Into the World
A rover and her peerless rooms
Swarms of bicyclists spin dust into the air as Maxine Bruhns squats on a curb with her lunch. She cups a bowl of rice in one hand and wields chopsticks with skill. Black pigtails poke from under her Mao-style cap, giving her a girlish look even though she’s almost 60 years old. She feigned illness this morning to escape her tour group, which is now motoring between museums in a bus that practically screams, Foreigners!
Wearing a denim outfit and steel-rimmed glasses, she blends in remarkably well among the other lunchgoers who have perched streetside between the market stalls—a typical take-out scene in China. She effortlessly clamps a glob of rice from her bowl and lifts it to her mouth. The bustling atmosphere satisfies her craving to experience everyday life in China.
That trip took place in 1982. It was a big contrast to the serene setting she’s familiar with in the Chinese Classroom at the University of Pittsburgh. Bruhns, who directs Pitt’s Nationality Rooms Program, was among the first wave of Americans venturing into China after years of that country’s near-total isolation from the rest of the world. In her work, she draws upon insights and empathies acquired from travels in more than 80 countries. She and her late husband Fred C. Bruhns, a professor emeritus of comparative public administration in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, worked with refugees on USAID projects in Austria, Lebanon, Jordan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Germany, Greece, and Gabon for nearly two decades before coming to Pitt in 1965.
The Nationality Rooms Program showcases an array of cultures in 26 Cathedral of Learning classrooms designed to reflect architecture predating 1787 (the year of Pitt’s founding). Each room is custom-built from its parent nation’s indigenous materials, often by native craftsmen. The extraordinary program is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, and Bruhns has stewarded its development for more than half of its existence, fostering the growth and prestige of the Nationality Rooms into a distinctive destination for world travelers and locals alike. Among the visitors she has welcomed are the Dalai Lama, royalty from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and other dignitaries from various nations. Bruhns also directs the Intercultural Exchange Program, which has funded 895 student study-abroad scholarships and 350 faculty grants. Now, even as an octogenarian, she’s characteristically in the midst of overseeing the development of eight new Nationality Rooms.
A decade after her first trip to China, Bruhns returned to that country to prowl through muddy alleys on a mission to find a lantern maker. In a one-story factory producing umbrellas and decorative dragons, she found an artisan who could recreate the brittle wooden lanterns that were no longer capable of illuminating Pitt’s Chinese Classroom.
Today, those new lanterns cast a warm glow through their frosted glass onto the golden dragon snaking around the classroom’s ceiling. The room’s windows are also opaque, blocking out the hubbub and noises of Fifth Avenue on the Cathedral’s north side, providing a quiet setting for generations of students and professors to share ideas under the patient gaze of the Confucius carving on the wall. The quiet is nice, but Bruhns hopes her legacy will be to inspire students to venture out on their own, into the clamorous streets of the world.