Lessons in Living: Professor Arnd Jurgensen

Political science professor on growing from challenges, living a happy life

Arnd Jurgensen is a professor of political science and international relations. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from New York University and a Master and PhD from U of T. He has conducted research in Venezuela for his doctoral dissertation and travelled through Latin America, Asia, and Africa. His research includes topics such as regime change, democratization in Latin America, sustainable development, and US foreign policy. Jurgensen wrote to The Varsity about his life and career. 

The Varsity: Many people derive important lessons from difficult or stressful experiences. How does this apply to you, and could you give some examples?

Arnd Jurgensen: What comes to mind with regard to this question is my experience moving to New York City in 1972. At the time I was 11 years old, had lost my mother the year before and had one year of school English, which amounted to pretty much nothing. 

It was most certainly the hardest period in my life. I was sent that September to the local public school to fend for myself. While the next five years were by no means pleasant, I think they shaped me as a person in ways that changed [me] and arguably made me who I am today. 

There is no faster way to learn to swim than to be kicked into the deep end of the pool, so to speak. But it also gave me an appreciation for being an outsider, which for a political scientist has important advantages.

I think it has given me the confidence to put myself into similarly uncomfortable situations as a means of personal growth, as I did a bit more than a decade later going to South and Central America with only slightly more familiarity with the Spanish language than I had of English in ‘72.

TV: What do you think you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were 20?

AJ: I had only the vaguest idea of what I wanted to do with myself at 20 so I hope a lot. Above all else, don’t get caught up pursuing what others consider a good career for you. Pursue your dreams and interests, even if they seem impractical. You may not achieve your ultimate goals but you’ll be happier having only modest success doing what you love than being successful in doing something you don’t.

It’s worked out for me. Also don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Despite never having made a dime as a musician I have continued to play music whenever an opportunity has arisen and my life is richer for it in many ways.

If I’d spent the time I ‘wasted’ playing music, doing research, and writing papers I might have gotten further in my career but I don’t think I’d be happier.

TV: What advice might you give others about growing older?

AJ: Getting old sucks in so many obvious ways but fighting it only makes it worse. By that I don’t mean let yourself go, but rather — while keeping yourself as mentally and physically fit as you can — embrace getting old for the many pleasures and opportunities it provides. 

Above all else remain a lifelong learner, always seek to deepen your understanding of the world around you, and always keeping an open mind that allows you to challenge your beliefs. You will not remain physically young but you will maintain a youthful spirit.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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