Noodle Expert Elizabeth Mack discusses what she might have learned from Otto, a Holocaust survivor, and the importance of the soft skills we acquire outside of the classroom.
Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?
It’s hard to choose just one person, but I think I would choose Otto, a former neighbor who was a Holocaust survivor. When I was a teenager, Otto would sit on his front porch and wave to me with a smile every day. I could see the Auschwitz prisoner number tattooed inside his wrist. Everyone in our small town knew he was a concentration camp survivor from World War II, but we were all afraid to ask him about it.
I think Otto, who I’m sure was lonely, would have talked about it if asked, and I always regret never stopping to visit. I would have asked him what his life was like in Poland before the war, what it was like to survive Auschwitz, and how he kept such a positive attitude. I could not only learn so much about the history of the Holocaust from a personal perspective, but also about how to live a joyful life when you’ve experienced so much suffering and loss.
What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?
Life isn’t a competition. Everyone is unique, and we all have our own gifts. As I get older, I realize that comparing myself to others, on the basis of grades, physical abilities, or other skills, is actually very egocentric and offers me no useful information. True happiness comes from following your passion to the best of your abilities, regardless of what others are doing.
Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?
Western Europe would be my first recommendation for students who haven’t had the chance to travel outside of the U.S.; Belgium, France, Germany, and Austria, among others, have centuries-old history. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the French Revolution, and both World Wars are all fascinating subjects that students could learn more about. Travel by rail in these countries is easy and relatively inexpensive. Youth hostels are popular accommodations for student travelers, who often meet and form lifelong friendships with young people voyaging from other countries.
When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?
High school wasn’t a great experience for me. For many reasons, I ended up dropping out, even though I was a decent student. After floundering for a couple of years, I earned my GED. I worked for several years before deciding to pursue my passion of writing and my undergraduate degree while continuing to work full time. Once I attained my bachelor’s, I kept going and received my master’s in English. I learned that even if you find yourself off-course, through hard work and perseverance, it’s never too late to pursue your goals. Life is a series of adjustments.
Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?
Even as a child, I loved to read and write, so going into the field of English was a natural fit. With a bachelor's in creative writing and a graduate degree in English, I have worked in both university and community college settings in a variety of positions, including as an English instructor, Developmental Writing instructor, Writing Center Consultant, and education writer.
I’ve found that many occupations that require an English degree expect not only strong written skills, but also strong people skills, which can’t really be taught. Soft skills, like verbal communication and social skills, are abilities that businesses report are lacking in graduates seeking employment. I thought once I got a degree, that would be all I needed for employment, when in reality, some necessary skills can only be acquired outside the classroom.