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Headshot of William Durden.

Dr. William “Bill” G. Durden

President Emeritus, Dickinson College

A true cosmopolitan, a “man of the world,” Dr. William G. Durden never realized what the world had in store for him as a first generation college student. After getting the travel bug during a high school immersion trip and having a “mindful” year-long experience in Freiburg, Dr. Durden went on to lead an impressive career in higher education. Through it all – from professor at Johns Hopkins University to President of the Division of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. to President of Dickinson College – Dr. Durden has been a champion of international education. In our interview, Dr. Durden explains the important role study abroad played in his life, and why he believes it remains such an important experience for students today.

IES Abroad: You were one of the first in your family to attend college. Had you traveled internationally before studying abroad?

William Durden: I had studied German in junior high and high school, and there was a German teacher who organized summer trips to Germany in two parts – the A plan and the B plan, or the economy class and the business class versions. I went on the economy class trip, which was far less expensive. We went over on a ship, which was great fun, and lived with a family in a German city. As I spent my summer in a small German town, I realized there was something that attracted me to another dialogue and another way of looking at the world.  

IES Abroad: How did you hear about IES Abroad and what motivated you to study in Freiburg?

WD: I originally intended to be an English major, but I realized I would have to “destroy” the English language by overanalyzing and dissecting it in order to learn it well. I didn’t want to do that, so I switched over to German and combined it with Philosophy. Somehow it felt more comfortable to take apart another language in order to learn it. I was the first or second group to go overseas with IES Abroad from Dickinson. Everyone in the College was behind the idea of study abroad and supported it. There was something about being abroad that appealed to me. This encouragement – that of course I would study overseas – made it easier to go.

IES Abroad: What were some of the most influential memories from your time in Freiburg as an undergraduate student?

WD: I think I was practicing mindful international education. By being a first generation student, I had the feeling that I knew I wanted to have a purposeful education. So, before I went, I read lots of German literature that was asking questions about life. I came upon German philosophers that practiced in Freiburg, and I was lucky enough to get into this first semester course that turned out to be a nine-year seminar in Heidegger’s philosophy.

The second element was that I learned some things about myself. I didn’t really realize until I was in the IES Abroad environment about how we (our group) would approach that year and help take care of each other. I was elected the class speaker. I realized that maybe I do have some abilities to get things done, organize experiences, etc. I also realized that I liked people – I like helping people, I like engaging with them, working with a sense a humor. I liked negotiating and figuring things out.

I began throughout the year to recognize my lifestyle, how I felt most comfortable existing. We would go to the café, have coffee, exchange our ideas. It became a habit, a lifestyle – reading books, challenging each other – with both my American IES Abroad friends and my German friends. With my IES Abroad friends, I remember just wandering the city and observing. It very much became what I still do today. When I go to places, I still seek out the local café, wander the city, and observe as much as I can.

IES Abroad: During your 16-year tenure at Johns Hopkins University as German professor and executive director of the Center for Talented Youth (CTY), you also had a long-standing engagement with the U.S. Department of State. How did you get involved with the State Department?

I have always had an international component. The world is bigger than the U.S., and we need to consider the bigger world. I was the founding director of CTY. International education is an international issue. As you get out there, people notice. They came to me. They knew Johns Hopkins’ reputation, and they asked me to get involved. There is no doubt in my mind that they saw I had an international experience in my background. Obviously, they wanted to engage someone who was comfortable internationally and had experience. The State Department just celebrated their 30th anniversary of the gifted and talented program they recruited me to start. It is going strong, with an effort to help ensure U.S. students in international schools around the world focus on gifted and talented and learning challenges. The more you are out there, the more you see how the world is related, and people are related. I wrote a book, Living on the Diagonal, that addresses these issues. It all started years ago in Freiburg.

IES Abroad: From Johns Hopkins you took a dual-leadership role with Sylvan Learning as President of the Division of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. and Vice-President for Academic Affairs of the Caliber Learning Network, a joint distance-learning venture of Sylvan and MCI. What motivated you to make this change?

WD: One of things I got involved in at Johns Hopkins was testing and the SAT. I was never really satisfied with administering the test solely or focusing on verbal and mathematic abilities. It was missing those who didn’t have proper learning about these things. I thought, maybe there is another intelligence, a spatial intelligence. We might find people who we could identify and nurture, those whose first language is not English, for example. There was imagery that was beginning to show up beyond letters and numbers. I wondered if we could make tests more readily available if they were computerized. The place that was doing this was Sylvan Learning Systems. They had a huge division of prometrics, computerized testing. I approached the company and they did it pro-bono, they published the test.

