The Roehl Way

Tom Roehl has spent 25 years encouraging students to stretch beyond boundaries
Story by Frances Badgett, Photos by Zeck Koa, '10

For most of his adult life, professor of international business Tom Roehl has lived by a single motto: Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

For Roehl, getting uncomfortable meant going abroad to Japan after earning his master’s at the University of Oregon. He jumped in and made a life for himself, learning about Japanese business and catching onto the culture. After teaching English abroad, he was a Fulbright scholar and wrote his Ph.D. about Japanese business.

He began his teaching career at the University of Washington Business School. He taught for several years at the Michigan Business School where he taught courses on Japanese business and helped train executives in dealing with Japanese partners. 

In 1999, he came to Western to teach in the College of Business and Economics.

“As long as you’re deep into a culture, you’re going to be better,” says Roehl.

woodblock-style graphic of Tom Roehl's face with the words 'be comfortable being uncomfortable.'
Tom Roehl's students are used to hearing this in his classroom.

Roehl has been inspiring students to plunge out of their comfort zones into new experiences ever since. His projects class teaches undergraduates to work with companies to find international markets for their products. With very few instructional parameters, the students plunge into their roles, working as consultants with a CEO or founder of a smaller company or a larger, global firm.

“It’s a chance for students to be creative and to contribute to conditions with uncertain direction. They define the learning space, they manage the process, help each other out, and they do something for a project that really matters,” says Roehl.

During his time at Western, his students have completed 175 projects, giving move than 500 students the real-world experience of international market research. His class has twice won the Chase Franklin Award for teaching innovation in CBE.

While studying with Professor Roehl in his projects course, marketing major and IBUS minor Helen Olivares Fernandez worked with Saku Tea, a company that wants to market alternatives to caffeine for lattes.

“Something I really appreciate about this project was the freedom we had, we could go any route we wanted, and I think that's really cool,” says Fernandez. “In other classes, I would like to take a different route but because of grade constrictions, that might be slightly frowned upon.”

Tom Roehl sits at a desk looking at a ledger book.
Tom Roehl reviews a Japanese business ledger.

Roehl sees tremendous promise in students willing to participate in the projects course. “These are undergraduate opportunities that don’t happen for students elsewhere. They are getting in-person, professional-level experience in college.”

And when Roehl wants to create a lasting impression of his work outside the classroom and beyond the projects program, he gives back. He has funded two endowments, the Junko and Tom Roehl Study Abroad Fund for Students in International Business, for students who would benefit from going abroad but are financially challenged by the cost, and the Roehl Family Scholarship for International Students, for community college students born outside the U.S. with an interest in attending Western.

“The study abroad endowment is intended for students studying in a non-English speaking country for longer-term study. It’s for those who don’t join a group of US or WWU students who study abroad together, but who register with one of our partner schools as a regular student,” Roehl says.

Dropping students into the deep end of studying abroad? That’s the Roehl Way.

Frances Badgett is assistant director of Communications and Marketing for WWU Advancement.