Frank, Oak Park

“…all the sunny weather here. I know, living in Melbourne, that is a hard thing for people to understand, but if you lived in Germany or central Pennsylvania where most days it’s going to be cloudy or raining or snowing, it’s really very different and very positive…”

An audio snippet from this interview with Frank: 

Frank, could your start by describing a typical day for you?

Okay. It depends if I’m working or not. If I’m working I’ll be up either at 4:30 in the morning if I have an early class because I cannot sleep or if maybe as late as 6:30 on the other days. Then really, pretty much, I’m up by 6:00 or 6:30 most days anyway. I have a dog so that’s part of the situation. She is now used to us getting up and getting fed at an early time. So she is my built in alarm clock. On a typical day I go into work, I teach two classes and then get home anywhere from 1:30 to 4:00pm depending on the day of work. I just work four days a week now. Then on the weekends I don’t really do much: mostly read and watch TV and of course, walk the dog, and spend a lot of time on the computer, and if I have work to do I’ll be doing that as well. That’s pretty much a typical day.

What sort of work do you do?

I’m a lecturer for international students at Trinity College, where I prepare them to enter the University of Melbourne, and it’s wonderful work, and is, in fact, the best job I’ve ever had and it really gives me a sense of purpose, of actually doing something that helps people to do better in their lives.

One of our reasons for getting together was to talk about your migration story. I understand that you first moved from the United States to Germany and then from Germany to Australia. Where in the States do you come from?

I come from Pennsylvania. It’s actually the centre of Pennsylvania in an area known as Appalachia, kind of in the middle between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and it’s generally a poor area which really relied on coal mining for century or so. I grew up on a small one-acre farm is outside of coal town and it was a pretty Idyllic life, I consider now looking back. I actually lived with my grandparents from the age of two because my parents divorced. My father would come home from Philadelphia every weekend to see me. There were a lot of outdoor activities and a lot of sports.

There’s more story in between but perhaps you could explain how it was that you came to go to Germany and when it was?

Yes. I had a teaching job in central Pennsylvania and I worked there for 11 years and then burned out – seriously burned out. I had to walk out at the beginning of the 12th year and I just said, “That’s it”.  I had visited Germany several times before and my ancestors are German and English and my Masters at university was about 20th century Europe, concentrating on Germany. So I just decided, “The heck with it”, and I took out all my retirement money and moved to Europe.

What was life like in Germany?

It was very good and it was a lot like Pennsylvania as far as weather and the scenery goes, so that was good. It was a little tough at first because I was just living off some money I had taken out of retirement. It was hard to get work straightaway and it got to the point where I had a job interview for the US military as a tester and at that point I had one pair of shoes, one with a hole in, and I was planning to probably fly back to the States and the next day I got hired as a tester. That allowed me to have a lot of benefits because I was part of the US military as far as being able to use facilities and that sort of thing. I had a guaranteed income and that allowed me to apply to teach at American universities which I did. So for those almost 9 years I had five years working with the US Army and five years of teaching at those colleges and universities and then for 3 1/2 year period I was a college director for one of those colleges. It was a very interesting life but when the wall came down in Berlin that was the signal that things were going to change. They sent a lot of troops home and closed a lot of the bases which meant less work and eventually I couldn’t make enough money to make a go of it in Germany.

What was it that brought you to Australia?

As you will see, most my life is just happenstance.I was reading the International Herald Tribune and I saw an ad for scholarships to go to Australia. I thought, “Well I’ve had about nine years of bad weather and trying to speak German. Wouldn’t it be nice to go to a nice sunny country where everyone spoke English, or Australian English”? So I just started doing research and applying. The university that impressed me the most was Melbourne. So I applied I was accepted. No scholarship. I thought, “Well, better take a chance”, and so I accepted it and then borrowed money from a US organisation that gives loans to students and came to Australia.

What did you come here to study?