There was a part of me that was an academic entrepreneur. I liked building things. The CEO of Sylvan Learning Systems called me up and asked me if I was interested in working with them. My first trip with them was to Germany to look at a Germany company that they were looking to buy. I helped with the negotiations, and I ended up staying in Dusseldorf for two years.

IES Abroad: After Sylvan, you served as President of Dickinson College for 14 years. Tell us how that happened. 

WD: I was totally happy where I was and the College came to me. I said no. I didn’t think Dickinson College was achieving academically how I wanted it to achieve nor

did I want to be a part of it. I didn’t have the confidence in the leadership. The headhunter came back and said the Search Committee refused my answer. I told them, as an alum, I was extremely disappointed. I would shake thing up and do things the way I thought best. I don’t want a contract. I said I would stay as long as I feel I am being effective. Except for the military and Dickinson College, I’ve never had a job that pre-existed me. It was either made up for me, or I made it up for myself. The foundation for that came out of my international explorations.

IES Abroad: In 2006, The Forum on Education Abroad, the official Standards Development Organization for the field of education abroad, moved its operations to Dickinson College. Why was it important that Dickinson play a lead role in international education at the national level?

WD: Dickinson College always had that international bent. Even back when I was a student there, they were so supportive of students having international experiences. I attempted from my position to support that. It was a very natural and easy fit for me to engage in that. What Dickinson College was lacking was a leadership narrative – something people would want to be part of. It lacked the ability to drive self-confidence and know who it was. The founder was Dr. Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration of Independence. Rush went to Princeton but he did his medical degree in Edinburgh. That year in Scotland was the most formative of his life. He wrote a letter where he would advise how to approach overseas study – steps to take, including going to dances and speaking to all types of people. I was trying to reclaim the international influence of the founding and reinvent the institution. International education was an issue that mattered, and I wanted us at the table. The Forum just fit in with my narrative. It was an additional way to participate with others in the national and international conversation.

IES Abroad: What advice would you give students today as they are embarking on their study abroad?


  1. Have a mindful experience. It is somewhat purposeful, not accidental. There is virtue in the accidental, but not totally. You need to prepare and to think about it. So, give it some thought. Prepare as much as you can. Prepare for where you are going – read the literature, learn about the customs, try to understand what is different.
  2. When you are there, engage. Be out there. Absorb every bit of the experience that you can. It is nice to have a focus that orients you, but then find connection to random things that happen. Be engaged, live very intensely during that year.
  3. Reflect on the meaning of that year. We don’t do it enough. Specific skills may have been picked up, but what about the subtle things. Whole set of things start to change when you are abroad for a sustained period.
  4. Have an ethical frame of mind to going overseas. People are more alike than they are different. Our effort should be to find that commonality. It is a lifestyle, a disposition. Today, in particular, students should be poised to reflect upon where they are going, how that location is a shared place of global challenge, and use that to give structure to their experience. Higher education costs too much to be a frivolous experience. There needs to be intentionality.
  5. Form a deep sustained relationship to a local person in the foreign context, and sustain it beyond the year. It is really difficult to do, and to do that with just one person is a success.

IES Abroad: You retired as President of Dickinson College, but you haven’t slowed down. You remain an active champion of international education. Why is it so important?

WD: It’s not work. It’s all about living the fullest life that is possible. When you extend your points of contact both in the U.S. and overseas, you are increasing the possibility of a wholesome life. You then want others to have this opportunity. It’s the right path for others if they want to accomplish it, too. You want them to have the most expansive area from which to build the quality of their own life and their contribution to the rest of the world. It turns out that it is absolutely essential to have global connections. I’m such an advocate of international education because, look, for a first generation kid, it opened up such a playing field for me, such mobility. I can only recommend it for others.

Today, Dr. Durden juggles several demanding positions – commuting to the U.K. once a month as Dean of the new School of Business and Entrepreneurship (SBE) at Bath Spa University; lecturing as Professor of Liberal Arts at Dickinson College; serving as Joint Professor (Research) at the Johns Hopkins School of Education; and working as an Operating Partner for Sterling Partners.