By Mark Cox
You remember the classic ’80s movie, “Trading Places”?
It’s the one where two strangers – homeless hustler Eddie Murphy and rich investment banker Dan Ackroyd – are suddenly catapulted into each other’s lives. Besides being very funny, the film explores how people might respond if they found themselves literally living someone else’s life. How would that actually feel?
Enter Denise Mowder and Juul Gooren, who might soon be able to answer that question. Okay, so our movie analogy isn’t perfect. Rather than a millionaire and a vagrant, both of our characters are criminology professors. And unlike in the movie, they have willingly entered into this transition. But other than that, the comparison is pretty much spot on.
The two educators are about to start a four-month teaching exchange between the criminology departments of MSU Denver and The Hague University of Applied Sciences. So naturally, they’ll soon be getting closely acquainted with each other’s offices, colleagues and classes. But one of the quirkier details of this particular trip is that Mowder and Gooren will also be straight-up swapping their homes for the duration.
Home, sweet home
It must feel weird – having a virtual stranger lounging on your sofa, chatting with your neighbors and even sleeping in your bed. But as Mowder points out, this was the most practical – and cost-effective – option. Besides, it all adds to the sense of adventure.
“Juul, his wife and three children all live in a small apartment – which is so typically cool and Dutch,” she says. “And although the Denver house my husband and I share isn't too large by American standards, it will seem like a castle to them. And we also have a dishwasher, which should make a big difference to a mother with three small kids. In fact, his wife may not want to go back …”
Unquestionably, moving their respective families half-way around the world for four months is a massive undertaking – so what was it about the teaching exchange that they just couldn’t resist?
For Gooren, the inspiration actually came from meeting MSU Denver students and lecturers: A group of Roadrunners visits his university each year for a study abroad program. “Having the Denver people along has always made for a very nice international vibe,” he says. “And that’s worth a lot. It encourages different ways of thinking and acting, and allows for fresh perspectives.”
Back in Colorado, a mix-up meant that Mowder was literally given just two days to decide whether she wanted to take part. “At first blush, I couldn't fathom going,” she says. “But after talking it through with my husband, we thought: When will this ever happen again?”
And there’s another reason she felt determined to grab such a rare opportunity: “I am just now two years cancer-free, so I never want to be in a position where I’m saying ‘I wish I had done that!’”
The two professors are obviously intrigued by the social and cultural aspects of their trip, but as criminology experts their focus is squarely on one thing – the educational possibilities.
“We have very different legal systems,” Gooren explains. “And so I think my Dutch students will be amazed to learn about the democratic but also quite punitive nature of the legal system in the U.S. At the same time, I hope to convince my American students that The Netherlands has much more to offer than vices such as brothels, and of course pot.” He pauses. “Though I suppose cannabis no longer seems quite so exotic to Denverites!”
Mowder, who has spent the entire summer cramming on international law, is determined to really connect with her classes and leave a lasting impression: “I'm counting on the students to bring their own ideas and knowledge to the table,” she says. “And if they’re asked in five years’ time what they remember about my class, I’d love for them to be able to answer: ‘Oh, that American teacher really taught me a lot.’"
Despite being seasoned educators, both Gooren and Mowder are well aware that teaching in such an alien environment might be a little, well, interesting. They say dogs can’t be understood by pooches in other countries: Are our professors similarly worried that, as teachers in a strange land, they may find themselves barking up the wrong tree? In Mowder’s case, that’ll be a firm yes.
“I was a prosecutor for 10 years, always hanging with cops,” she says, “so I have a habit of speaking like a cop – using casual slang, talking way too fast and basically being a bit blunt. And I'm not sure if those polite Dutch students are ready for that. Plus, Americans are so much more intense than Europeans, so I have to remember to calm down!”
She could learn a lot from Gooren who, in characteristically laid-back Dutch fashion, exudes a zen-like calm about the prospect of deep-diving into another academic culture.
“I’m really looking forward to having discussions in class where we relate course content to students’ personal stories,” he explains. “Though I realize things might get intense if class members have themselves been affected by violence or incarceration – so that might be a challenge. The exciting thing is that Denise and I will be giving our classes a comparative insight into the cultural background of crime and crime control in both our respective countries.”
In terms of climate and culture, it’s hard to imagine two places as disparate as The Hague and Denver. And that will bring both rewards and challenges.
Gooren and his family are naturally looking forward to seeing the “absolutely beautiful outdoors and fantastic weather in Colorado.” But as a die-hard sports fan, Gooren will also have to accept that ‘football’ means something very different in the US. “I’m going to really miss watching soccer,” he admits. “Though who knows – perhaps I’ll become a fanatical Denver Broncos supporter instead. After all, every Dutch person loves the color orange.”
Meanwhile, Denise is full of weather worries: “My husband and I have spent lots of time in the northwest – Seattle, Portland, Salem – and are accustomed to rain. But not this kind of rain. The Hague gets freezing cold downpours with winds blasting in from the North Sea. Yikes!”
And ultimately, these little concerns act as a perfect metaphor for the disorienting nature of their upcoming exchange trip. While Mowder stock-piles heavy rain-coats and boots, Gooren is searching for strong sunglasses and sunscreen of at least 50 SPF, neither quite certain of what lies ahead. Undoubtedly, life is about to throw up a few surprises for both the professors and their families in the coming weeks. But what an adventure, eh? It’s going to be the ride of their lives.
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