From Climbing to the Classroom: Hanewald Reflects on Life Abroad

While most young students learn to read with classic children’s books, History Teacher and International Programs Director Michael Hanewald ’90 P’22 turned to National Geographic magazines to strengthen his reading skills.

While most young students learn to read with classic children’s books, History Teacher and International Programs Director Michael Hanewald ’90 P’22 turned to National Geographic magazines to strengthen his reading skills. With the help of his mother, he perused every magazine he could get his hands on from a tender age. As he learned about countries around the world, his family visited those locations and made slideshow presentations about their trips, allowing Hanewald to develop a global perspective early on. “While my three siblings and I say we were victims of the travel slideshows, they were important in giving me my first sight of life abroad,” he said.

According to Hanewald, his household was “like a youth hostel” during the summer, filled with exchange students from around the world, providing him with greater exposure to multicultural backgrounds. His parents saved flags from each exchange student, eventually boasting a collection from Finland, Bolivia, Hungary, and France, among other nations. Hanewald’s own travels began with a “hardcore European focus.” After his sister raved about her time abroad in Germany, he decided to become an exchange student himself. Five days after his 16th birthday, Hanewald traveled to Upper Austria, where he pursued his studies for one year, prior to enrolling at Lawrenceville for his final two years of high school.

In Austria, he decided to visit one of his family’s former exchange students, Joe Iglesias. He boarded a train that passed through France and Switzerland before reaching Costa Brava, Spain—Hanewald’s final destination—but his travels stopped short before the train even left the Austrian border. Due to an avalanche, the train experienced unexpected delays, and with no access to a phone, Hanewald was unable to get in touch with Iglesias.

While traveling across Europe as a teenager may be an intimidating task for some, especially when without the ability to instantly communicate with others, Hanewald took this unforeseen challenge in stride, arriving in Spain 20 hours later, excited to reunite with Iglesias. “My schedule was screwed due to the avalanche, but somehow, it all worked out, and I learned how to deal with adverse circumstances,” he said.

After his time in Austria, Hanewald arrived at Lawrenceville as a new IV Former, and by the Spring Term, he became a Ropes Course Instructor (RCI). According to Hanewald, climbing was not only a “great way to reach people” but also an “entryway into deeper learning by way of experiential education,” which ultimately inspired his interest in teaching—in and out of the classroom. Upon graduating from Lawrenceville, Hanewald attended the University of Vermont, where he pursued a double major in European History and German History with a minor in Environmental Science.

During his time in college, he packed up once more and spent his junior year of college at the University of Salzburg, again drawn to Austria for its “lush outdoors and friendly people.” In Salzburg, Hanewald noticed that the locals “celebrated and respected nature,” taking advantage of the city’s close proximity to the Eastern Alps. He, too, spent his free time hiking and climbing, continuing to engage in experiential education and building on the skills he learned as an RCI at Lawrenceville.

Hanewald soon returned to college for his senior year, but this wouldn’t be the last time he ventured to Europe. After college, Hanewald vied for an environmental internship at Lawrenceville. While he was not offered the position—in fact, his future wife got the job—Hanewald had the perfect solution: participating in the Fulbright Teaching Program, which sends young teachers to a variety of towns and cities throughout Austria. “I got rejected from the internship I really wanted, but nothing sounded more appealing than a return to Austria once again,” he said.

When applying, Hanewald received notice that the spots to teach in Vienna and Salzburg—Austria’s two main cities—had been filled by previous applicants. But this didn’t faze Hanewald, who “filled out [his] application in German, and in the equivalent of Texan slang, wrote, ‘I want a cow town in the mountains.’” Unlike most others, Hanewald wanted an opportunity to live in a tiny farm town. “I worked on a farm shoveling manure, yet I still learned more about the people and the place than I thought possible,” he said.

While not fulfilling his responsibilities on the farm, Hanewald walked the border of Austria and Czechoslovakia. “I saw it all, especially the massive military towers from the Cold War on the Czechoslovakian side. I almost felt like a credible primary source on the war,” he said. Even during this tumultuous political period, Hanewald noted similarities between his “vibrant, fun college experience” and that of young adults in Europe. “I’ve been to a college party in Budapest right after the wall fell, and it felt amazing to just be there with kids my age and find common ground, even in a different country,” he added.

In addition to his travels in Europe, Hanewald spent significant time in Central and South America. During his two years in El Salvador, he “fell in love with Mayan ruins and ancient American history,” even participating on an archaeological dig. According to Hanewald, visiting these historical landmarks of native civilizations was “unlike any experience he had when climbing and hiking mountains in Europe.” In El Salvador, he also taught young students, allowing him to bridge his interests in teaching and outdoor exploration.

Eager to explore other parts of the world, Hanewald journeyed to Africa, spending weeks at a time residing in different countries. In Ghana, he immersed himself in the life of the locals; he learned to drum, prepare customary food, and practice daily cultural norms. Hanewald later celebrated July 4 at a historic slave trading base in Elmina, Ghana: “I sat for a long time by myself thinking about what freedom means to me, which was an especially powerful and reflective moment, as I observed a physical representation of something that directly contradicts the meaning of freedom.”

Hanewald’s travels have inspired him to create opportunities for his students to connect their education in the classroom with first-hand, on-the-ground experience. In his very first year at Lawrenceville, Hanewald taught II Form Humanities Cultural Studies. On the wall of his classroom hung a poster of Tikal, a complex of Mayan ruins in Guatemala. One student inquired, “What’s that poster all about?” “By the time you’re a V Former,” Hanewald replied, “I’m going to take you all there to see it for yourselves.” After “pulling a stunt like that, [he] had to live up to it”—and he certainly did. A few years later, he brought the same II Form students to Tikal, where they interviewed lead archaeologists working to excavate the ruins for their interdisciplinary “History Through a Lens” class.

Hanewald’s admiration and respect for African cultures also led him to create his own course: “Africa: Then and Now.” In this interactive, two-term course, Hanewald holds drumming and traditional dance sessions outside of class time, serving as a “hook” for students to become truly immersed in artistic styles originating from African countries. As part of the culminating project one year, Hanewald’s students learned to prepare traditional Ethiopian meals and even presented them to a local Ethiopian restaurant.

Through all of his eventful travels, Hanewald has “learned how to be a good host, a good friend, and how to effectively communicate with others.” Just as his friends abroad have been a positive force in his life, he aims to have that same impact on his students. In class, he often shares personal anecdotes from his travels and encourages students to do the same, ensuring that their conversations around the Harkness table extend beyond the coursework at hand.

At the ropes course, he first teaches a student to climb, eventually putting him or her to the ultimate test: belaying Hanewald. Before they reverse roles, he makes it a point to convey one message in particular: “here is the belay rope, and here is my life.” According to Hanewald, this statement signals the moment when he and his student “become equals.” Ultimately, from the classroom to the climbing wall, Hanewald “uses every opportunity [to] reciprocate the same type of trust and connection that [he has] been fortunate enough to share with people around the world.”


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