Oct 15th, 2018, 12:04 PM

Marc Groothaert: Member of AUP and Citizen of the World

By Alayna Amrein
Image Credit: Marc Groothaert
From previously working in the Soviet Union to supporting AUP students and even to co-managing a children's foundation in Colombia, Mr. Groothaert extends his kindness and inspiration across nations.

Meet Marc Groothaert, the first member of AUP to fulfill all five possible roles: student, alumnus, staff, trustee, and scholarship donor. Though he is an active member in the AUP community, his role and presence in the world extends far beyond his activity here. In order to explain those details, it is first necessary to explain his early life.

Mr. Groothaert's upbringing was a rather unique one; He never had a sense of 'home' as a child due to constant moving. It is easier to list the places in which he has not lived than the places in which he has. "Until I was 18 years old, the longest time I spent in any one place was three years, because of our constant movement," Mr. Groothaert recalls.  

Mr. Groothaert was born almost by luck in Brussels, Belgium, to a diplomatic father. Being the child of a diplomat, his world was in constant motion since his infancy. His childhood began in the Soviet Union under Stalin, where his father was stationed. There, he learned Russian as his first language from his nanny. French, which he learned from his parents, was his second language. It later became useful as his family then moved to Belgium for one year- the only time that Mr. Groothaert would ever live in his home country. Next, he moved to Mexico, where Mr. Groothaert went to school at the age of six learning to speak Spanish. His family then moved to Paris during the Algerian war, to the Congo for a brief period just after they had received their independence, and finally to San Francisco, California, where Mr. Groothaert learned his fourth language, English. Thus, at the age of eighteen, Mr. Groothaert was more or less fluent in four languages and had lived in six countries.

It was thanks to such reasons of cultural diversity and language dexterity that led Mr. Groothaert in 1966 to study at ACP, The American College of Paris, which would later become AUP. 

"President Charles de Gaulle called for a rally on the Champs Elysées and I was there. It's one of those moments in history that you don't forget," Mr. Groothaert said. "It was a beautiful, sunny day on the 30th of May 1968. One million people came and walked on the Champs Elysées in favor of restoring order."

Many claim to know Paris and the AUP campus like the back of their hand, but no one knows it exactly how it was during its pioneering days in 1966 Paris. The college, founded in 1962, held its first classes in the basement of the American Church and consisted of a mere 100 students, most of whom were the children of American service members who stayed in France and Europe after the Second World War. After falling upon ACP by word of mouth, Mr. Groothaert decided to begin his studies there as his family resided in London at the time and ACP was a healthy distance away from his family.

Mr. Groothaert began as a student, getting his associates degree. He later became a staff member at ACP, creating, administering, and managing the cultural programs. Reflecting on his life at ACP he commented, "It was a great time in my life. We were pioneers, it was the beginning, it was a small school, we were free." Contributing to this young sense of freedom were perhaps the events that took place in May 1968, the Student Revolution in Paris. 

France's students and workers, feeling as though they had been too restricted by the established order, took to the streets to riot in what resulted in a month long national standstill. Of course, ACP had some of its own upheavals during this month. Mr. Groothaert, being the same age as the students as well as a staff member at this point, sympathized with both sides and found himself playing the role of negotiator between the students and faculty at ACP. Finally, after a month of inactivity in all of France, Mr. Groothaert recounts, "President Charles de Gaulle called for a rally on the Champs Elysées and I was there. It's one of those moments in history that you don't forget. . .It was a beautiful, sunny day on the 30th of May 1968. One million people came and walked on the Champs Elysées in favor of restoring order. Those were exciting times." 

"I went to San Francisco to look for a job in journalism. They were paying less than peanuts and they wanted me to take care of the dead cats under the tramways at the time; you know, big reportings. So I said 'Thank you very much, but no thanks.'"

After his time as a faculty member at ACP, Mr. Groothaert set out to get his bachelors degree in journalism at the University of Southern California. Now holding a degree, he ventured off to San Francisco to look for a job in journalism. By coincidence, he came across the office building of an old friend of his father that he had met ten years prior.

Having no luck with his journalistic pursuits, Mr. Groothaert buzzed up to the old friend's floor to chat. With no prior experience in banking, Mr. Groothaert was proposed an impromptu offer to work for The Bank of America. "Circumstances, chance, right place, right time-whatever you want to call it, that is what changed the course of my life and from that moment on, I started being active in a world I never thought I would be involved in: banking."

"Being in the Soviet Union in those days, in the height of the Cold War. . . People had very difficult living conditions. And here is where we can go into the anecdote about Borris, the voice recorder that lived inside my walls."

