(Editor’s note – I started to email with Dan Blaho ’92 simply because from what I had seen on his Linkedin bio, it appeared that he had taken an interesting path that would make for a good story for the Gamma Zeta News. Then, when the news hit of the protests and unrest in the Ukraine a couple of weeks ago, it all took on a new meaning. Despite living and teaching just 15 minutes from the heart of the protests and violence in Kiev, Ukraine, Dan took time to respond for the Gamma Zeta News.)
When Dan Blaho ’92 first learned the words form the ATO Creed, “To have no narrower limits within which to work together for the elevation of man than the outlines of the world…” little did he or anyone else know how closely he would take those words to heart. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1992, his path has run through Bratislava, Slovakia, Indianapolis, Indiana, Shekou, China and currently Kiev/Kyiv, Ukraine… and he’s not done yet. The following includes first a brief bio about Dan that he put together to introduce himself to his ATO undergrad mentee this past fall and then a Q&A.
I’m from small town Hampshire, IL, which is about an hour northwest of the city, and I headed off to Champaign in August 1986. My dad, uncle, and sister all went to U of I so it seemed like a good choice. While I was in school I changed my major a number of times, but the one common thread that I found throughout my search for a major was that I wanted to work with people and I wanted to ‘go international.’
In the end, I graduated in History and then head off on my adventure.
This adventure actually started out pretty slow, as I worked for a couple of years as a substitute teacher. Then in 1995 I got an offer to teach in a bilingual school in Bratislava, Slovakia (the country where my grandparents were born/married). I set off in August for what was supposed to be a 10-month stay…this became a six-year life-changing experience.
I met my lovely wife (Mirka) in 1999, we got married in ’01, then headed back to the States. I worked at the International School of Indiana (Indianapolis) for a few years before we head back to Slovakia to start a family.
In 2005 I rejoined QSI International School of Bratislava where I taught high school classes (mostly history and mathematics) and served as Athletic Director. The ‘conference’ that we belonged to was pretty cool, as we traveled to rival schools in Prague, Budapest, and Vienna, just to name a few.
Anyway, three years later I was transferred to a ‘sister’ school in Shekou, China. There I continued to teach high school mathematics courses, before being named IB Coordinator (The (IB) International Baccalaureate Diploma Program is a two-year educational program primarily aimed at students aged 16–19 that provides an internationally accepted qualification for entry into higher education, and is accepted by many universities worldwide.).
Finally in 2011, my family (my wife and I have twin 6-year-old boys Andy and Matty, and now a 9-month-old boy David) and I were transferred to Kyiv International School in Kiev/Kyiv, Ukraine. I’ve been high school principal for the past three school years.
Now it looks like we might be on the move again, but I’ll know more in the next couple of months. The organization that I work (qsi.org) for has 37 schools in 27 countries around the world. I’m now in a position to become director of a medium-sized school, so we’ll soon see.
Dan, I looked it up, it’s over 4700 miles from Hampshire, IL to Bratislava Slovakia. What motivated you to take a job so far from home?
Growing up I always was intrigued with where my grandparents came from, so in 1995 I set out to see it firsthand.
When you left for Bratislava in 1995, that was just a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and only two years after the split of Czechoslovakia. It must have been crazy times there. What was it like?… political climate for an American?…. living conditions?…. social life for a young single guy from Hampshire?
Bratislava, Slovakia in 1995 was much different than it is today. There were very few cafes, restaurants, or bars (besides what were in the local hotels). On the other hand, there were just the necessities…small shops, outdoor markets, government offices, and housing blocks…lots and lots of housing blocks. My first year in Bratislava, I lived in one concrete block and weaved my way through dozens of other similar structures to yet another concrete block where I taught.
The political and social scene were very pro-American and pro-English speaking. It was difficult for me to practice my Slovak, since so many locals were interested in practicing their English. Actually, several conversations–whether around a classroom table or a bar room table–would involve a combination of both languages!
