Sue Vaughn’s (BA-72) love of languages has taken her to many exciting places: from Grenoble, France to the Dallas World Trade Center. Following graduation, Mrs. Vaughn began applying her linguistic expertise to translation work in the import-export business. Since 2007, Sue has taken her passion for service, outreach, and making connections across boundaries even further, volunteering as a clown at Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin, TX. Mrs. Vaughn recently took some time to talk with us about the impact of her study abroad experience at UNC, her work as a language professional, and how she was initiated into the world of “caring clowning.”
How did you come to pursue language studies at UNC?
In my junior year of high school I decided to try my hand at a French class, and I ended up absolutely loving it! I could almost always count on an A in French, so naturally it became my favorite subject, and eventually my college major.
German became my minor because of a very good friend, classmate, and Delta Zeta sorority sister of mine, Terry Pierce. She was majoring in German and convinced me to give it a try. The senior German professor at UNC, Mr. Frank Keppler, had a love for the language and a way of relating to students that made him a truly remarkable instructor. Herr Keppler knew how to make learning fun and he was always able to keep students on their toes with his rapid-fire questions. I think he was a major reason why so many students enjoyed and persevered with German at UNC.
What were some of your favorite learning experiences?
One of my most exciting experiences as a UNC foreign language student happened during the winter of my Junior year: I studied abroad for three months in Grenoble, France with a group of fellow French students. It was a great opportunity to be totally immersed in the language and culture! A native-speaking French woman taught us conversation and our professor from UNC taught us about France’s history, art, architecture, literature, and much more. There were lots of educational outings, and our teacher’s favorite thing was to lead us through knee-deep snow up to the top of a mountain to the remains of an old fortress. We would build a fire there, grill and eat our lunch, and learn all about the French Revolution.
Of course, there were a few minor moments of culture shock. A funny thing happened one time as our group in Grenoble entered a public cafeteria. The people inside began pointing at us, pounding on the tables, and shouting, “Chapeau! Chapeau! Chapeau!” That was their way of embarrassing us for coming inside with our hat—or chapeau—on! Suffice it to say that was a faux pas we never made again!
After graduation, how did you begin to make your transition into the professional world?
The time after graduation turned out to be a major crossroads in my life as I began to assess my job opportunities as someone with expertise in French and German. My brother Jerry, a POW in Vietnam for seven years and one of my biggest heroes, suggested that I consider making a move down to Dallas, TX where he and his wife were living. There are many international companies based out of Dallas, so I decided to give it a shot. I headed down to Texas with snow tires on my car and a dog in the front seat, a sight that was met with more than a few puzzled expressions as I made my way south.
I felt a bit out of place at first, but the move turned out to be a great choice. Not only did I get a chance to deepen the relationship with my brother, but a new faith journey began for me through the church he and his wife attended, where I also met my husband Andy.
And what was it like to start using your knowledge of languages professionally?
Soon after I moved to Dallas, a job opened up at Behgooy Export/Import Corp., a family business that deals in hand-made oriental rugs. One of the family members was German-speaking and needed a translator, so I went to work in the office doing accounting, dealing with customers in the showroom, and generally doing whatever else was needed. There were challenges as expected: translating phone calls, documents, and conversations with clients. Once I even got called in to translate at the scene of an auto accident. (Thankfully, there were no injuries.) Eventually, I found myself thinking in German as often as I would in English. I even started picking up some basic Farsi from listening to the Behgooys. And having a showroom in Dallas’s World Trade Center meant that I got to be immersed in international business every day.
What are some important things that students and alumni should know if they’re considering a career as a language professional?
If you’re interested in a career utilizing languages, but you’d like to do something other than teaching, it’s helpful to combine language studies with another specialized skill set, like international business. Also, be aware that one of the biggest challenges of using a foreign language professionally is the amount of industry-specific terminology you have to familiarize yourself with. One of the first jobs I applied for was in the oil industry and I was asked to translate a document containing a massive amount of technical jargon. After devoting so much time and effort toward attaining fluency in a language, an experience like that can really throw you for a loop.
Flash forward to the present. You’ve moved to Austin, raised two sons, and taken on several different volunteer causes. How did you get involved in “caring clowning?”
I had encountered several stories of caring clowns in various books and newsletters and I was struck by the diversity and creativity clowns were bringing to their work in hospitals across the country. My good friend, Bev Harstad (aka Apples the clown) happened to be volunteering at Dell Children’s hospital and she offered to take me under her wing. Studying under Apples, I began to develop a clown character named Sudsy who loves to give bubble showers, make butterflies appear, and give free eye exams. It’s immensely rewarding to see the kids’ faces light up and their parents appreciate the opportunity to see their children laughing and playing. Usually by the time we leave, everyone in the room is wearing a red sponge clown nose and a smile.
What was the learning curve like?
On the first hospital visit Bev taught me one simple trick, “the magic coloring book.” It’s really easy to perform and always a big hit with the kids. But I was pretty nervous, so on that first outing I mostly ended up just observing Bev and trying to learn what I could.
Soon, though, I realized that you don’t need to have a whole routine planned out to engage with these children. Just having a clown around is enough to bring them joy. It also dawned on me that, when you’re working with a population with such a wide range of limitations and health restrictions, spontaneity and the ability to improvise are going to serve you better than a carefully prepared act. I’ve learned from watching Bev that the art of caring clowning lies in finding a way to let each child interact with you. For example, if a child has impaired vision, you find ways to use your other senses to connect with them: talk to them, let them feel your face, your clown hair and your shoes.
What advice can you offer to other Bears who are interested in applying their creativity to volunteer work?
You need to maintain an awareness of the population you’re serving. To be effective, we need to check our motives: remember it’s not about what we want out of the interaction, it’s about the needs of others. In clowning, we’re there to bring joy and remind these kids that they’re important, that others care about them and how they’re feeling. However you approach volunteering, it’s essential to make that connection so we can continue learning, growing, and working together.
Thank you, Sue, for taking the time to share your insights with us!
If you’d like to read even more about the international adventures of UNC’s Modern Languages alumni, be sure to check out these exciting profile features on the department’s homepage.
Another of UNC’s longstanding Modern Language-based traditions, World Language Day, is coming up soon on 4/16. You can see videos and photo galleries from this event’s 40+ years of history on its official website.
If you’re looking for ways to serve the UNC community as a volunteer, the Alumni Association is happy to help. Just fill out this brief form so we can connect you with an opportunity that is best suited to your interests.