Dr. Jonathan Backens joined Physics, Computer Science, and Engineering department students and faculty on October 13 to reflect on his life experiences. Normally, Dr. Backens hosts these events with his excellent questions, but last week he had the opportunity to share about his own life. Dr. Backens grew up in rural South Dakota in a farming community. His family moved to Virginia when he was in 8th grade, so he attended high school in Virginia. When it came time to choose a University, Dr. Backens liked the size of Christopher Newport University and followed in his brother’s footsteps to study here. He originally planned to study mathematics, then transitioned to engineering. Dr. Backens graduated from CNU with a BS in computer engineering/ computer science.
Almost immediately after graduation, Dr. Backens traveled to Botswana, Africa. There, he began to teach English and eventually got involved in IT and network work. After one year in Botswana, Dr.Backens got involved with a Dutch group in Zambia working to connect rural villages with internet. For the next three and a half years, he worked with mesh networks and network traffic in Zambia.
Dr. Backens remembered the cultures he experienced fondly. He described a warm, relationship based culture where it was easy to connect and build relationships with people. In addition, Dr. Backens described the staple Nshima which is corn based and similar to grits. Nshima is the base to many meals with sauces, meats, and other things added. The one place he claimed you must visit is Victoria Falls in Linvingstone, Zambia. He said it was “hard to describe,” but definitely a “big highlight.”
Dr. Backens was inspired by his experiences in Africa to study communications and networking. He shared that his time in Botswana and Zambia “opened my eyes to the power and impact” this field has on people. When Dr. Backens returned to America, he started his graduate studies in wireless communications at Old Dominion University. He graduated with a Ph D in electrical and computer engineering. After graduate school, Dr. Backens was hired to teach engineering at his alma mater, Christopher Newport University.
Dr. Backens advised undergraduate students “If you’re wondering if you should go abroad, you should. If you have the question, you’re the person who needs to do it.” He gained an incredible appreciation for being a minority and experiencing completely different cultures during his time in Africa. He encouraged travel saying, “you don’t know everything.” Given the opportunity to spend three weeks in Africa, Dr. Backens advised to spend the first week observing and understanding. Then, build relationships with the people and the community. Only then, begin to apply your own expertise and experience. Dr. Backens said it’s important to be aware that “other cultures exist and have developed and evolved to their current state. You don’t have to fix anything.”
Thank you to Dr. Backens for sharing your wisdom with us, and reminding us that there can be more than one right way of doing things. Perhaps we should all approach life with the intent to learn and observe.