Changing Lives: TASIS's First International Student Makes History by Endowing the Global Service Program
Posted 10/01/2015 11:00AM

This article was originally published in the 2013 TASIS Today.

It is difficult to imagine TASIS without the dynamic variety of nations that make up our community. But until 1965, the student body was only American and native English-speaking. Then Jan Opsahl ’68 turned up, a blue-eyed Norwegian with a limited knowledge of English owing to foreign language lessons in Norway and a four-week summer language program in England.

Born in the small Norwegian town of Hamar in 1949, early on Jan was intrigued by his parents’ lives. They started a business in 1937, three years before they were married. Soon after this, his mother completed business school as the first woman and at the top of her class. Jan’s mother continued to be the controlling force behind their business, his father taking on the more creative roles. “Until he died at the age of 94, they basically spent three generations working side-by-side,” Jan recalls, and their commitment to their company and to each other shaped much of his life.

From an early age, Jan often traveled abroad with his family. This was uncommon at this time and instilled a sense of cultural curiosity in young Jan. His father would return from frequent business trips to America with what were exotic things at that time, like chewing gum, kites, or electronic cars. “It made us feel special,” Jan says. “We got to experience things that most others didn’t get to experience at the time.” This also instigated a feeling of transience, which stayed with Jan throughout his life.

But let’s go back to the summer when Jan was 15. When he returned from England his parents told him they were moving to Lugano. “It was not the time of family democracy, where parents ask the children where to move,” he laughs. And if he’d known what was about to happen, he’d have taken his English studies far more seriously. But the decision had been made, he was to attend an American high school, and he even had to apply. “They asked me to write something, an essay,” he remembers. “Except I didn’t know what an essay was!” As the School’s first non-American, and non-native English speaker, Jan presented TASIS with a unique challenge. “But, in the spirit of Mrs. Fleming, TASIS decided to take a chance,” Jan says. “It was pretty scary. It was the start of something quite new, certainly for me, and, as it turned out, for TASIS as well.”

Jan feels this was the first time he’d ever faced a real challenge. “It was sink or swim,” he says. “There were a couple of days I stood on the Hadsall lawn and looked over the lake towards where my parents’ apartment was, and thought, this wasn’t very nice of you.” The language was one issue, but another part was the cultural challenges. “Watching Perry Mason on television did not provide a very realistic picture of American culture,” he recalls. “I hadn’t seen Bermuda shorts in my life, and I came with my short shorts! We used down comforters in Norway; here, I felt strapped into my sheets and blankets that had to be made in a certain way. There were plenty of ways you could feel out of touch.”

But TASIS responded in a way that resonates with him even now. “I stand by this statement: if you’re ever going to get lost in the world, make sure there are Americans around. They are the most welcoming and inclusive people, always wanting to help others.” His classmates were curious about him and were interested in the world that he came from. “I got so much support. Students stepped up to help. They offered to take notes for me, to help me study, or to help with my English. In reality, I had more than 100 EAL teachers at my disposal.” He’s never forgotten their kindnesses. “I don’t care if some people think that Americans seem false when they say ‘hello’ to everyone. At least they give you a chance!”

Jan soon found his feet at TASIS, excelling at sports and especially enjoying the seven-week ski term in Andermatt. “On my wooden skis, I beat the heck out of those people on metal ones!” he remembers. He also played tennis with the only other person who played on campus—the Headmaster—which drew some frowns from his peers.

Not having any choice but to speak English, within the first year he felt very comfortable with the language, and by the following year he had excelled enough to win the American History Award as a junior, and as a foreigner. “I’m still pretty proud of that,” he says. “I have a fascination with American history, and our teacher, Hendrick Woods, was excellent. We had discussions, rather than just learning facts. I’d never been asked to do analysis in courses before.”

After three years at TASIS, in which he achieved AP credits in various subjects and earned a recommendation for Headmaster Raymond Robbins’ alma mater, Jan attended Dartmouth on a five-year, two-degree program that included an M.B.A. from Tuck Business School. After this, he spent three years working in New York for the Singer Company but had a yearning to return to Europe. An opening came up to work for Singer in Scandinavia, headquartered in Helsinki, and he jumped at the chance. It was a good move; indeed he met his future wife, Birgitta, there.

After a few years, Singer offered him a European-wide position that he, however, felt was far above his experience level, but he was promoted by a boss whom Jan had met before, a man who had stormed out of the room after Jan refused to budge on a major issue. Apparently Jan was the first person to stand up to this boss—obviously impressing the man for daring to tell him that he was wrong. “Standing up for what I know is right: that is a character trait I know I have,” Jan says.

Jan moved back to Norway after his time in Finland and began leading his family’s Norwegian business. During his free time, he got involved in sports administration in Hamar for teams he had been playing for before leaving Norway. “For seven years I was chairman of a big club with 13 different sports activities, mainly for children. This was the beginning of giving my own time for the benefit of others,” he says, noting that this was especially exciting during the 1994 Winter Olympics.

Board Directors Jan Opsahl ‘68 and Rick Bell PG ‘65 at the TASIS Serata Ticinese in May.

Board Directors Jan Opsahl '68 and Rick Bell PG '65 at the TASIS Serata Ticinese in May.

