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Conger Study Abroad Endowment
Drs. James and Syndy Conger are gentle and soft-spoken. Following careers at Western Illinois University, they quietly returned to Iowa City, a town they had grown to love during graduate school. Contrary to their personal demeanors, their involvement with and legacy to Western is big, loud and boisterous.
The Congers recently committed a portion of their estate (currently valued at $200,000) to benefit the Drs. James F. and Syndy M. Conger Endowment for Study Abroad, established in 2001. In addition, they are in the process of endowing ($25,000) the Dr. Syndy Conger Graduate Essay Award in the Department of English.
Jim and Syndy first met in Germany in the 1960s as undergraduates studying abroad. “We met very romantically,” said Syndy. “We were both studying in Tuebingen, learning German. It was so picturesque and a very special time in our lives.” Their relationship grew through their shared experience away from home, and what Jim refers to as “estrangement of the every day.” Everything, from the food to the language to the completion of household chores, was different than in the United States. “Tokens were required to use the stove and take a shower, we had no idea what we were doing,” he said. Each aspect of each day was a brand new experience.
At the conclusion of the study abroad experience, both returned to the states for graduate school. Although Jim had planned to attend the University of Kansas, he transferred the University of Iowa, where Syndy was. They married in 1967 and were both teaching assistants during the Viet Nam era. “TAs at that time were caught between the faculty and the students,” said Jim. “The mood was ugly.”
Then in 1972, they came to Western. Syndy joined the English department faculty, and over the years directed the graduate program and served as chair. Upon her retirement in 2002, the department established The Syndy M. Conger Essay Award to recognize the best academic writing in the Master of Arts program.
“Not that many awards exist for graduate students,” explained Syndy, “and English graduate students are typically not encouraged to develop their academic (as opposed to creative) writing. I’m very pleased that the award recognizes academic writing and is a testimonial to the fact that people who are teachers love to continue to discover.” Syndy and Jim are in the process of endowing the award ($25,000) so student recipients will receive a $1,000 honorarium each year into perpetuity.
“I have always found language and the use of language magical. It is magical to look at black and white squiggles on a page and have a new world open up, be able to use sentences,” Syndy continued. “Language is a miracle for those who can understand it.”
Jim began work with international programs at Western, and was a founding faculty member for Western’s English as a Second Language (WESL) program. “There was not much ESL experience around the Midwest at that time,” said Jim, “we built the international programs from scratch.” In the early 80’s, he received an award to study how to develop an international student exchange program, for which he returned to the same part of Germany where he and Syndy studied.
“I initially started a successful exchange program with German students, and this worked well for some years,” said Jim. “WIU did not have a study abroad office at the time, so my colleagues and I began to lobby for it. In 1996, we were finally given the opportunity, thanks largely to then dean Linda Stickney-Taylor, former president Don Spencer, and the late senator Paul Simon.”
The goal, according to Jim, was to create a visible international study program for Western, balanced between hosting foreign students and sending our own students out of the country to study. “Studying abroad completely changes your perspective; on your own country and your own life,” said Syndy. “We are determined that the opportunity exist for others.”
“We are totally committed to the study abroad experience,” said Jim. “It had a huge effect on our lives, and we would like to help hard-working, inspired students without a lot of means to have this life-changing opportunity.”
“It is so important for Americans to go to other countries,” continued Jim. “It is an important kind of quiet diplomacy, where young people meet other young people, displacing fear and trepidation and replacing it with diplomacy.” The Conger’s generosity will preserve this diplomacy for students at Western Illinois University.