EDITOR’S NOTE: We officially changed our name from University of Maryland University College (UMUC) to University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) on July 1, 2019. News stories posted on the Global Media Center are now using the new UMGC name. However, because the transition to the university’s new name will take several months to complete, you may still see the UMUC name, logo and look on our website and other materials through early 2020.
Stephen Holowenzak was on a break from setting up a computer system and workshops for the Cumberland Area Health Education Center in rural Maryland when an ad in the Washington Post caught his eye. The University of Maryland Global Campus was seeking faculty to teach active-duty service members on military bases in Europe and Asia. Holowenzak applied.
The next thing he knew, he was headed to orientation in Germany—and the launch of the unusual career experience shared by many University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) faculty members.
“Gypsy scholars.” That’s what Joe Arden, who spent a decade teaching in the university’s Asia and Europe divisions and another 30 years directing one or both divisions, said many of the job ads called for.
“Typically a full-time faculty person in Europe would make two moves a year,” said Arden, who is now retired and living in Thailand. “The largest programs were in Germany because of the, literally, hundreds of thousands of U.S. personnel there. A faculty member might be in a city within range of [a multitude of] bases and teach at multiple locations.”
Holowenzak envisioned investing a year on the new adventure before returning stateside. Even with a few years’ interruption in his teaching, he ended up accruing 25 years of classroom experience on more than 125 military bases in 15 countries. When he wasn’t explaining math and computer science concepts, he might be instructing a psychology course or coordinating student-teacher assignments at base schools for service members who aspired to teach elementary, middle or high school after they graduated from UMGC.
He helped erect education field centers in Bosnia and Kuwait, dismantle them in Saudi Arabia and repair them on the Sinai Peninsula and in Iceland. He taught service members during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. While actively deployed, many of his students studied however and wherever they could, sometimes poring over their math assignments by the light of a bare bulb under a military vehicle.
Holowenzak watched for land mines and bucked up in the face of frigid cold and scorching heat. There were risks tucked alongside the teaching, like the time in the Balkans when he was in a military convoy that made a wrong turn and ended up in a cul-de-sac banked by booby-trapped trenches. The vehicles had to back out. Carefully.
Arden described the ideal candidate for overseas teaching at UMGC as a problem-solver with a sense of adventure and “a great deal of patience.”
“They have to be able to learn to deal with the world of the big U.S. military, with its jargon, its internal mechanisms and its way of doing things,” Arden explained. “And that is different from the big world of the university, with its own jargon, with its internal mechanisms and its way of doing things.
“We were interested in hiring people who were able to deal with the unexpected,” he said.
When he joined the university in 1984, Holowenzak was among 70 new faculty recruits with an interest in teaching and a curiosity about other cultures and people. He was sent to a one-week orientation in Heidelberg, Germany. Among other things, he had to figure out how to get a driver’s license and—even more—how to navigate the autobahn.
“At first, on an overnight bus trip, I watched how other people were driving. Then one day I asked for advice from a woman in the base exchange,” he recalled. “She told me, ‘On the German autobahn, you get ready, get set and go like hell.’”
Holowenzak did not initially aspire to become an educator. Indeed, he once considered becoming a priest. He studied at a seminary and received an undergraduate degree in philosophy and English before changing course and earning a master’s degree in counseling and guidance. Next came a Doctor of Philosophy degree with concentrations in educational psychology, computer science and statistics from the Catholic University of America.
Once he started teaching, he was a natural. But his work as an educator was only part of his overseas engagement. Community service on the base—and beyond—ran a close
second. In Torreon, Spain, he swung a sledgehammer into walls during the renovation of a study space. In Lukavac, Bosnia, he scavenged material to help build a plywood-and-tent Army Education Center, complete with hangers for flak jackets.
He also became involved with projects to benefit the civilian community. In Japan, for example, he volunteered with the Special Olympics, on food drives for the homeless and at the Japanese and American Friendship Festival that annually brings tens of thousands of people to the Yokota Air Base. In Turkey, he helped the community chapel upgrade the deteriorating home of a low-income family with seven children.
“Steve was unusually enthusiastic about being involved with the overseas program,” Arden said. “He was gung-ho and volunteered for activities on the bases.
“He took pleasure and pride in being involved with military students and the chain of command at whatever base he was assigned. There was no requirement for faculty to be super patriotic in that way, but that is where Steve distinguished himself,” Arden added.
Known as “Doc” by many of his students, Holowenzak taught members of the Navy, Army, Marines and Air Force and was often spotted with a camera in hand documenting military field exercises as well as student commencements, faculty meetings and volunteer events.
He pointed to a vow he made after a quick-acting military doctor repaired a detached retina that Holowenzak experienced while in the classroom teaching. “The surgery was successful but it took me about six months to fully recuperate,” he said. “I really felt that was a miracle … and, as a thank you, I made a promise to take pictures of the good things people do at work and in their community life.”
In 2011, after a final teaching post in Tokyo, Holowenzak retired and became the first overseas faculty member honored as a professor emeritus by UMGC.
Today he lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, where his public service continues. He is active in the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal service organization of the Catholic Church, and collaborates with volunteers who wash the wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. and place wreaths and flags at Arlington Cemetery. In 2016, he received the Albert Nelson Lifetime of Achievement Award from the Marquis Who's Who, a publisher of reference materials that include profiles of notable Americans.
He also spends time with his daughter, Amy, in Florida while still marveling over his overseas experiences.
“My colleagues and friends are in my mind and my heart,” he said. “We worked as a team and that’s the only way we could achieve what we did—providing an education to thousands of active-duty personnel.”