Alumni Connect through the German Marshall Fund
January 23, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin
St. John’s College alumnus and Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness Executive Director Patrick Schaefer (A00) was thrilled to be selected as a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund (GMF). His expectations for the prestigious fellowship were high—a month of international travel with some of the United States’ key industry leaders, dedicated to exploring and strengthening transatlantic relations—but there was one experience he didn’t anticipate: running into a fellow Johnnie alum. But on the day of Schaefer’s training, in walked Andrew Kolb (A01), who just so happens to be GMF’s director of communications.
“Andrew graduated a year after I did, so we had spent some time together at St. John’s and I had always had very fond memories of him,” says Schaefer, “but I didn’t seem him again until I sat down for the departure orientation in October. Almost 18 years had passed since I saw him, and then he walked into the room to give us a briefing on how to communicate and work with GMF during our Marshall Memorial Fellowship experience. It was a serendipitous moment.”
“It was a beautiful moment,” concurs Kolb with a laugh. “I saw Patrick looking at me and I thought, ‘He’s really paying attention to and engaged with what I’m saying, this is great.’ But I didn’t recognize him at first—it had been 17 or 18 years. I don’t think we’d seen each other since the turn of the millennium.”
After getting re-introduced, the pair quickly fell back into step.
“That’s one of the things that is special about St. John’s,” says Kolb. “You build those bonds; you’ve got shared background. Even if you go 20 years without seeing someone, you can pick up the conversation where you left off.”
Both Schaefer and Kolb agree that though their meeting was a surprise, it makes sense that two Johnnies would become involved with GMF. As Kolb defines it, the organization is a policy institute focused on strengthening transatlantic relations, a “classical think tank” that brings together policymakers and political scientists to discuss and develop solutions for international security and economic issues. The organization is also involved with “civil society grant making,” which Kolb explains as “funding people who in various ways are developing democratic institutions and values.” The third arm of the organization is where Schaefer comes in: leadership development. Programs such as the Marshall Memorial Fellowship seek to bring together leaders from Europe and the United States to create networks and improve transatlantic relations.
“The Fellowship’s real value is this really tangible, tactile learning experience. The fellows are able to engage at a high level across Europe, but we’re also able to really experience and understand current affairs in these different cities and countries, to find meaningful experiences and dialogues with people in different regions,” says Schaefer. “The way that St. John’s prepares all of us, whether we know it or not, is that it allows us to encounter and deal with uncertain and unfamiliar circumstances. Whether it’s a symphony or a transatlantic relationship, St. John’s has allowed me to make sense of the senseless and find leadership out of uncertainty, which made me very much value the Marshall Memorial Fellowship experience.
"One of the core elements of the Fellowship is the opportunity for participants to take back what they’ve seen and explain the importance of what’s happening to their communities,” he adds. “Without St. John’s, I would have a voice that would surely be less clear and strong, but also wouldn’t have the vision to interpret and see clearly what’s happening. The work that Andrew is doing at the German Marshall Fund is very important. [GMF] is a preeminent actor in strengthening transatlantic relationships, and he has a really prestigious role there.”
Kolb began working at GMF in May of 2016 after a three-year stint teaching in China and 10 years at Conservation International, where he started as a speechwriter and worked his way up to senior director of communications.
“I’ve grown to think of communications as a discipline of creative problem solving,” he explains. “It’s not all public relations or knowing how to talk to the press or knowing how to write web copy. So much of it is being able to look at who you want to talk to and how you’re going to reach them. There’s a thing you get at St. John’s—I’m always reminded of the Buddhist term ‘beginner’s mind.’ In a Johnnie context, it’s fearlessness and humility around big ideas that serves anyone going into the communications profession really well.”
When he came across the job at the Fund, he says, GMF was looking to “ramp up their communications efforts” in the aftermath of a somewhat “sleepy” era—a far cry from the daily headlines about transatlantic issues dominating the news cycle today.
“The relationship between Europe and America is front page news every week, whether that’s NATO, terrorists, or any crisis du jour,” he says. “We’re really trying to meet the moment. I have the incredible opportunity to lead the communications team through that, and I’ve been really focused on making sure that our voice as an organization and the voices of the people that we have in our orbit are as big and bold as possible. We’re trying to help shed light during these very confusing times.”
“GMF is the world of policy,” he adds. “But there’s a sort of St. John’s ethos. There, you’re looking at the liberal arts, and here, we’re looking at the liberal international order. A lot of the underlying values are very closely aligned with St. John’s—the sense of intellectual community of a group of people gathered around shared values and ideas, with a deep respect for the written word and the power of language and a deep respect for conversation. There’s an admiration here of Western civilization, and while it’s not the same elements of Western civilization that we focused on [at St. John’s], it runs parallel to them.”
While Kolb hasn’t run into any other Johnnies at GMF, he says the school is well-recognized there, adding that “there’s an awareness of the Johnnie way out there in the Washington policy community.”
For his part, Schaefer encourages more Johnnie alumni to pursue a Marshall Memorial Fellowship. The criteria is essentially that one has established oneself as a leader in his or her respective field, which, though a high bar, both he and Kolb believe applies to many Johnnies.
“St. John’s has value to our society at the grassroots level, but also the transatlantic and international level, strengthening the liberal order,” says Schaefer. “St. John’s has a very historic role in the post-war and interwar period; our school has a tradition of facilitating the moral and ethical values that underpin both the transatlantic relationship and the community level. All kinds of organizations that surround us can really benefit from the St. John’s outlook.”
“Somebody with the skills developed at St. John’s of being inquisitive and thoughtful about their environment and the conversation that’s happening around them is really well-positioned to get the most out of this fellowship,” adds Kolb. “I would encourage anybody who’s interested and thinks they meet that high bar to apply.”