History. I was going to get a PhD. I already had a Masters in history so I thought, “Well, I’ll get the PhD and get that job I always wanted teaching history in a little liberal arts college maybe somewhere in New England”. I mean the US New England. But things didn’t turn out that way, as I found out. For one, my Masters was so old I had to do a Masters program again and in the end I was not able to get the PhD and got another Masters in history (sigh). While I was waiting for the results of that I took a special course to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) figuring I could just go back to Europe and do that. In the end I met someone while working at the University while I was trying to work my way through and pay off my debt and fell in love and then eventually we got married and I ended up staying in Australia, which I never thought would happen. I’d already started making plans to give up and go back to the States unless the ESL could get me a job. Then, the people who taught me the ESL course hired me to work in their program and so I worked there and worked at the university for awhile. Eventually someone came in to substitute at this college and she told me about a job at Trinity where she was working regularly. So I applied. I had done an online course to qualify me to teach English as a second language and ended up getting hired. It was more luck than management. Just one of those things where you in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, I have been prepared because I got the course that I needed and did it in time so I was able to be hired and that’s where I’ve been for the last 17. Again, not planned. Okay this will be a very obscure reference. There was baseball man named Branch Rickey, known as the Old Mahatma. He’s the man who put Jackie Robinson, the first black American, into major league baseball in the States. He had a saying, “Luck is the residue of design”. I felt like, “Yes, it is.” I mean, you have to take risks but if you’re prepared and you’re in the right place at the right time, you may just get lucky enough, maybe not to get whatyou want at the time but to get what you actually need. And I have a both what I want and need.

To finish the education saga, I did go back to UniMelb to do another Masters, this time in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language).

The students who come to Trinity – where do they come from and what is that brings them to Australia?

They’re here are primarily to get into the University of Melbourne and they come from many countries in Asia, with handful from South America and perhaps Russia. Primarily the students I see are Indonesian, Chinese or Singaporeans, and perhaps from Thailand and Hong Kong. They’re here to go through this program which will get them entry into the University of Melbourne.

So thinking back to when you arrived in Australia, what was the first year like for you?

Well, it was a shock naturally but I had arranged to stay with an Australian and she helped me to get oriented. I met some people at the University who helped me get everything organised. As soon as I was able to do that, after few weeks I was able to get an apartment very close to the university. I moved in there is and then just started basically checking out the lay of the land, walking around the University to see what it looked like, and learning some of the language I should know. One of my first experiences was reading The Age and it talked about something that was as big as 2 1/2 MCGs. I thought, “Hmm, well I learnt metric when I was in Germany but I never heard of an MCG unit”. And so finally it was explained to me that that was the Melbourne Cricket Ground. So little things like that: that you say you barrack for a team, unlike we say in the States, which would be to root for a team, which I found out that was very rude. So naturally I had to pick a team because I was in Melbourne, and since I lived in Carlton, I chose Carlton. It was good at the time and actually won the championship the first year I was here. Since then, well, there’s been some sadness. So I extended to get a second club, the Bulldogs and finally they came through last year so I’ve had actually two grand final champions that I’ve been able to barrack for.

It’s not as hard to adjust as one might think. One of the shocking things was how much American television we get here. That and it being pretty much the same language helped me to ease my way in. I’m sure it was a lot different than going to a country where I didn’t speak the language. So really I was very, very happy to be here and as soon as I started the actual studying I just threw myself into that and started working and everything just sort of fell into place within a matter of a month or two, I would say.

Looking back now, how has your life changed living here?

I’d say I feel a lot more positive about things. I found out when I was in Germany that I actually had been suffering from depression and anxiety for a long time and I was able to finally get someone to give me a prescription. That really change my life. Then when I came here I also had another health problem that they weren’t able to discover in the US or Germany and I went to the doctor and amazingly one pill a night and now that health problem is gone. So that helped to make everything more positive plus all the sunny weather here. I know, living in Melbourne, that is a hard thing for people to understand, but if you lived in Germany or central Pennsylvania where most days it’s going to be cloudy or raining or snowing, it’s really very different and very positive, and after all the rules in Germany – which I loved (laughter) – the kind of laid-back attitude here also helps for someone to fit in and feel better I think. It has for me.

