NORFOLK, Neb. – A curiosity to explore and a well-known motel chain allowed a Northeast Community College faculty member to begin to expand his horizons and open his eyes to the beauty of the world.
The beginning of Tom Elliott’s journey into the humanities and learning of other cultures began in his late teens when he had the chance to go to England while he was a member of the Kansas Army National Guard. One day while he was there, he had some free time to take in some of the sites. One location, Stonehenge, wasn’t as impressive to him, but a site approximately 10-miles away was another story.
“Even from a distance, the architecture of Salisbury Cathedral was like, well, you don’t see that in Kansas. And the interior was incredible. It had so many carved statutes of people who lived long ago. It completely blew my mind.”
In sharing his story during a Northeast Community College Hawk Talks series lecture on, “The Humanities, Why Bother,” Elliott said the one-day experience changed his life. He went back to Kansas, which had not changed in the two-weeks he was overseas. However, he had changed to the point that exploration of historical sites in England inspired him to apply for college after vowing not to enroll.
Elliott did not have a long-term plan, but he took classes, including English and literature classes, which spurred him to travel.
“I wanted to get out and see the world,” he said. “I had no money though, so I got a job. One of many jobs I had was at the Holiday Inn. While working there, I found out that someone could get a hotel room at a very steep discount at any Holiday Inn in the world. Holiday Inn is everywhere, including downtown London, England.”
Elliott taught himself to be his own travel agent and figured out how to get to England on a very tight budget. Taking some classes on the humanities ahead of time allowed him to learn what he needed to know when he got there. And when he arrived, he began to explore.
“I had more knowledge behind things I would see, and I knew what I was looking at this time.”
This included stops at the new Globe Theatre while unexpectedly being in London during the 50th anniversary Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
A visit to the British Museum and a stop at an exhibit featuring Egyptian king, Ramses II, reminded Elliott of 200-year-old poem he is fond of. “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, speaks of the magnificent ruins of a once great and mighty king.
“If I wouldn’t have had that background on that poem, I would have walked by the statue and kept going. But with the knowledge came much more appreciation at what I was looking at.”
As he learned more about what he experienced on the first trip, he was able to gather more and more knowledge. All this new awareness led Elliott to go back and fuel a desire to keep on learning, keep on exploring the world and new types of humanities.
He went back to Kansas and finished a bachelor’s degree in English. After working for an AmeriCorp program for a year, Elliott received a call from a college professor to ask if he would be interested in teaching in China.
“It worked out since,” as he said, “I had no plans. I told her, ‘Let me think about it and I’ll call you back in the morning.’”
Ten days later he was there. Elliott did not speak Chinese, but he did study a few phrases on the way over. That was not his only challenge, though. He was coming from a small town in Kansas to a city of over eight million people. But he was undeterred.
“My education, especially my travel before this, and my background in the humanities really prepared me for that experience. I explored the new culture, the new food, the new language. The whole of society has a different philosophy and a way of working. It has different art, music, history, and architecture.”
The experience made Elliott come to realize that the Chinese people are just like everyone else. And he came to a better understanding that the best cure for prejudice and racism in any form is to travel and experience different cultures.
“Everywhere you go, people are people. We’re all human. It’s easy to watch TV and say, ‘Ah, those people.’ But when I met somebody face-to-face, I realized that this is another person with a family and a job and they're just going out buying groceries like I do. They're just getting through life. And you interact with somebody on that basic human level; people are people. In general, I was treated wonderfully in China.”
While in China, Elliott made a point to teach his culture and customs to people he encountered while learning about theirs in return. He not only fell in love with the country but with someone who later became his wife. Ten years later after he arrived, he returned to the United States.
“I went out and explored the world and now I’m back and now, I love where I am here in Norfolk and at Northeast.”
His international explorations have allowed him to see that Norfolk and northeast Nebraska are full of the humanities experiences.
“All one has to do is go explore and find them.”
In his lecture, his examples included the many individuals he works with; those who teach art, fine arts, media arts, performing arts, literature, and social sciences - all of whom have diverse and interesting backgrounds.
“All of my students all have such diverse backgrounds as well,” he said. “I have one class this semester from half of Europe. I have five different guys from five different European countries and it’s awesome!”
Elliott spoke of Northeast’s Office of Global and Multicultural Engagement that has offered students college credit to study abroad and exchange opportunities for faculty members. In recent years, students and faculty have traveled to Canada, Central Europe, Costa Rica, Denmark, England, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Spain, and Switzerland.
For the international traveler, Elliott has some advice.
“Be curious and have an open mind. I've seen people travel and go to McDonald's for their meals,” he said. “Try new things, be a lifelong learner. That's what that means. That's what I tried to do every day and just fully embrace the human experience and all of the humanities that go into that.”
Northeast Community College has several student groups whose members have diverse backgrounds. And the College offers several programs such as Hawk Talks, visiting writers and poets, music and theatrical productions, and multicultural events that the public is welcome to attend. In the city of Norfolk, anyone can attend the Norfolk Arts Center, Norfolk Area Concert Association concerts, Norfolk Community Theatre productions, exhibits at the Elkhorn Valley Museum, and stop by or attend programs at the Norfolk Public Library, among others.
Elliott encourages people to take a class about the humanities. It is an excellent way to be exposed to those things that they may not have had any clue that they even existed. He said individuals will have a light shined on various topics and things that they may not have ever been exposed to.
Elliott said the humanities are everywhere. And they are not limited to just English or history professors.
“They’re for everybody. We’re all human and the humanities are what make us human. And you shouldn’t be a passive observer in your own life. Don’t be a passenger in life. I was a broke first-generation college student and I worked at a Holiday Inn, and I made it happen.”
“The humanities are what makes us human. They're also what makes being human an enjoyable experience. So go out and enjoy it.”
Northeast Community College Transitional English Instructor Tom Elliott speaks on how the humanities allowed him to expand his horizons and open his eyes to the beauty of the world. His talk, “The Humanities, Why Bother,” was the first of the fall semester’s Hawk Talks lecture series in the College’s Union 73 on the Norfolk campus.