Professor of Politics
The Nagengast kids were named Bill, Steve, Bernie, Don, Chris, Beth and... Emil. Perhaps it was foreordained that the youngest member of the family would grow up with a fascination for all things European and German.
"My grandfather's name was Emil and after six kids, I think my mother fi nally gave in and allowed my Dad to name me after him," says Emil Nagengast. "I always felt a strong German identity and I think that's what drove me to study European history and politics. Th at's part of the reason my son's name is Otto, to give him a connection to place that is far away."
Emil's own story begins in a place not so far away, a place where William Nagengast could settle his family, a place where a man could fi nd a great job helping to build General Motors tanks for the Department of Defense, a place called Detroit.
Emil grew up in the suburb of Bloomfi eld Hills, where he threw himself into sports and reading books. Lots of books. Lots of history books--on the French and Indian War, the Civil War, colonial history. "It was always military history. In fact, I didn't know there were other kinds of history until I went to college," he says, laughing.
A deep interest in German history emerged when Emil and his father would watch history documentaries on television, particularly the World at War series produced in the 1970s by the BBC. "I remember watching Hitler speak in those episodes and wondering what he was saying to get that reaction from the audience," Emil recalls.
The Sturm und Drang of German history continued to pull Emil in when he went off to Middlebury College in 1980 and found an opportunity to study abroad at the University of Mainz. At the fi rst available opportunity, he traveled to Berlin where he saw the imposing Berlin Wall. "It was the embodiment of that ideological clash of East and West," he says. Energized by his visit to Germany and fascinated by the workings of a totalitarian regime, Emil graduated in 1984 and immediately went to work for General Motors. Although fi lmmaker Michael Moore might suggest that was a natural transition, Emil hired on at the massive automaker to earn money to travel. He worked as a draftsman, where, among other highlights, he designed the trunk locking mechanism for the Pontiac Fiero.
From 1985 to 1987 he alternated working, all while living at the family home, with travel to Middlebury College to study Russian and to the Soviet Union to study Russian at the Krasnodar Language Institute. Eventually, his mother gently suggested he try graduate school. "I applied to the University of Michigan, not realizing how demanding graduate school was and was rejected. I got serious, cleaned up my application and ended up at the University of Kansas," he says.
He didn't stay long. He received a scholarship from the East German government and spent 1988 and 1989 in Leipzig, East Germany at Karl Marx University. "The next summer, the Wall came down," he says.
After earning his master's back in Kansas, he entered the University of Pittsburgh doctoral program in 1990 and decided to study the East German-Soviet Union relations. That topic disappeared when East Germany dissolved. He then decided to concentrate on Soviet politics, but by 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist. "I came within a whisker of chucking it all to go work in the auto industry," he says. "I finally settled on Germany's relationships with Eastern European nations as my specialization. The lesson there is, study what you are truly passionate about."
Emil arrived at Juniata in 1996 to teach European and international politics, where he established a somewhat fearsome reputation as a demanding professor, although that image has waned over the years. "I still stick it to the freshmen because I want them to know they're getting their money's worth in the introductory courses," he says. "So I have an image as some kind of monster, but really the emperor has no clothes. I don't grade particularly hard or assign six term papers."
While finding his teaching style, he sponsored the College's Model UN club and found himself being pulled in a new direction--toward Africa. Through the Model UN, Emil became intrigued with the emerging African Union. Pushed by international students Wossie Mazengia '01 and Martin Ewi '99, Emil applied for a sabbatical in 2003 and traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to study the African Union firsthand.
Emil still teaches European politics, but he has incorporated his new interest in African politics into his courseload. Most colleges would frown on a professor switching interests in mid-career, but Emil says Juniata is just as flexible with its faculty's interests as it is with the student body. "I have friends at other universities that cannot believe the freedom and support we have here," Emil says. "The same thing that got me excited about European politics--that life and death aspect--is now seen in African politics, where people are truly dealing with life and death issues. I don't know what I will do if Africa becomes stable politically--maybe study Mongolia."
All Faculty Features