After several training sessions, Mr. Groothaert was offered to open the new Bank of America in London. So, like any adventurer, he packed his bags and headed for Europe. Following a successful launch, the company then proposed that he should open the new bank in Moscow, USSR in 1976. He responded that he would go under the condition that he would be given intensive courses in Russian, and to his surprise, all of his Russian, which he had not spoken since his childhood came back. Within three months of living in Moscow, he regained his fluency. As an addition, he also learned conversational German by this point, making German his fifth language.

Image Credit: Marc Groothaert and Wife, Claudia

Mr. Groothaert was assigned not only to open the bank in Moscow but also to oversee a major contract to sell American grain to the U.S.S.R. during a period of exhaustion in terms of resources. Thus he was dealing directly with the Soviet government and was under heavy surveillance. Placed in the Soviet Union in a time of extreme tensions between the Soviets and the U.S., Mr. Groothaert was introduced to an entire world of unfamiliar experiences. "Being in the Soviet Union in those days, in the height of the Cold War. . . People had very difficult living conditions. And here is where we can go into the anecdote about Borris, the voice recorder that lived inside my walls."

Borris was a spying device that the Soviet government used to monitor any vocal interactions Mr. Groothaert had in his home in order to ensure that he was not involved in any anti-socialist organizations. This was, to say the least, one of his more unusual encounters but Mr. Groothaert, being the lighthearted man he is, treated Borris with the utmost respect, engaging with him in single-sided conversation and regularly greeting the audience that inspected him behind Borris's monitor. 

In 1979, to congratulate him on his hard work in The Soviet Union, the President of The Bank of America let him decide which bank he would like to open next. So, Mr. Groothaert decided to open the location in Geneva, Switzerland. Reflecting on his life then he said, "I had never had a place where I could hang my hat for the first 27 years of my life, so I decided that even if I am going to keep on traveling, I needed a home," and for him, that home would be in Switzerland.

Satisfied with his time with The Bank of America, Mr. Groothaert left the company and decided to keep his permanent residence in Switzerland, where he became a partner in a private bank and then later retired.

In 2007, Mr. Groothaert was reconnected with Celeste Schenck, President of AUP, who invited Mr. Groothaert to become a trustee of AUP, bringing Mr. Groothaert back to his roots. It was not long after that he decided to set up a scholarship fund for students at AUP called the Groothaert Scholarship, helping five classes of students so far and counting.

Image Credit: Marc Groothaert

Today, Mr. Groothaert still lives a very active life in the world. One of his most proud endeavors is his contribution in Fondation Aide aux Enfants: Foyer Bambi Colombie, of which he is now the Vice President of. The Fondation Aide aux Enfants, created in 1985, is an organization that houses, clothes, doctors and feeds abandoned children ages zero to six that are typically children of single mothers who are involved in prostitution, drug dealing and/or sexual abuse and who would otherwise inhabit the streets of Colombia. They began with minimal resources by caring for 10 children in 1985; Now, they care for over 1000 children per year in four large homes that they fundraise to construct in Colombia. Additionally, they aid in rehabilitating the mothers of these children. Mr. Groothaert explained the main goals of the organization:

"We believe in trying to reunite families because these poor mothers [often] had a child without really knowing why or how they had a child, but motherly love and instinct still exists. So even though they are forced to abandon their child early on, we aim to one day put the child back with their mother. So in parallel, we have a program where we rebuild and educate the mothers. First, we rebuild them psychologically, to help work through their abuse, and then we provide for them medically. Then, we teach them the basics of business-to count, to write, to sell-and finally we teach them a skill of some sort-to cook, to clean, etc.-to give them back their pride. When they have finished their class, I buy the mothers their first tool for their job, whether that be a sewing machine or the equipment for a beauty salon. After a few years, we will have ideally reunited the family; the child will finally be hugged by their own mother rather than by social workers."

When asked what the most enriching part of his life has been, Mr. Groothaert responded, "Knowing that I've made a few hundred kids and their mothers who were in extreme poverty happy. . . That has to be the most enriching part of my life." If you would like to make a contribution to Fondation Aide aux Enfants, click the hyperlink and go to 'Faire un Don'. 

Image Credit: Marc Groothaert and wife, Claudia

Leaving students with a few last words of wisdom Mr. Groothaert said, "The message for young people today would be, when something comes your way grab it, don't hesitate, and run with it. . . Someone who was never destined to become a banker became a banker just by being there and taking it. . . I can't think of a day when I didn't enjoy my work and being with those kids." With that being said, consider the impact that you can leave on the world and which skills can lead you toward that.

Mr. Groothaert's ability to communicate in so many languages was such an important influence in his life. When studying and planning for your future, consider his wise words as you craft your own future. Who knows, you may just find something worth running with.