Like most K first-year students, Connor Vogt ’18 is looking forward to going on foreign study. Unlike most of his classmates, however, Connor has already studied abroad, twice in fact. And his travels during those two occasions have been extensive—the list of countries he has visited is up to 21.
Those opportunities came as a result of Connor’s mother, Amy, and her job as a senior manager for the automaker BMW. In 2007 the company asked her to consider relocation to Munich. She agreed, so her family (Connor, his father, Richard, and his younger brother, Brandon) left their home in Greenville, South Carolina, and moved to Europe. They stayed for three years, which for Connor were grades 6, 7, and 8.
“I loved it over there,” Connor recalls. “I went to an international school. There were kids from about 50 countries, and we got along great. In Germany I learned to snowboard, which I’d never done before.”
On weekends Connor travelled outside of Germany. “My family took trains and went to almost all of the West European countries.”
His favorite? “Maybe Ireland,” he says after a moment’s thought. “It’s so … homey.
“But I really liked living in Germany. For one thing, I’m a huge soccer fan and the game is so big over there! It’s just cool how popular it is.” Emblematic of his passion for the game is one of his Hoben Hall dorm room wall hangings: a large Liverpool Football Club white and red flag.
Playing soccer inspired Connor’s fluency in German. “My school classes were taught in English, but I played soccer on a club with a German coach and players. It was when they started yelling at me to do things in German that I realized I had to learn the language. I got to be fairly proficient.”
He also came to appreciate certain government benefits. “Germany has socialized medicine, so anyone can get medical treatment. My brother had to go to the hospital once, and it didn’t cost anything. And going to college is free. Of course, their taxes are really high.”
After Connor’s 8th grade year BMW asked his mother if she’d accept a position 4,500 miles to the east, in Beijing, China. She agreed, and the family moved directly there. That stay lasted two years, Connor’s 9th and 10th grade, again in an international school that was home to students from some 50 nations.
China presented a new set of challenges, not the least of which was the language. “Chinese is a lot harder for me to learn than German. Their writing is entirely different. Instead of letters representing sounds, they have characters that represent words. When I saw their signs I couldn’t even guess what they meant. In speaking, subtle little differences in pronunciation dramatically change the meaning of the word.
“For example, the word ‘ma’ said one way means ‘mother,’ but if you say it slightly differently it means ‘horse.’”
As they did in Europe, his family took trips to nearby countries, albeit fewer in number than was the case during their stay in Germany. “We went to Japan and Thailand, but China is so big that we could travel a long ways and still be in China.”
His travels also took him to the Great Wall. “That was really cool. It’s so long. You can hike on it for days. But parts of it are really in disrepair, with vegetation growing over it.”
Conner came to enjoy Chinese food. “The food I had there is not like Chinese food in America. When I described to my Chinese friends what we eat in America they said, ‘Oh, that’s what our grandparents used to eat!’ One of my favorite items was ‘baozi,’ which is like a dumpling. They fill them with things like pork and sweet potatoes.”
He also came to enjoy the Chinese people. “They are very . . .” he said, struggling to find the right word. “Upfront. Uninhibited. Once we were at a restaurant and the waiter, out of the blue, asked us how much we paid for rent. He didn’t see that as a personal question; he just wanted to know. Another time a girl approached me and asked if she could run her fingers through my hair to see what it felt like. And when we got away from the cities, where people didn’t see a lot of westerners, they’d come up to me and ask if they could have their photograph taken with me.
“I loved China. I’d live there if it wasn’t for the air pollution.”
Oh, yes, the pollution. “It was amazing,” Connor said, shaking his head. “I went for a walk once and got lost because I couldn’t see more than 200 yards in front of me. That was disconcerting. Another time I had to clean off something in our backyard. It had about an inch of grime and grit on it!
“There are numbers to measure pollution. In Kalamazoo the number is about 20. A bad day in Los Angeles might be 120. Beijing regularly hit 300, and on bad days it was 500. Sometimes they wouldn’t let our school cross-country team go out running.”
Like most of the Chinese, Connor looked forward to important foreign dignitaries coming to visit because it was on those occasions that the Chinese government took the pollution problem seriously. “They’d shut down the factories and shoot some kind of rockets into the air to make it rain. Then the air would be so clean and the sky so blue. That was great!”
After two years in China, and five overseas, the family decided to return to South Carolina. Having come to appreciate the life of an “ex-pat,” Connor had mixed emotions about the move. “I’d made friends from other countries, like Japan, France, and the Netherlands, so I actually was not excited about going home. I didn’t want my living abroad to end.”
But end it did. Connor finished his last two high school years in a small Catholic High School where he became a star cross-country runner (with a best 5K time of 17:18).
When Connor began his college search he initially focused only on larger universities. All the high schools he’d attended were small, so he thought he’d go to a college that was large, like Texas or Michigan or Clemson. Had he gone to one of those schools he had no intention of running cross-country.
But things changed after Conner’s father, Richard, offered some advice that had a touch of irony to it.
“When my father was in high school, in the late ’70s in Flint, he was recruited by K to run cross-country. He basically blew off the offer because he wanted to go to a bigger school, which turned out to be Michigan State. I don’t know if he regretted that decision, but he was the one who suggested I consider K. I never would have applied to K if he hadn’t encouraged me to do it. After I did, K really started to recruit me. They called me on the phone several times and had me come in for a visit. Once I knew I was coming to K I decided I’d also run cross-country.
“My first few weeks on campus, last fall, were challenging, but it’s been great since then. Running cross-country has been amazing. I’m the only freshman male, but the older guys have been very welcoming. I tore my sartorial muscle in my quad, which made me miss a few meets, but my last meet was almost my best time of the season.”
Conner’s father also has been pleased with how things have turned out.
“When I first suggested to Connor that he apply to a small school, such as K, he agreed to do it, but he did it sort of kicking and screaming. But I really thought K would be a good fit for him, partly because of K’s study abroad program, and partly because I knew he wouldn’t end up in classes with hundreds of other kids.”
After a moment’s pause, he added, “To this day I sometimes think it might have been interesting for me to have gone to K and run cross-country.”
K’s first-year cross-country coach, Kris Koster, has been impressed with what he’s seen of Connor. “Even when he was injured he was upbeat. He has a lot of potential.”
As to where he might go for his study abroad, Connor is considering London—which he has visited (“I loved it there. There’s so much to do!”)—and Bonn, Germany—which would be, surprisingly, uncharted territory for him. “We just never got to Bonn when we lived in Munich.”
Wherever he chooses to go, with five years of overseas study already under his belt, there is little reason to think he won’t adjust quickly to a sixth. And, even more importantly, learn deeply from the experience that author Jim Harrison describes as the “traveler’s displacement,” when “Where am I?” becomes “Who am I?”