A pioneer of study abroad

An increasingly obvious and significant fact of life is that we live in a nation and in a world comprised of a multitude of cultures and characterized by diversity. Cultural pluralism, of course, is not a new phenomenon in the United States. From the beginning of our nation’s history, the fabric of American life has been woven from the threads of a rich variety of cultures and subcultures. Although a unique American way of life has emerged from this mix, the various cultures contributing to the makeup of the dominant “American” culture continue to exist and thrive. We continue today to be a highly pluralistic society. What is new is the extent to which cultural pride has grown in our society in recent years and the degree to which cultures have been thrown into proximity with one another.

Although these words were written 25 years ago, it’s amazing how they ring true today. The author, Dr. M. Eugene Gilliom, ’54, may have been right on target with his perspective. As a pioneer of the study abroad movement, his words are as relevant today as when written in 1993.

By virtue of his career as a social studies and global education professor, Gilliom saw the opportunity to expose college students to other cultures and wrapped his arms around it. Although retired for 22-plus years, his thirst for travel and exploration — and the sharing of it with others — hasn’t slowed down one bit. At 85, he continues to lead travel groups on excursions around the world.

As a young boy in Bluffton, Indiana, Gilliom spent hours in the back room of the local library, gazing at 3D images and scenes of faraway places around the world. “Someday,” he thought. “Someday.”

Gilliom followed his brother to Heidelberg. Finding it a homogenous campus, he took advantage of the curiosity that grew with his liberal arts education and history major. That “subtle way of looking at the world and of learning” was a philosophy nurtured by his 'Berg professor, John Wade Fausey, and applied to his life. Following graduation, Gilliom served in the U.S. Army as a special agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps in Germany during the Cold War. From there, doors began to open to the whole international experience.

After his military service concluded in 1956, Gilliom landed a teaching and coaching job at Cleveland’s John Marshall High School, thinking that coaching just might be his passion. At the same time, he began pursuing his master’s degree at The Ohio State University, graduating in 1958 and departing John Marshall to return to OSU to teach social studies and complete his Ph.D. He spent four years teaching at San Francisco State College and the University of Chicago before he and his wife, Bonnie Cherp, ’55, returned to Columbus and OSU permanently in 1966. It was at that point that his teaching career really took off.

“I had a growing urge to think internationally, cross culturally and globally, and OSU allowed that to happen,” Gilliom said. “I thank my lucky stars that OSU allowed me to do my thing, and that was to teach social studies.”

Gilliom was involved on the ground floor of the global education movement, creating OSU’s Social Studies and Global Education Program. In 1969, when this new study abroad initiative for college students was taking flight, Gilliom led his first tour – to western Europe. “I enjoyed it so much and saw what it did for my students,” he said. He later organized and directed more than 60 OSU study tours to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, Australia and New Zealand.

In addition to stretching their minds and opening their eyes to other cultures, Gilliom’s students survived and thrived in new cultures. It was affirming for the teacher to watch the ways students’ world views changed as a result of international travel. The impact the study tours made on Gilliom’s students was reflected in his receiving a Distinguished Teaching Award from OSU in 1985.

That first OSU group spent five weeks on-campus preparing before traveling to England, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Rome, where they participated in an audience with the pope. “It was a really rich program, and I just continued to do it,” Gilliom said. Later, he extended the opportunity to faculty groups. Since 1995, he has continued to lead travel groups through OSU and various organizations.

2019 will mark Gene’s 50th year of leading study tours; he’s visited 85 countries in all. His trip to China in 2017 was the 80th group he has led abroad. Although the trip was physically demanding, “It’s hard to envision a time when I can’t or won’t do this.”

“Common sense says, ‘Gilliom, you’ve got to wind down.’ But then my passion takes over.”

If he so chooses, Gilliom can relive any one of his international adventures. From the early days in the late ‘60s, each of his touring groups completed a collective diary that includes itinerary, reflections and lots of photos. “Everyone was assigned a day to be the scribe,” he explained. “I still have a stretch of all those diaries.”

But perhaps one of the loveliest memories from his travels is the lifelong friendships formed along the way. Each group took on a personality of its own, Gilliom said. “For both Bonnie and me, our travel group friends have become like extended family.” Although Bonnie passed away in 2016, Gilliom maintains his rhythm of international travel. “It’s just become a way of life,” he said. “I think my good health has something to do with it.”

Every year since 1969 – and sometimes, multiple times each year – Gilliom has boarded a plane to lead a group to one of those faraway places he dreamed about as a boy. Among the estimated 1,500 people who have accompanied him are many repeat travelers and a number of ’Berg alumni. One of the most memorable trips came in 1975 when he led the first of 19 trips to China, representing one of the earliest groups of American educators to visit that country. Gilliom will lead his 81st group abroad in September. Destination: Bhutan, a small kingdom in the Himalayas.

“Who ever thought I’d grow up and do what I’ve done? How did this happen?” he asked, rhetorically. “I was just a small-town boy from Bluffton, Indiana.”

A small-town boy whose personal and professional interests coincided with international travel. His compadres are surely glad they did.

Published in Spring 18

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