He used to be an actor, dancer, and stage director and appeared, among other places, on Broadway. Today, René Wells lives and works at Jacobs University. As Head of Campus Life, he now directs a 14-person team, which deals with all university activities that have nothing to do with seminars and lectures. Above all, however, he encourages students to try different things. Because he knows from his own experience what he’s talking about.
Creating structures. Trying new things. Freeing your mind. This is what René Wells likes to talk about when he speaks about himself and his work. Those who visit the 46-year-old in his office at Jacobs University quickly see that these are topics close to his heart. He speaks quickly and with focus. He likes to explain complex situations using a large whiteboard, where he writes and draws. Next to it is a cozy sofa from the seventies that he found at the curbside. “Anybody who wants to discuss something with me should feel comfortable here.” Next to the sofa is a red bear. It looks like a big gummy bear, but it is made of papier-mâché and is wearing a professor’s hat. The bear is a prop from a theater production. At the same time, it conveys a message important to René Wells: Stress and performance pressure do not have to dominate a course of study. It may – in fact, it should – always be fun, too.
René Wells has helped organize a number of theatrical performances at Jacobs University. He has a clear conception of good theater: “It has to be close to life. To people with their problems, anxieties, and yearnings,” he says. “But I believe when you work too long onstage and backstage, you easily lose the feeling for what actually concerns people outside the walls of the theater.” Wells has experienced it himself. For more than ten years, Wells, who has a degree in theater studies, worked as an actor, dancer, and director at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas; guest appearances even took him to Broadway in New York. “At some point, it was as if I were living in a big bubble separating me from the outside world.” Wells therefore made a radical break. He turned his back on the New York theater district, worked for a few months as a lumberjack, and lived in an isolated cabin in the forests of North America.
The son of an American and a German then moved to Bremen for family reasons. “In the beginning, I just took jobs at the weekly market. At some point, I read a job ad of Jacobs University. They were looking for someone to manage a college.” Wells had long been familiar with Jacobs University. His father, Mathematics Professor Raymond O. Wells, had once helped to build up the university, but had since retired. “That I would one day work at the same university as my father, neither of us had planned that,” emphasizes René Wells. Without a doubt: Following in the footsteps of another – that was not for a freedom-loving person like him. His shoe soles have their own, individual tread. And that quickly became obvious, too, after he started the job at Jacobs University. Just organizing things in the college– that was not enough for him. Together with students, he built up his own theater. He helped with the carpentry work for the stage, worked on the lighting, direction, and costumes. The theater professional had found his way back to his old passion. Even today, posters from his first plays hang in his office.
René Wells now also lives on the campus – together with his wife, whom he met and fell in love with at Jacobs University. The responsibilities of the Department of Campus Life are wide-ranging. After all, the university sees itself not just as a teaching and research institute, but also as a place for peaceful interaction among young people from more than 100 different countries. For instance, the concept of study provides for those getting a Bachelor degree to live on campus: “We take care whenever possible to ensure that people from very different countries share an apartment,” says Wells. “After all, our internationality provides gigantic potential for intercultural learning.”
In addition, the private university maintains numerous cooperative relationships with clubs, cultural, and social institutions. For instance, students teach English to kids at child daycare centers, provide support to young people from socially deprived families, or hold piano concerts in retirement homes. In their colleges, they also independently organize so-called “Cheer up!” events. “Cheer up” is meant not just as encouragement. It is also an invitation, in stressful test phases, not to simply brood over textbooks and laptops. Homemade cakes and healthy smoothies aim to entice fellow students out of their rooms in the colleges. “The volunteers get a budget for their purchases and organize everything themselves,” says Wells. “We just offer them a framework and encourage them to get involved. They provide the initiative themselves.”
It is important to René Wells that students not concentrate only on their majors but also expand their horizons beyond the lectures. He does not want them to experience what he once did in his theater bubble on Broadway. “It is good that most of our students are curious by nature,” says he. “For that reason, many who come to us are perceived as nerds and overachievers. In contrast, it is normal here for students to have above-average intelligence. They see that they are no longer outsiders. That gives them the necessary inner freedom to discover new sides to themselves.”
To try different things. Experience new things. To develop undreamt-of capabilities. And studying is the right time for that – of that René Wells is absolutely certain. The fact that students in Germany have a tighter curriculum since the introduction of the Bachelor and Master system does not change the fact that it is important to get to know oneself better while getting a degree. “Self-awareness and success in learning are no contradictions,” he says. “On the contrary. The most successful students here are most often not those who concentrate only on learning. It is those who, in addition, also train for the rowing team, act in theater, or help refugee children with their homework.”
Such activities in addition to a course of study are often helpful in many respects. “Those who are regularly involved in something have to manage their time better than those who just focus on studying. That helps them structure their everyday lives better,” says Wells. “In addition, it helps them become more open and willing to experiment – and maybe even experience things that are so exciting that they will one day tell their grandchildren about them.”
Additional information at:
Questions will be answered by: René Wells | Head of Campus Life
re.wells [at] jacobs-university.de | Tel: +49 421 200-4323