Brett McNeil is hoping to play hockey in Indonesia. But he might have to settle for badminton. The former journalist, corporate investigator, and hockey nut was just awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. In August he leaves for a 10-month stint teaching history in Indonesia.
When he became a journalist 12 years ago, McNeil thought he had left history in the past. The University of Wisconsin-Madison grad (B.A. History) joined Wednesday Journal, Inc. in 1998, serving first as editor of the Forest Park Review, then as managing editor of Wednesday Journal and finally as the first editor of WJ Inc.’s downtown startup, Chicago Journal.
From there he made the leap to the Chicago Tribune. He was the first reporter on the scene at Wrigley Field following the famous Steve Bartman foul ball incident, and was literally (and lamentably) Johnny on the spot when the Dave Matthews Band bus let loose over the Chicago River with an unfortunate discharge that landed on a tourist boat where he happened to be a passenger. Ultimately, McNeil hoped to attract the attention of the New York Times.
But the plan changed.
“I thought I would always be a reporter,” he says. “I loved it up to a point, then not.”
While he felt a sense of ownership in his work for Wednesday Journal, the Trib actively discouraged that kind of identification. They weren’t interested in currying reporters with a sense of mission.
“I miss writing, but I have no regrets,” he says. “Look at the industry. The Tribune’s newsroom has contracted significantly. I’m glad to be out of journalism. My timing was decent.”
After the Trib, he landed a job with Kroll, a company that specializes in corporate investigations. Then two years ago, he left and returned to his roots, entering the University of Illinois-Chicago’s M.A.T. program, which he describes as “academically rigorous.” He specialized in history.
“It was the right decision,” he says.
From the start, McNeil had a Peace Corps-style placement in mind when he finished. Then he visited a friend, who was teaching in Korea on a Fulbright fellowship.
“That planted the seed,” McNeil said.
The application process is competitive. McNeil was one of 30 nationwide to receive the assistantship out of roughly 100 finalists, and he was one of four from UIC.
Indonesia will be a fascinating place to teach, he says. An archipelago of some 17,000 islands, it is the fourth largest country in the world, the largest Muslim nation, and its capital, Jakarta, is a city of 15 million people. Partly because President Obama lived there for a few years, the connection with the U.S. is stronger than in the past, and Indonesia is aggressively recruiting Americans to work there.
The Fulbright program, which falls under the umbrella of the U.S. State Department, is part of the Obama administration’s commitment to “soft diplomacy.” In addition to teaching, McNeil notes, the program puts a lot of emphasis on its grantees acting as cultural ambassadors.
What he’d really like to do is be a hockey ambassador. An avid player and rabid Blackhawks fan, he’d love to coach the sport at his school, but that would depend on his being placed in Jakarta.
There is hockey in Jakarta, believe it or not, played by ex-patriot Canadians in a shopping mall, McNeil says. But street hockey might be more realistic for his coaching aspirations.
Or badminton, which he also enjoys though he’s not sure how much he could teach the Indonesians since Asians in general are passionate about the sport and highly skilled.
If he’s assigned to a school in the country, however, the facilities may not allow for much coaching – or for much travel. When his 10-month stint is up, however, he plans to visit Vietnam where his father served during the war in the 1960s.
After that, he’s not sure. Sometimes schools hire Americans to stay on and teach. Classroom positions back here aren’t plentiful at the moment, thanks to the economic downturn, so he might be willing to extend his stay.
Though he may write a blog or keep a journal while he’s there, the journalism skills he wants to transfer apply best to teaching.
“Journalism taught me to ask questions and listen to the answers,” he says. “That’s a foundation for good teaching.”
His students will have some knowledge of English, but explaining things to 15-year-olds from a different culture will take some “translating.” And that is precisely what a reporter has to do with every story.
“It’s not uncommon to find ex-reporters in teaching,” he says. They come out of the same public-service, “do-goodery” ethic. McNeil did his own student teaching this past year at Benito Juarez Community Academy in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.
The Fulbright award pays for his round-trip airfare, housing costs and health insurance.
To prepare for the trip, he plans to spend two months at the University of Wisconsin, learning Bahasa, Indonesia’s “language of national unity.” The Fulbright doesn’t require it, but he wants to make the most of his time there. “I’m taking seriously the cultural exchange part,” he says. “It will make me a better teacher.”
The Forest Park resident has rented his house for the year (he didn’t have any luck selling it), and he’s looking forward to the adventure.
At 36, his life is “still an open question. Getting away from journalism helped me balance my life and my self,” he says. “The whole idea is to shock the system a bit and see a different part of the globe.
“Maybe it will make me a more interesting person.”