By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Van Knopf ’17 of Eastwood, Ky. is the latest IU Southeast Fulbright Award winner.
Knopf, who double-majored in history and German, received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, which will enable him to work with a teacher of English in a school in Germany, providing native-speaker expertise.
Knopf is IU Southeast’s fourth Fulbright recipient.
From his earliest childhood memories of hunting down books in public libraries, his gaze has always been fixed on learning.
He actually began taking classes at IU Southeast in 2007, while still in high school, as a home-schooled student. With military service and an associates degree from JCTC under his belt, he returned to IU Southeast full time in 2014.
He had been keen on history seemingly forever.
“I can’t remember a time when history did not interest me,” Knopf said.
His interest in history became a serious career focus in college, where he literally took every history course he could, with an emphasis on European history.
He credits instructors like Kelly Ryan and Angelika Hoelger with helping him see history as more than a jumble of names and dates, and with encouraging him to delve into understanding multiple interpretations.
Knopf has also pursued his love of history beyond the campus. He has worked at the Frazier Kentucky History Museum in Louisville, Ky. for five years, moving up from on-call events guard to operations and accounting assistant.
“I enjoy working with a group of people with varied backgrounds and skills coming together to make an excellent place for Kentucky history,” Knopf said.
German started as more of a “why not?”, then turned into a resounding “heck ja!”
He began taking courses in the fall semester of 2014, and soon discovered a deep affinity to the language. He fell in love with German’s distinctive mix of “precision and ridiculousness” best reflected in endless compound words, like the notorious noun, Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellshaftskapitänsmütze (literally: the cap worn by a captain of the Danube Steamshipping Company).
On a more practical level, Knopf’s growing German language skills eventually enabled him to dig deeper into historical source material.
“Learning the language opened a whole world of traditions, music and culture that had been closed before,” Knopf said. “The two subjects were a strong complement for one another: history taught me to better understand the world, and German helped me to learn more about a specific culture, and language-learning as a process.”
He cites writers like Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth among his inspirations, and credits Michael Hutchins and the German department, along with fellow students and instructors at other campuses accessed via the EagleEye classroom, with supporting and nurturing his interest.
According to Knopf, German has not come easy.
He had never learned a foreign language before, and claims to be “not gifted” at it. As a result, he appreciates the effort it takes to become proficient. Dictionary at hand, he painstakingly works his way through documents in which every nuance counts.
One faculty member who knows Knopf well is Quinn Dauer, assistant professor of history and international studies. Knopf took Dauer’s course, Latin America: Evolution and Revolution (HIST-F341).
Dauer recalls Knopf’s intellectual curiosity and pure passion for history.
“Van has a deep and unending desire to learn about the world around him by studying history and learning German,” Dauer said.
That desire was evident in fundamental questions he asked during class, but also in his tenure as president of the history club, Dauer said.
As president, Knopf helped to schedule presentations by faculty on topics such as applying for graduate school or conducting various kinds of research. He also helped to seek out internships for history majors and minors and arranged field trips to local historical sites and museums.
“Van is very pro-active, and takes initiative,” Dauer said. “The skills and knowledge he developed and sharpened as a history major and more broadly speaking as a student in the liberal arts at IU Southeast make him well prepared for success in any career he decides to pursue from academia to business.”
For Diane Wille, dean for research and graduate studies, Knopf has been not only been an exceptional scholar, but a supportive colleague for other students, signs of a service ethic that also infused his six-year hitch in the Kentucky Army National Guard that included one deployment to Iraq in 2011.
While serving in the military, Knopf developed and taught classes to fellow soldiers, with class sizes of up to 200 or more.
He is also a certified CPR/First Aid instructor through the American Red Cross, and is a certified substitute teacher and has worked as a German tutor during his time at IU Southeast.
“Van has had a broad experience in teaching through his military background,” Wille said. “He brings this experience and exceptional interpersonal skills to his classes, he is willing to assist other students who are struggling with course topics and is able to provide information and explanation that help the other student succeed in the class.”
Van’s interest in foreign cultures was heightened during his military service, when he met people from Iraq, Gambia, Russia and Egypt, to name just a few.
“From that experience, I gained a better sense of the world and the many challenges faced by humanity every day, which I want to help alleviate,” Knopf said.
With Germany in the throes of integrating over a million refugees into its society, Knopf senses he can make a difference, even as a teaching assistant.
“Having been to Iraq, I have seen what war can do to people, and I believe very strongly in helping in any way I can,” Knopf said. “Language is often a huge barrier between people, and through working as a language teacher I hope to help refugees in Germany settle into the country and culture.”
Per the terms of the Fulbright Award, Knopf does not yet know what kind of school he will be assisting in.
But Knopf is not idly waiting for news.
This past weekend, he presented a paper, “A Force for Unity: The Austro-Hungarian Army, 1867-1914,” at the 85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History in Louisville as part of a Young Scholars Panel.
Knopf’s achievement reflects well on IU Southeast, according to Wille.
“IU Southeast provides high quality education which affords students with exposure to diversity and international experience,” Wille said. “IU Southeast students are eager to continue their international education post-graduation, and are prepared to compete with other college students on a global level.”