Robert Vogel was first bitten by the travel bug nearly 40 years ago, when he took time out from college to visit Japan, then backpack around Europe. Such experiences opened his mind up to a wider world than the one he knew growing up in Mount Airy and Cheltenham. In fact, the longtime educator believes that venturing beyond the familiar is an integral part of the university experience.
Yet it wasn't until the last decade that Vogel, 59, began to infuse his love of travel into his work at La Salle University, where for more than 30 years he's served, among other roles, as the director of elementary and special education, and the director of the Teaching and Learning Center, where he's aided colleagues in their professional development.
In 1998, Vogel took a group of 15 education students to Spain to examine the school system there. He realized that most of his students had never left the United States, and had limited knowledge of foreign cultures. So he decided to create a program that would expose more students at La Salle — a Catholic university founded in 1863 — to issues and realities they knew little about.
'A Wake-Up Call'
"It was a wake-up call for me. We needed to provide more opportunities for these students," stated Vogel, adding that while study-abroad programs did exist at the school, too few students were taking advantage of them.
Along with English professor Marjorie Allen, Vogel co-founded the Leadership and Global Understanding program, a minor open to all university students. It combines classroom study focusing on globalization and human diversity with at least three trips abroad — to countries like India, Thailand and Poland. Vogel said that he raises roughly $50,000 a year so the school can subsidize the students' travel.
He noted that Israel is the first place that he'd wanted to take his students — the majority of whom are non-Jews — but he said the university will not sanction a group trip to the Jewish state as long as it remains on the U.S. State Department's travel advisory list.
But he's been able to bring La Salle students to Poland, where they delved into the horrors of the Holocaust, a subject about which they had little prior exposure. He feels that his commitment to offering students a more enriched and perhaps universal worldview comes in part from his strong sense of Jewish identity.
Roughly 25 years ago, Vogel had another kind of life-changing excursion. After returning from a trip to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Vogel and his wife, Marlyn, decided to become more involved in Jewish life.
He now sits on the boards of the Anti-Defamation League's regional office; Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, where he's been a longtime member; and Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion, where his two grown sons were educated.
In September, Vogel was honored with La Salle's Faculty Distinguished Service Award for his "exceptional involvement and devotion to the good of the university."
In a printed version of his acceptance speech, he noted that his own journey "can best be told not by what I do, but how my students have embraced their own passions."
Vogel likes to keep both mind and body fit. He works out six days a week, and is an avid fan of kayaking and hiking. He's currently training for a Jerusalem-to-Eilat bicycle ride this spring sponsored by Hazon and the Arava Institute, which will raise money for Israeli environmental causes.
While he's approaching an age when many consider retiring, Vogel is having none of it– the students make him feel far too young to think about leaving.
"It's not really a job," he declared. "It's what I do."