The social life for me was, quite honestly, the biggest surprise. I had visited what was Czechoslovakia back in 1984. Obviously the country was strongly entrenched in communism at that time. I never envisioned anything social in a return to Slovakia. But once I arrived in country, I quickly discovered that this was a pretty cool place and time to be a single guy in Central Europe.
What was your school like there and who were your students? How was it different than the schools experiences you had growing up and how was it the same?
My first year in Bratislava, I taught at a Slovak high school. Kids came from all around the country with many of them living in dormitories during the week and traveling home on the weekends. Often times, students would invite their ‘professors’ to travel home with them. These trips would commonly turn into celebrated events for the villagers. I can remember many long days of traditional pig slaughters and heavy drinking….at least, Ibelieve I can remember this.
What was it that kept you there so long?
By the end of my first year, I discovered QSI International School of Bratislava (QSIB). This was/is an American school, which provided education to the children of the diplomatic and business community, as well to a number of local Slovak families. My desire to learn more about my grandparents’ homeland continued to grow over these first six years. At the start of Year 5, I met my future wife Mirka. End of story. 🙂
What was it like coming back to Indianapolis and teaching in the US?
Actually, because I was teaching at the International School of Indiana, my work day didn’t seem to change so much. However, my time outside of school was much different. Not only was I a newly wed, but I was re-acclimating to life in the US. So many things–shopping, traveling, regular day-to-day errands–were so much easier and so much more predictable.
The youth sports system in Europe is much different than the US. What was it like being an Athletic Director in Bratislava compared to what it would be like to be an Athletic Director in the US? What sports did your teams play? Will we see any of your students in the Olympics?
QSIB was a small school at the time. We had between 250-300 students from k-12. I coordinated after school activities for the whole school, while directing the athletics programs for the middle and high school students. Our conference had international schools from all over central and Eastern Europe…such ‘powerhouses’ as the American International School of Budapest (Hungary), the International School of Prague (Czech Republic), the American International School of Warsaw (Poland), and the Anglo-American School of Moscow (Russia). We would play local games/competitions–in soccer, basketball, volleyball, track/field, mathematics, Model United Nations, etc.–against local Slovak schools, while gearing up for an end-of-season event against these other int’l schools. Coaches would travel with their kids for each of these tournaments…a definite perk for an unpaid contractual obligation! Unfortunately, although some students have gone onto play at D-I schools in the US, none have made it to the Olympics.
What took you next to China and what was that like?
QSIB is part of a greater international organization of schools called Quality Schools International, where there are (currently) 37 international schools in 27 different countries. Once a teacher joins a QSI member school there are opportunities to transfer to another, so my teaching experiences were almost identical to what I was doing in Bratislava. The school (with over 1000 students) I joined in China was in Shekou, China, just across the border from Hong Kong. This experience may have been just as life changing as my first years in Slovakia, mainly because I was now traveling with my wife and twin one-year-old boys. China in 2008, the start of the Summer Olympics, was–and still is–a very crazy place. We lived in one of the many special economic zones found all over coastal China, so the surroundings were very international. We had all of the US chains for shopping and dining. One ‘wrong’ turn, however, and you could find yourself in the middle of the ‘real’ China….these mishaps often became the most interesting for my family and me!
Now, you’re in Kiev. How is life there compared to your other stops?
My time in Kyiv has been a combination of highs and lows. The Ukrainian people are incredibly warm and welcoming; however, they are also guarded and understandably so. The former government, which was ousted just weeks ago, was incredibly corrupt and self serving. Red tape, as we know it back home, is nothing like the bureaucracy that Ukrainians–and visitors to Ukraine–see on a daily basis. Something as simple as getting a driver’s license or visiting a doctor often involves bribing a public official…or someone who has worked his way into a ‘middle man’ position. Society was rife with corruption to the point where many Ukrainians simply accepted it as a part of life…until November 2014.
