do a spring lecture series that I’m particularly proud of where we invite people who have done some amazing things overseas in a medically-related capacity but widely-defined such as dealing with disabilities or dentistry. That’s another thing that gives me a lot of satisfaction.

SG: Well one of my questions is actually what your proudest accomplishment is since graduating Trinity, so it seems like developing this minor would definitely be one of the things you’re most proud of.

PK: There are three minors that I’ve developed at the University of Montana. The first minor I developed is international development studies, which was my main academic preparation at graduate school, and I was the director for seven years, I’ve passed it on to someone else now, but it continues to be a thriving program. I was also instrumental in the development of a climate change studies program. Climate change is probably one of the most critical issues of our time, and I’ve written a book on that focuses on climate change and China because I think China is really the most important player in terms of what’s going on regarding climate change. I’d package that all up together and say that I’m proud of all of these things.

SG: That’s great! I know you touched on this a little bit in regards to kind of finding out about a program from Trinity and I kind of sparked an interest in traveling and studying abroad, is there anything else that you learned at Trinity that has been useful kind of in your personal life or in your career?

PK: I got a first rate education at Trinity in political science and I’ve always been grateful for that because it enabled me to go on to graduate school and to thrive in graduate school. I had three professors who really stand out in my memory. One was Professor Gasman, the international relations professor at the time; Professor Steadman, who did American government kinds of things; and finally Professor Benz with whom I worked on my senior honors thesis, which probably shaped me in some really significant ways. The topic of my thesis was foreign aid to Indonesia, a comparison of Chinese, Russian, and U.S. foreign aid to Indonesia. When I went to graduate school, I was convinced that I was going to be an Indonesian specialist. I headed to the University of Colorado, where I studied for my PhD, to work with an Indonesian specialist named Roger Padgett. I worked with him and I was all ready to go to Indonesia when another professor with whom I was working got a job in Ethiopia. He said, “Why don’t you come and do your dissertation in Ethiopia?” So off I went and I found everyone in Ethiopia was very receptive to the kind of research I wanted to do. Not only that, the professor who persuaded me to join him was leaving Ethiopia at the end of that year. The University there asked me to interview for his position. I did and they gave me the job! Suddenly I had to switch from Indonesia to Africa. I came back to Colorado for a semester and studied as much as I could about Africa and then went to back Ethiopia. Regrettably, I have never been to Indonesia.

SG: Oh wow, that is really interesting. Things really do change!

PK: The experience of writing that honors thesis and looking at issues of development and foreign aid in countries in the global south was very formative in terms of my career. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity that was provided by education I received in political science at Trinity.

SG: That’s great. What were some of the other classes you took at Trinity beyond political science?

PK: I took a lot of general education courses and it was a couple of years before I was able to do well academically. I also took French, which I struggled with, but I managed to pass. And I took Russian. My Russian instructor was fantastic and I loved Russian. Taking two years of Russian at Trinity also happened to satisfy the foreign language requirements at the University of Colorado, for which I was thankful. I’ve lost all of my Russian now but I was able to read it fairly well at that point in time, and I really enjoyed studying Russian.

SG: It sounds like you really made the most of your time here! So I guess this question is kind of unrelated to careers but do you have any particular hobbies or anything along those lines that you’d like to share?

PK: One of things I love about Montana is that it is one of the most pristine and beautiful places and also very sparsely populated. I am an avid outdoor person and spend a lot of my summer in the back country hiking and fishing and in mountain and mountainous areas, not the big places like Glacier and Yellowstone where thousands of tourists are, but places that nobody else knows about. In the wintertime, I’m an avid ice fisherman. I really enjoy ice fishing and it helps pass the winter. I do some cross-country skiing as well. And I also spend a lot of time gardening. I have a really big garden in my backyard. It is where we grow a lot of the food we eat.

SG: This makes me want to go to Montana!

PK: I don’t think you’d want to be here this week; it is about -20. I pride myself on the fact that I have never driven to campus. I always ride my bike. I had to walk during the last couple of days because it was a little too tough for biking.

SG: Oh, my gosh. Good for you! Is there anything else that you wanted kind of alumni or Trinity to know about you?

PK: I would most like Trinity to know about the global public health program and the lecture series I started at Montana. It has a wide range of lecture participants. For instance, I have two students giving talks this spring. One who spent last summer interning in India. He’s a physical therapist working in physical therapy in India. The other is a pre-med student, who spent the summer in Uganda shadowing people in a hospital there. There is also a woman who is a professor at MIT. She is a former student of mine who was just a named a MacArthur Fellow. She will be talking about her work in Africa and the technology that she’s been using there. And we’ll have another former student of mine who is a doctor now and has set up a medical support system with doctors in Mali where she met her husband. We have a lot of really interesting people who are giving these lectures.

SG: Absolutely. I think other alumni would love to hear about this.

PK: I am really honored that I have had the chance to weigh in a little bit on my career but also I have wanted for a long time to let Trinity know how thankful I am for the really excellent academic preparation I received at Trinity. I really wish you all the best. And if you get out to Montana, come and visit!

SG: I definitely will!