He was also active in the Rotary Club, and during his tenure as President he encouraged his fellow members to become more service-minded, as the motto of Rotary is "service above self." This was slow in developing, so when he left Norway in 2007, he wanted to thank the club for all it had added to his life and inspire them to do more. “I presented the club with a challenge. If you come up with a suitable project to actively support developing countries, then I’ll put money towards it,” he says. One member of the club was an eye surgeon who had spent time in Nepal setting up a hospital and training local eye surgeons. They needed money to run periodic eye clinics in remote areas throughout Nepal. The club took the challenge, and for many years thereafter several hundred people in Nepal got their eyesight back through simple cataract operations performed in primitive facilities in the Nepal bush. “It made me happy and proud to see pictures of people thanking Rotary for being able to see again; this allowed them to again be useful and support themselves. True, I had not done the work myself, but I had sowed the seed.”

Jan and his wife moved to Lugano in 2007, having successfully completed the businesses in Norway, now ready to take on new challenges. His mother, who turned 100 in February 2013, is in the same facility where Mrs. Fleming spent time later in life, so the two women often saw one another. Once Jan was settled into his new home, he visited TASIS, as he had often done before when visiting his parents. However, this time he met Hans Figi ’75, then Director of Development, who recruited Jan for the Development Board. Soon after, he was asked to join the TASIS Board of Directors. “Well, I have no children, nor any experiences with school administration to limit my thinking, so I must know all the answers,” he laughs. “I know TASIS from a special time, I know it from being a minority. And I know that TASIS changed my life.”

Once he joined the Board, he began to question things. “How good is the School? How good can it be? What is the School known for? I was having trouble grasping it. I knew what it had given me, and what it had given to a lot of people. And when you ask people who have been here, they say the atmosphere, the ethos, the beauty, the travel. But these things are so difficult to convey.”

At about the same time, when talking with his mother, she expressed a desire that some of the assets, created through their hard work, be used for the benefit of others, mainly children. Jan looked into giving to larger organizations, but to him it seemed “too intangible. It was just giving money away, and I didn’t like that idea. And setting up our own charitable foundation was a time-consuming process. Then we thought, maybe TASIS?” So Jan approached then-Headmaster Michael Ulku-Steiner. “I asked Michael, if I was to make a sizeable donation, and not towards a building, what should it be for? We discussed many things, but I wanted it to be something that would make a real difference in the lives of students, and at the same time help TASIS stand out as a school.”

Global Service Program founder Jan Opsahl with program Director Zach Mulert

Global Service Program founder Jan Opsahl with program Director Zach Mulert

They soon landed on the concept of Service Learning, which had long fascinated Jan. He and Michael fleshed out a way to turbo-charge our service program into a global, sustainable, buzz-creating program. “This would be a program to set TASIS apart,” Jan says, “where all students get to experience something life-changing, at the same time helping others.” The result is the new TASIS Global Service Program.

Jan feels that the opportunities to help others in the world are immense. “We need to do a lot more by creating more ways of social equality, especially giving women their rightful opportunities in life. Once people have the basics—food, shelter, water, health, education—they create opportunities for themselves. A feeling of uselessness is mankind’s worst enemy.”

It may seem odd to want to help people in the developing world by donating to a boarding school in Switzerland. “I’m investing in the benefits arising from each project,” he says. First, on their trips, the students will support communities in various ways, from tutoring a child in English to helping build a school to planting seeds on a sustainable farm. Next, these experiences will result in every student returning as a changed person. “This sort of journey early in life is important,” Jan says. “Our students will soon understand how good it feels to give someone hope.”

Jan feels that the cultural element of this program is as important as the service projects themselves. Inspired by events such as Howard Stickley’s annual trip to Botswana and Zambia, the Global Service Program also aims to immerse students into completely different cultures. “Cultural understanding is paramount to world peace. It takes away the perceived fear of our differences and prevents misunderstandings. I learned English by being immersed in the TASIS environment. I want students to learn about the world through cultural immersion,” he says. “This immersion, with all of the discomfort and challenge and fear and awkwardness, will lead to an eye-opening, life-changing experience. There are many ways to look at the world.”

But he’s also investing in the ripple effect. “I want this program to awaken students to global humanitarian needs, and lead them towards a life of active citizenship and a commitment to service,” Jan says. “If some of these students later on say ‘I’m successful in business,’ or ‘I’ve inherited something,’ they will remember their experiences. There’s nothing wrong with making money. But be sure to retire early and spend your time and money helping others.”

The TASIS Board of Directors was thrilled with this unusual yet powerful idea. “The enthusiastic reception by our Board was overwhelming,” he says. “We’re used to things coming to us in the form of bricks and mortar. It refocused our minds to investing in the students, not just the campus.”

Ultimately, Jan wants to create future philanthropists and policy-makers who can change the world. “We must learn how to be good,” he says. “We are one world, and TASIS is a wonderful cultural melting pot. If we add this sort of experience to the overall TASIS education, it is a game-changer. Students will take ownership of their experience. Whenever people talk about doing extraordinary things in the world, it always comes with some sort of dramatic revelation. What students do with this experience is up to them, but I feel that it will stay with them for life.”

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