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An Interview: Helmut Sohmen on his Fulbright Experience: Be Prepared!

Helmut Sohmen was encouraged to apply for a Fulbright award by his elder brother Egon, whose tenure as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Kansas in 1954–55 was an early station on his path to becoming a noted academic economist. Helmut was a law student at the University of Vienna when he applied for his Fulbright award, which brought him to Wesleyan University in Connecticut for the 1961–62 academic year.

Helmut recalls the youthful excitement of learning about his award. “The Fulbright Program carried with it a mark of academic distinction then as now,” Helmut says. “It provided for us young Austrians a singular chance to go to the United States to stretch our mental horizons and to widen our study experience at a time when international student exchanges and cross-cultural engagement were still in their infancy.”

Helmut says that like most of the other Fulbright Scholars he met, he found the American experience both rewarding and unforgettable. “We faced a very different environment in the US schools: more openness and willingness to get involved in debate, a greater emphasis on personal development, a stronger sense of collegiality between teachers and students. Critical commentary was encouraged and inter-disciplinary engagement was expected as a matter of course. There was a sense of suddenly waking up and facing the world better prepared.”

In terms of his subsequent life and distinguished career as a legal adviser to a large North American bank, as a corporate executive based in Hong Kong, a leader of regional business associations and industry groups, a parliamentarian, a promoter of arts and culture, and as a public speaker, author, and dialogue partner, Sohmen insists that the Fulbright experience early in his life gave him the preparedness and the confidence he needed to tackle the many difficult situations he would later face. He obtained law degrees at three different universities—the University of Vienna, Southern Methodist University, and Northwestern—and holds honorary doctorates from two others. He has also been acknowledged with awards for his community work and public engagements in such diverse countries as China, Panama, the United Kingdom, Korea, and of course Austria.

Helmut Sohmen remains grateful to the Fulbright idea and has pledged a generous contribution to Fulbright Austria at a time when government budget restrictions everywhere are creating funding shortages. In typical Sohmen fashion, he wants to provide help when it is needed to give other youngsters chances in life similar to those he was privileged to enjoy. “After all, actions speak louder than words,” he says, “and I hope my fellow Fulbright scholars and the politicians are listening.”