Kiev isn’t exactly close to Sochi but it is a lot closer to Sochi than Champaign/Urbana. Any chance that you’ll be making a visit to the Olympics? Are your students and friends Olympic fans? Are they a big deal there?
My wife and I flew over Sochi on our way to Tbilisi, Georgia. We were visiting our future home, the QSI International School of Tbilisi. The Olympics are a huge deal here and in the region. It’s interesting to see how our international students and teachers rattle each other’s cages when it comes time for bragging rights.
How many languages are spoken at your dinner table?
My wife and I speak Slovak at home, while we’ll mix in some Ukrainian/Russian with different friends.
What has been your favorite stop along the way? Do you think you’ll ever settle into one place to raise your boys? Do you plan to return to the US?
Every stop has been special in its own way. China was mind boggling and completely changed the way we look at things. It was my wife and my first ‘true’ international experience since we had previously split time between my wife’s Slovakia and my United States. China was new for the both us…an even playing field.
We don’t anticipate stopping in one place for an extended time; however, we are aiming to stay put in one school for the entire ‘high school’ experience. Moving with older kids can be stressful for all involved. As for the US, we are always looking at opportunities to return. There are more and more international schools opening up in the US. With my nearly 20 years experience with these types of schools, it would make most sense to continue down this path, be it overseas or in the US.
Of the places you have lived and visited, what place (or activity/event) would you recommend that we all add to our bucket lists?
Well, I think this would have to be Tbilisi, Georgia. This place is located at a true crossroads. Tbilisi is very European, but there’s clearly ‘something else goin’ on there’….something a bit Asian, something ancient Silk Road, maybe Middle Eastern. Regardless, the Georgian people have some incredible cultural highlights, i.e., the birthplace of wine making, delicious food, majestic mountains, and beautiful Black Sea resorts. The Georgian people are quite welcoming and very pro-American. They have a saying in Georgia that “Guests are gifts from God,” and they certainly embrace this!
Back to your college years… What prompted you to join ATO?
Coming from small town Illinois, I was compelled to make the University of Illinois more manageable, maybe a little smaller. Joining ATO brought me into a great family of friends–many of whom still remain today–who shared common interests as I.
What was your ATO experience like? How long did you live in the house? Did you hold any offices? What were some of your favorite memories?
I had a great time as an ATO during my undergraduate years. I lived in the house for three years, rooming with John Kechriotis my last year. I served as Pledge Trainer for the ’92’s…or was it the ’93’s? The greatest memories were the small things, the conversations with brothers. The planning and dreaming of things big and great. Sports and social events were outstanding, too.
Who were some of the most memorable guys who were at ATO with you? Do you stay in touch with any of them? Have any visited you at any of your stops?
Jeff Wohlschlaeger, Rob Vyveberg, John Kechriotis, Matt McCarty, Paul Lillig, Jim Van Pelt, Ryan Nelligan, Al Smiles, Mark Daniel, John Varadian, Bassam Hadi, Jeff Finke…the list of memorable guys goes on and on! I try to stay in touch–through email, at least–with as many of these guys as possible, but it’s really tough. Jeff Wohlschlaeger and Mark Daniel actually came to my wedding in Slovakia (2001).
Was there anything at ATO or U of I that motivated your interest in this career path that you’ve taken?
I spent many days thinking of a major that would take me overseas; but I did not discover the field of education until after U of I.
Are there opportunities for young ATO’s to teach internationally as you have? Is it something that you’d recommend they consider?
I would highly recommend the overseas teaching career for new grads. With competition increasingly tougher for jobs in the US, teaching overseas provides some real advantages, both financial and otherwise. There’s always the chance to come home, but once you got into a school district or start a family, it can be harder and harder to imagine a life overseas.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share with your ATO brothers?
That’s about it….thanks for all that you have done for me in the past, and I look forward to meeting up with you all down the road!
Here’s Dan’s email address if you’d like to shoot him a note to say hello – email@example.com