We continue our blog series documenting the reflections of the inaugural cohort of the Connecting Our World Grassroots Leadership Program (GLP) today with a post from Ashley Sinclair, who runs a one-person study abroad office at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Ashley took the phrase “don’t recreate the wheel” to heart as she dedicated herself to building on and innovatively expanding resources already available to her in order to better prepare her students to study abroad.

By Ashley Sinclair

As a one-person study abroad office, life can easily get overwhelming. I want to provide my students with the best services, programs, orientations, and more, but time and resources are not always on my side. While I love my job, in large part because I love meeting the challenges that this kind of office can bring, I have to admit that sometimes I feel a twinge of envy at conferences when I speak with colleagues from other larger universities who have more staff and more time to prepare individual orientations for specific countries or majors. What can I do to better prepare our students to go abroad with no extra staff or resources? This question was the driving force behind my year in the Connecting Our World Grassroots Leadership Program (GLP).

Sometimes it is easy to feel at a loss and worry that we’ll never get beyond maintaining the status quo. But participating in the GLP and networking with colleagues with similar goals helped me learn to better organize my thoughts and goals to enable me to make the most of my time and resources. I gained valuable tools for creating a doable action plan, explaining goals succinctly to various audiences, and developing specific metrics so I could measure success and progress. However, one of the most important things that happened during training was the realization that even if I wanted to do it all, I couldn’t do it all alone.

My mentor from the University of Pittsburgh, Carol Larson, always said to not recreate the wheel, and in this project, I tried to take that to heart. As a one-person office, I felt that a much better use of my time would be to build on what was already in place rather than to try to create everything on my own.

A key element of my effort was to seek out language learning programs that would help prepare my students for study abroad. My first step was to research potential allies and resources on campus. Though I was initially under the impression that no language learning opportunities existed at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), I was happy to learn that I was mistaken. Some student organizations, such as the Muslim Student Association, were offering informal language courses. The IIT Quality of Worklife Committee offered conversational Spanish for staff and faculty. An inter-professional project (or IPRO as they are called at IIT) was being conducted by students of all majors to develop a social media platform to match students with language ability with students who wanted to learn that language. Finally, university professors and the Student Government Association were working on a proposal to bring language learning courses to IIT, which eventually resulted in the launch of a Spanish course for the fall of 2012, which now is so popular you have to be on a waitlist to get in!

Emboldened by the discovery of the many offerings on my own campus, I realized that living in a cosmopolitan city like Chicago would surely have many more resources. Our city is rich and diverse, with a plethora of cultural centers and language programs. Venturing off campus would help prepare our students by building their self-reliance, a skill they would need while abroad. By going to these cultural centers for events or language study, students would also get a deeper view of a culture than “cliffs notes” version they received from me.

The contacts I made both on and off campus were excited about the prospects of further engaging our students in language study and cross-cultural learning. Some groups sent flyers to be displayed and handed out to students. Other cultural centers worked with us on special accommodations so that when students needed to display language proficiency for a study abroad program, I could simply send our students to specific locations in Chicago to be tested for little to no charge.

By the time IIT’s study abroad fair and International Education Week came around, I was thrilled that so many of my contacts were willing to get involved. One local language center even came to do a demonstration class on campus, and there wasn’t one open seat in the room. To build on the success of this demonstration, we are now exploring options together to bring language learning opportunities to campus to help prepare our students to have basic conversational skills before studying abroad.

Now that my year in GLP is done, I am coming away with so many more contacts and resources than I had anticipated. I have yet to determine if the new resources I helped develop at IIT will increase our numbers of students going abroad, but my allies and I feel confident that many of our students are becoming more prepared for their international experiences. I’m also looking for ways to encourage students to take advantage of these new resources. Furthermore, we are considering developing a global competence program at IIT, in which experience would play as much a part as classwork. The allies I have made across campus will help in creating such a program, and I’m looking forward to facing this challenge with the tools that I gained during my year as part of the GLP.

Ashley Sinclair is a NAFSA member, part of the inaugural cohort of the Connecting Our World Grassroots Leadership Program, and the coordinator for study abroad and cultural programs at the Illinois Institute of Technology.