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April 3, 2009

What If La Salle Student, Mark Howell Hadn’t Asked a Question that Set Him on a Path to Receiving a Fulbright Scholarship to Study in Austria?

What if? What if Mark Howell hadn’t had a conversation with a professor about “what if” books. But the La Salle University student did, and it led to a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to Vienna, Austria, where he’ll study and work for a year.

A senior and triple major in English, Spanish, and German, Howell will spend a year overseas furthering his research into two Austrian novels that pose “what if” scenarios: what if Germany had won WWII, and what if the United States had not adopted the Marshall Plan for Germany’s recovery, but the draconian Morgantheau Plan?"

The process, from the initial inquiry to the Fulbright application, took more than a year, says Howell, and was “a random encounter and it caught fire with me.” 

“I first learned that I received the Fulbright on Monday, March 16 around 9 a.m.,” he said. “It was funny because I was waking up for my 10 o'clock class, and I checked my e-mail and saw there was nothing new in my inbox.  About 15 minutes later, I decided to check my e-mail again, and I’m not sure why I did that, but I saw I had received (an e-mail) and that I had been awarded a Fulbright Teaching-Assistantship Grant in Vienna, Austria.”

It all started last year while chatting in a La Salle class about “what if questions.” Howell told his German Professor, Vincent Kling, that he was interested in World War II and “what if” fiction, and Kling said, “It’s funny you say that because I’m reading this book about this idea.”

Howell began reading two Austrian books, Otto Basil's Wenn das Die Fuerher Wusste (The Twilight Men) and Christoph Ransmayr's Morbus Kitahara (The Dog King), the first one proposing that Germany won the war and the other that Germany lost but was severely punished by not being allowed to re-industrialize. 

Last summer, Howell received grants from the Austrian-American Society and from La Salle that enabled him to spend six weeks in Austria, where he began to do research on the two novels at an archival center.

Fulbright applicants must submit a two-page, single-spaced project description that would justify their need to study overseas. Typically, says Kling, Howell’s German professor, students do an independent undergraduate research project the semester before they write the two-page description.  With Kling as his advisor, Howell wrote a 50-page paper on the two Austrian novels.

 “Mark’s Fulbright project challenged him to examine literature based on events in German history that had never actually happened, so he went out of his way to find and apply ways of reading alternative history as a legitimate academic study as opposed to science fiction and fantasy,” said Kling. “Scholars at the Austrian Literary Archive in Vienna were clearly impressed by Mark’s disciplined work, and so must have been the Fulbright committee to award him the fellowship.”

A graduate of Central Catholic High School, Howell says he’ll use the time in Austria to further explore “the culture” and “mood” of Germany and Austria during WWII. “I’d like to know what the German people were thinking when they were winning the war,” said Howell, along with issues related to the Holocaust and the devastation of Germany at the war’s end.

While in Vienna for the Fulbright, Howell will be working about 13 hours a week at a secondary school assisting a professor with teaching students English, and he will be taking University classes in German language and literature. This part won’t be new to him: for several years at La Salle, Howell volunteered in a University program aimed at Spanish-dominant speakers, who for a semester receive intensive English instruction, then take courses in English while working towards an associate’s degree.

“Mark’s vast involvement in Lasallian education fits his intellectual curiosity,” said Kling. “He has been the mainstay of numerous tutoring programs, instinctively reaching out to the community and to his peers at La Salle, working hard and – by his own choice – far outside the spotlight to promote the best education he can give others by his patient work and his example.”

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