A different sort of question. If someone saw you in the street who didn’t know you well, what would they be surprised to know about you?

Well, if they didn’t hear me speak they might be surprised that I come from the States. I’m pretty sure they be surprised that I lived in Germany for years. I don’t know what sort of impression I make or other stereotypes about me beside my age. I guess the millennial’s will say, “Oh no! There’s another Boomer (sigh) holding us down”. I can’t think of anything else that would really surprise people.

Is there anything else that you would like the readers of this blog to know about you?

I think I’d like to reiterate that a lot of what’s happened in my life has been from what might appear to be failures: burning out on a job that I thought I’d have forever actually forced me to make a change in my life and that led to me taking a risk to go to Germany and I found out that I could succeed and that definitely built my confidence so that years later I could just say, “Alright, now I’m going to go to Australia”. It was so good I ended up finding someone I loved and getting married and then I ended up getting the best job of my life, and all by happenstance, for the most part. Because I didn’t leave the United States permanently until I was 37, I often wonder what would’ve happened if I took the risks earlier but I’m glad I took the risks when I did because life has been so much better since I left the States.

With your experience of migration, both to work in Germany and then to Australia, what advice do you give your students about settling in here?

Well, the first thing I tell my students every year is how much I admire them for leaving their home country and coming to another culture where most of them do not speak English as a first language and how great it is. I tell them I never left the States permanently until I was 37 and so I just think they’re so brave and I admire them for what they do.

How old are many of them when they come here?

Seventeen or eighteen, for the most part, so I think it’s really commendable that they are able to just leave their home country, their family, their friends, and move to a new country develop their English  – although most have some good English when they get here  – and just adjust to this new culture. I think it’s amazing and so therefore I’m not surprised they end up being very good students because either they had the confidence in the first place or they develop it as they go along. I’ve had so many successful students, many of them living all over the world now, some have gotten married and started families. Others are doctors and lawyers. So many different things have happened to them. I’m just happy for them. I definitely recommend taking a risk and they have already started much earlier than I did.

So you congratulate them. Is there other advice that you give them about settling in here?

Speak English as much as possible, not Indonesian or Chinese. This may sound crazy but I tell them, “Watch television and just immerse yourself in the language and the culture and life will just be so much easier. Develop good friendships with the people you’re studying with but also try and make friends with some of the locals”.

What percentage of your students do you think go on to become residents?

Good question. I’m not sure. I know every year I hear from a student asking for advice on becoming a Permanent Resident (PR). I know there are some of my former students who are here as PRs. I’m not sure how many are citizens yet but of course it depends on what majors and if they’ll be qualified for a job. I’d had students who had just finished Uni and got hired and are still here. I know of some who have been here 12 years or so working. It depends on so many factors including skills and their majors. That’s really important.

What sorts of majors?

Accounting. People step right in. I think if they do nursing they can get a job. I’ve had a handful who decided to come teachers and I think they’ll be able to get a job. The BioMed majors … when they get their MD … I would think if they willing to move to the bush area they should be able to get work. There is not much I can say about the other majors.

It sounds like you keep in contact with your students. What if anything have you heard about the experiences of your students who go on to become residents, as they settle in here?

I do keep in touch with a lot of former students. I think I have 450 students I keep in contact with on Facebook. I haven’t heard really any negative things about settling in here. I think you have to remember that they’ve been here at least four years before they get their degree so in all that time they have made their adjustments. I would think that by then they know if they want to stay or if they don’t. I think after they start working it’s like anywhere else: as soon as you start working you’re not visiting any more. You’re actually living here, living in the country, and you’re part of it.

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