By Dieter Will, VP, Business Development Enterprise, ADVA Optical Networking SE, Munich, Germany
Attended NJIT as a Fulbright Scholar 1980-81
Submitted on behalf of Mr. Will by Jane Gaertner, CDS, 973.596.5617
In the 70s, the United States was rife with opportunity and, with ground-breaking research institutes like Bell Labs, the East Coast seemed to be the epicentre of innovation. The bright lights and spirit of discovery were especially exciting for one young man growing up in West Germany.
I’m now VP of business development at ADVA Optical Networking, but in 1978, I was at the start of my journey and studying telecom engineering at Fachhochschule Rüsselsheim/Wiesbaden.
One day, while in the dean’s office, my attention was caught by a discarded leaflet. The dean had discarded the leaflet offering students the chance to apply to the Fulbright Scholarship, but I was intrigued to learn more, so I took it and made it public in the student council. It explained an exchange program which had been launched in 1946. Senator J. William Fulbright had initiated it in order to bring some of the world’s brightest students to American universities via an international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. The largest and most varied of the Fulbright programs worldwide, the German-American Fulbright Program has sponsored so far over 45,000 Germans and Americans since its inception in 1952.
I also found out that it was a highly competitive program, through which only 10% of applicants were chosen to spend a year studying in the USA. Despite this, and even though I knew the language would itself be a huge challenge, I decided to give it a go.
The interview was tough. I remember having to abandon English mid-way through and asking if we could switch to German. Somehow, I did enough to impress them.
Being told I would be headed to America was unbelievably exciting. Better yet, I was to be going to attending my first-choice university – the one that had begun the exchange program – the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
My first stop was a course at the University of Austin to help improve my English. While there, I got to live with a real-life astronaut and his family. I remember that communicating wasn’t always easy but that it had been a good decision to pack my trumpet. Playing in the local church helped me settle into the community for those six weeks.
Then I embarked to New Jersey to fully start my studies. Culturally, it was different to anything I’d ever known, but I felt very much at home and I enjoyed all aspects of American college life. Studying at NJIT went beyond concentrating on your major subject. From diving deep into American history to learning ballet from scratch, I threw myself into everything.
I even spent a long period at the local hospital studying the human retina – something that turned out to be extremely useful as it fascinatingly overlapped with my work on light and lenses in the telecommunications field.
During the year, I was also fortunate enough to get a chance to work with Bell Labs. A professor put in a good word for me and I was asked to provide examples of my published work. All I could offer was my thesis in German but, fortunately, it proved to be enough for them to take me on and give me some invaluable experience.
It was there that I found myself on the team helping to develop the world’s first undersea fibre-optic cable system in 1981. Our job was to bury the cables and dig them up again so we could see the extent of the degradation and the readiness for the transatlantic rollout. On December 14, 1988, TAT-8, the first transatlantic optical fiber cable system was completed across the Atlantic. The 3,148 mile line was capable of handling 40,000 telephone calls simultaneously.
From there my career flourished. I got to work for some of the biggest companies in the world, such as Siemens and Philips. When it came to helping establish ADVA Optical Networking from nothing, I had the experience and confidence to make a difference. I was part of a small group of engineers that began the company in Germany, very near where I grew up.
ADVA is now a half-billion euro company. When I look at what gave me the skills I needed to play a key role in its growth, I always go back to that day when I decided to apply for Fulbright to see what America could teach me.
There’s certainly something about the sense of freedom and spirit of belief that helped make me successful. The American quality of making your own luck that I took from my time in New Jersey coupled with the determination and work ethic I got from my German upbringing have set me in good stead. I’ll forever be grateful to NJIT and to the dean who let me take the leaflet and reach for the stars.