Hillah Culman speaks German as fluently as English. That’s because the 32-year-old Jewish young professional grew up in Cologne after moving from Los Angeles, where she was born, at the age of 5.
Culman works as an information technology project manager for The Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corp., commonly known as Farmer Mac, which assists the agricultural sector of the U.S. economy.
Culman came to Washington in 2008 to pursue a Ph.D. in German from Georgetown University, but instead became involved in the education reform movement. She worked at Everybody Wins! DC, a nonprofit children’s literacy organization, and the D.C. public school system where she helped companies improve communication with the school system.
Culman holds a B.A. in human ecology from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and two M.A.s, in German and applied linguistics, from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
She has been a board member of AJC ACCESS DC for two years and is the incoming vice chair and will be serving on the Global ACCESS Steering Committee.
Culman recently sat down with us at the Washington Hilton where she was attending the AJC Global Forum and ACCESS Summit. She talked about the differences between Germany and the United States, going to Chile on an AJC trip and why she is so passionate about reforming education.
What was it like moving from L.A. to Germany and growing up in Cologne?
I moved to Germany when I was 5. It was interesting because I actually didn’t know how to speak until I was 5, so I was learning English and German simultaneously. I think the thing that I most remember is I went from sunny California to winter, and it was very bizarre. I arrived in Germany right before the [Berlin] Wall came down. So I was actually there to see the wall come down, just being there at a time when people were so alive. And it was just a different culture. Suddenly I went from sitting in a car all the time to walking everywhere, and people were talking about politics and movements — and that’s really what I grew up with. I did my education for elementary, middle and part of high school all in Germany; academically it was rigorous, with many questions. The teachers really pushed us to the core and we would take 14 subjects a year. I remember moving back to the United States when I was 15 to attend boarding school. I went from 14 subjects to seven.
What do you miss the most about living in Germany?
I really miss those Sunday late afternoons sitting in the beer garden with friends, enjoying a beer, beautiful weather and great conversation.
Tell us about your involvement in the education reform movement?
I worked for D.C. public schools for about two years. I was a coordinator for community engagement. One of my roles was to engage companies to participate with schools around activities. As my former director used to say, very often a company will come to a school and the school will say, ‘We’re in need of bread,’ and the company will be like, ‘Well, that’s great but we have soup, take the soup.’ And the school will be like, ‘No, we really need bread,’ and the company will be like, ‘No, take the soup, it’s better for you.’ What a lot of my job was is changing that conversation with these companies before they go to the school to be like, ‘Hey, you know, if the school says we need bread, then if you can’t provide them with bread, let’s find the school that will want the soup.’ The analyses just really shows that frequently we think they always need this one thing, but we rarely listen to what the school really does want. If you just take a moment and meet with the teachers and the principals, there’s a whole world that we’re not aware of. Once they get the support, it makes a difference, and that’s a conversation I was very focused on.
How was the AJC trip to Chile? What did you do?
AJC offers mission trips where they go around the world to different countries and you have to apply for them. And so a year-and-a-half ago they took a group of 11 of us down to Santiago, Chile, to meet with the Jewish population. We got to learn about a population of 20,000 Jews. We got to interact with them. We met with the heads of the Jewish student unions. But in addition to that, we also got to meet with Chilean politicians and ask them questions about Jewish life in the society. How are they supported? One of the aspects that a lot of people are unaware of is that Chile actually has the biggest Palestinian diaspora outside of Palestine, more than 500,000. We observed the interactions between the Palestinians and the Jewish community, how they navigate and how they build bridges — and what we can learn from them and bring back to the United States.