Interview with Don Clymer
Professor of Spanish
GC Graduation Year
Why or how did you choose your field? Were there specific experiences that influenced you?
I sort of fell into my field. I started out as a music major with interest in choral composition and directing, but soon discovered that I didn’t have the patience nor the background in piano that I would need to pursue that career. I also had interest in theater, radio, and theology, and had a hard time deciding what career path to take.
I had learned Spanish while spending two years in Honduras in Mennonite Voluntary Service, and because of that I was assisting the Spanish department with grading and other duties. When I was able to CLEP out of a significant number of hours in Spanish, I decided on Spanish as my major because it was the most expedient to a degree. I was able to add communication as a co-major to appease my interest in theater and radio.
Soon after I graduated from Goshen, I received a call from Hesston College. They wanted me to teach Spanish for them since their long-time professor wanted to retire. I never really thought I would teach Spanish. As I said, I sort of fell into my career. I have now served over 25 years in the classroom.
What’s exciting about your job or this field?
I really enjoy helping students expand their worldview. As part of my teaching duties, my wife and I have led various semester-long cross-cultural seminars to Guatemala and Mexico. These experiences were life changing, not only for the students, but also for myself. I’ve found these times with students to be teaching at its best; one does not just show up for the hour in the classroom and put on a show, but rather one spends the major part of the day and week with a group of students, studying, exploring, dreaming, discussing. It’s where one’s life really becomes the classroom. Getting to know students in such a significant way has really been the most exciting part of my journey.
Another very exciting part of my journey is that after many years in the classroom, and many experiences in Latin America, I have begun to synthesize my life’s story and reflections, and have started to write. Along with a number of articles in The Mennonite and other journals, I have published a book titled Meditations on the Beatitudes: Lessons from the Margins (Cascadia Press, May 31, 2011). This book combines stories from Latin America, cultural contrasts between middle-class US-American culture and poor, rural Latin American culture, and my personal theological reflections on and struggles with the passages. All of my writing reflects a deep interest that I have in the intersection between cross-cultural learning and spiritual formation, and how I personally have been formed and shaped by other cultures.
What has been a challenge in your career journey?
Because of my many interests, I often left the classroom to do other things. I spent time overseas with Mennonite Central Committee, and I worked with a mission agency as director of communications. I also worked as the director of cross-cultural programs at Eastern Mennonite University. I studied and received a second master’s degree at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. In spite of these side trips, I always returned to the classroom where I will be until I retire. I guess the main challenge was to really accept my true calling, teaching, and let go the other voices inside me that clamored for something new and seemingly more exciting.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
If I had followed my true calling from the beginning, I would have continued studies for a PhD. As it is, I completed two master’s degrees; one in Spanish literature, and the other in spiritual formation at the seminary. Not having a PhD has limited what I can do in the classroom as well limited my status in promotion and other benefits. Having said that, had I earned my PhD immediately, I probably would not have pursued some of the other interesting career paths that I did.
How did your liberal arts education assist you in your journey? Are there specific examples you can offer?
Liberal arts, more than anything, taught me how to think, analyze, and synthesize. Because I have so many interests: music, theater, literature, philosophy, history, language and linguistics (I also speak a dialect of German—the Swiss variety), sociology, anthropology, theology, psychology and spiritual formation, dabbling in all sorts of courses within and beyond the liberal arts suited me to a “T.”
I could point to the fact that this dalliance in so many fields has given me the opportunity to do things career-wise that I couldn’t have done if my education had been more narrowly focused. Let me give you some examples of courses I’ve taught and jobs I have held: Spanish instructor, German instructor, director of global issues seminar, inter-cultural communication instructor, director of cross-cultural programs, instructor for a senior seminar titled “Dealing with Suffering and Loss,” director of communications for Virginia Mennonite Missions which included producing and editing newsletters and promotional materials, country representative (country administrator) for Mennonite Central Committee, manager and DJ for a radio station, director of several plays, and actor in plays, operas, and musicals.
Did anyone offer you some memorable advice that you’d like to pass on? Or…what advice would you give to a young person just starting out?
I would like to advise current students not to feel too much pressure to declare a major. There is a lot of pressure to know exactly what one is to do when they are spending so much money to attend a college or university. However, if I look around me, many of my friends have changed their careers several times in their lives. I had a friend in college who wanted to study medicine probably because of pressure from his parents. He spent years and lots of money in med school and is now a pastor. A metaphor which describes his situation well is this: if in your studies or career you feel like you are constantly swimming against the current in a river, it might be better to find a career or field of study where you feel more like you are swimming with the current. Often this means following your heart rather than the pressures of your culture. Being fulfilled seldom has anything to do with the amount of money that you earn or the title you hold. You never know what will be useful to you in the future. Don’t forget where you came from, figure out what unique experiences you’ve had that color the way you view the world, and use that background in new ways to create solutions to the complex challenges we’re facing.