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Liberal Arts and LEGO

November 15, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin

Ohlmacher with LEGO
Juditha Ohlmacher (SF94) with her LEGO recreation of the Bangladesh parliament building. 

Like most Johnnies, Juditha Ohlmacher (SF94) is a firm believer in the liberal arts—so much so, in fact, that she was willing to move across the world to help found Bangladesh’s first college dedicated to them.

Started in 2002 by Ohlmacher’s husband, K. Anis Ahmed, and his father K. Shahid Ahmed, the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh has grown from 54 students at its official opening in 2004 to a current enrollment of more than 4,500.

“I was informally involved at all levels, because we didn’t know how to start a university,” Ohlmacher says of her role in the university’s genesis. “We did technically, like ‘Sign these papers, do this,’ but what does it really mean to start a university and really bring people in? The liberal arts concept is completely, completely unknown here.”

At first, Ohlmacher says the students were resistant to the required general education courses. And while the university did have to compromise and create more structured programs of study, students came to appreciate—and even miss—the gen-eds.

“Once they’re juniors and seniors, they’ll say ‘I want to take more. How come I can’t take more classes like that?’” Ohlmacher laughs. “They’ve got 12 years [of education] and all societal expectations on them. They’re told by their parents to take business courses. There’s no sense of pedagogy at the primary or secondary level. It’s a tough history and a tough culture, but we’ve managed to build up a really excellent institution that’s got a really good reputation now.”

The university now has nine research centers, encompassing Sustainable development, Enterprise and Society, Archeology, and much more. They often accept post-doc researchers in many of these fields, providing them with unique local resources.

Ohlmacher has since been able to step away from her full-time work with the university—involving, at different times, building the communications and student affairs offices from the ground up, teaching film courses, and helping to establish the curricula—to spend more time with her son.

Parenting, however, awakened an unexpected passion in Ohlmacher: LEGO building. While she’d enjoyed it as a kid, she hadn’t thought too much of the building toy again until having her son.

“My brother was here at the university doing some work with sustainable development and he liked to play with LEGO,” she says. “He and I would play with LEGO together, and somehow one thing led to another and I decided to do this big LEGO project.”

Ohlmacher was intrigued by Bangladesh’s parliament building, built by the American architect Louis Kahn and one of the largest in the world.

“It’s just a gorgeous building, not in an organic or colonial or any kind of way, but in a very modern way. It’s just fascinating,” she says. “[Bangladesh] is one of those countries that most people just don’t know anything about. I have family members who think I live in Baghdad! It’s a very unique country with a very unique culture, very vibrant. We all feel like we need different ways to get the word out about this place in a positive way.”

Her answer? Make the Parliament building into a bona fide LEGO set. Over the course of eight months, she built a tabletop version, requiring about 250 LEGO, then challenged herself to build a “really big” version at about five feet long and two-and-a-half feet wide—and requiring nearly 8,000 LEGO bricks. Ohlmacher then submitted her design to the platform LEGO Ideas, where it will remain until she can get the 10,000 supporters necessary to make the model into a set. (As of November 14, she was at 1,033 supporters.)

“I thought it was a great little thing,” she says. “If people can buy this LEGO and get excited about it, that’s something small that I can contribute.”

Recently, she came across an article about adult fans of LEGO and how calming the toys can be. She agrees, calling it “meditative and a lot of fun.” Her 6-year-old son, too, is becoming more interested in the colorful bricks.

“He’s turning into a little builder himself,” she laughs.

Ohlmacher had never studied architecture, but she had studied the Program books, which gave her both a “spirit of inquiry” and an openness that has carried her through seismic geographical and career shifts.

“Look at me now. Look at where I’ve come,” she says. “I have both the ability to go somewhere new and be flexible enough to do that and accept it, and also at the same time to be rooted, to say ‘I know where I come from.’ Because there is something very rooting about being a Johnnie. Once a Johnnie, you’re always a Johnnie. It’s part of who I am.”

But did she ever think LEGO building would be part of who she was?

“No, never. And I never thought I’d be in Bangladesh, either. Life is like that,” she says. “But since I’ve been here, things have changed so rapidly. No one could have foreseen any of these changes 10 years ago. It’s only those who have the flexibility of mind and the analytical abilities who are going to be ready.”