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University of Missouri

In Defense of Awkward Situations

Alumnus John Bies kindly wishes discomfort on students who accept his scholarship.

“I want you to be uncomfortable,” John Bies, 67, tells the five nervous graduate students at his University Club lunch table.

The alumnus pauses briefly, then follows up the seemingly ill-mannered statement with a four-word summation of his decades of globe-travelling wisdom: “That’s how you learn.”

John Bies

John Bies, PhD ’72, learned the value of international travel while coaching international-level youth soccer. For the past 10 years, he has supported a travel scholarship for MU graduate students to research, attend conferences and intern internationally. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Bies, PhD ’72, is a retired educator, industrial consultant, international-level youth soccer coach and is married to a former U.S. Federal Reserve board member. He’s interested in almost everything — he returned to school later in life to earn master’s degrees in political science and geography at the University of Memphis and is an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate. He speaks quickly, squeezing out the spaces between his words, as if propelled by curiosity for what the conversation will bring.

One of his passions is travel. For Bies, international travel and discomfort are prescriptions for personal and professional growth. Since 2003, he and his wife, Susan Schmidt Bies, have supported a travel scholarship to ensure MU graduate students have the opportunity to get doses of each.

Every year, the couple has lunch with some of the recipients of the John D. Bies International Travel Scholarship, which funds up to $2,000 of their international travel costs for performing research, presenting at a conference or completing an internship.

Bies first noticed the benefits of international travel in the late 1980s while he was involved in international youth soccer. For a few weeks a year he would travel to Argentina to officiate soccer games and study coaching. Back home in the states, he participated in an exchange program that placed teenage soccer players from Argentina with his family. He soon noticed that the Argentinian youth were more experienced travelers and much more at ease in the U.S. than the American youngsters he observed in Argentina. In an increasingly globalized society, Bies argues, that comfort with new cultural experiences has value.

When I was in graduate school, we looked at our degree as exposing us to a national footprint,” Bies says. “Now? Forget that — national exposure is almost parochial. We’re a globalized society, and if you’re going to have success, you’re going to have to be able to live and feel very comfortable in it.”

Discomfort is also valuable, Bies says, because it forces growth, such as when his doctoral field of industrial education started morphing from training in industrial processes to career training. “Industrial education no longer exists,” he says. “Did I dry up, curl up and die? No, I took what I learned there and applied it” to other areas.

Looking forward, Bies hopes the scholarship program can support more graduate students taking international internships — but not in fields directly related to their area of study.

You put them in an uncomfortable area,” Bies says, “yet [one] where they can apply what they’ve learned.”