Scientist, educator and immigrant

All over the United States on election day, people will be exercising their right to make a choice about the direction the country will take Keystone

A surname like "Zurbuchen" isn't usually associated with an immigrant in Switzerland. But in fact, Swiss who emigrate to a new country are immigrants there. For scientist and educator Thomas Zurbuchen, the ability to be heard and to be engaged in the United States is vitally important. 

This content was published on September 20, 2016 - 11:47
Thomas Zurbuchen in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Thomas H. Zurbuchen, PhD, is currently 47 years old. He moved to the US more than 20 years ago and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is a Professor of Space Science and Aerospace Education and the founding director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan. He has been a US citizen for 12 years and is married to a US-born musician and music teacher. Copyright 2008, University of Michigan Photo Services. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The first time I voted I was 18 years old, living in a small Swiss village near the Lake of Thun. I don’t remember what the vote was about, but I remember how it made me feel. My country treated me as a person whose opinion counted in the most direct fashion. My vote was a way to step up and communicate what I cared about.

I soon discovered that there was more to the political process than voting. As a physics student at the University of Bern, still living with my parents in Heiligenschwendi, I took the first bus in the morning to get the train to Bern, and returned home on the last bus. To my consternation, the bus company proposed to cancel the late evening bus, and the city council supported the decision. I knew that none of us on that bus could continue to live in Heiligenschwendi if the late bus was canceled. This was something I really cared about.

Not only did I show up at the town council meeting – the ultimate bastion of direct democracy in Switzerland – for the first time, but I pushed myself to speak up. With a shaky voice, I pointed out to all present that eliminating the bus would force people like me to move away from the town. I also presented the results of a calculation I had performed to prove that the bus company had provided the town with false information about the buses and their use. My numbers were absolutely correct, and my argument was presented as convincingly as possible. But to my disappointment, the vast majority of those present voted with the council and the bus company. I had lost.

The importance of engagement

Just as I had predicted, I had to move to Bern. But only a few years later the evening buses were reinstated, in part because of voices like mine highlighting a system that wasn’t working.

What my bus policy debacle taught me was that I not only valued the ability to vote, but also the ability to be heard, and the ability to actively engage. Politics, I learned, is not just about good arguments and numbers; it is also about presenting these arguments effectively and persistently.

Fast-forward 25 years, and I’m again thinking about my ability to vote, this time in my adopted country, the United States. I’m deeply engaged at the local level, and serve on the governing board of a local university and an education-focused blue-ribbon panel. I’ve also served on government-focused committees, volunteered in election campaigns locally and nationally, and even testified before Congress, one of the most exciting and humbling experiences of my life.

One person, three perspectives

So what do I think of the upcoming presidential elections? I’m not swayed by a single party or a single opinion. I view the world from three perspectives: as a scientist, an educator, and an immigrant.

As a scientist, I believe in the power of data and common sense to drive good decisions, especially decisions that somehow involve scientific predictions and educational objectives. Unfortunately, data didn’t convince voters in Heiligenschwendi, and it doesn’t consistently convince people in the US either. Both the extreme left and the extreme right propagate thinking that not only worries but also offends me: Yes, there is scientific evidence that the greenhouse effect contributes to the global climate, and no, there is no scientific evidence that vaccinations lead to autism!

As an educator, I seek to provide students with opportunities, just as Swiss public schools provided opportunities for me. I try to support education at all levels, especially if it creates engaged citizens who take on work with dedication and creativity. In the United States too many people still don’t have access to meaningful education, and although I believe that unusual talent is distributed equally among all races and economic layers, opportunities are not available for all.

Finally, like most immigrants I know, I welcome high standards on immigration and consider integration in society as an absolute must for all who enter a country. Quasi-religious fear-based anti-immigration stances bother me. I think diversity makes the world better, not worse. Just look at a line-up of the US medal-winners at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The US was basically unbeatable thanks to its size and diversity. The women’s gymnastics team, for example, beat the competition in a landslide. The team consisted of two African American women, one Latina, and two Caucasians, one of Jewish origin. Diversity is also a strength of the Swiss national football team. I love it!

Make yourself heard

Support for scientific facts, educational opportunity, and understanding of diversity are among the values I look for in a political candidate. Unfortunately, I’m not finding enough values in the current election season, and this is of grave concern.

But what bothers me even more is voter apathy. Participation in the US primary elections averaged 17% in 2016, and projections for the upcoming November elections put participation at below 40%. In fact, participation by people who have the most to gain and to lose – young people below the age of 30 – tends to run around 20-25%, much lower than the average in other age groups.

Many of the voters who are planning to sit out the elections are highly educated and  have very important viewpoints: engineers and scientists, medical doctors and social workers, teachers, poets and musicians. I don’t know the reason they see no value in voting, and I can’t identify with it. As I learned at that first town council meeting in Heiligenschwendi, my words and actions can have an impact. You can’t win if you don’t play.

So don’t complain about who will be President for the next four years if you’re not voting in November – one way or the other. The biggest threat to democracy is not a single candidate – no matter how crazy and highly divisive – it is the lack of engagement by a country’s citizens. 

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.

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