This past July I had the opportunity to attend NAFSA’s Strategic Retreat for Education Abroad Leaders in Washington, D.C. Like most full-time administrators, my days are filled with a steady stream of e-mails, meetings, and crises (both big and small), making it a struggle to reflect on and discuss big-picture ideas. The prospect of a two-day retreat with colleagues to focus on and discuss strategy was appealing.

In preparation for the retreat, we were assigned to read four articles in which the authors challenged us to rethink the definitions of “global learners” and “global learning,” a challenge echoed by Neriko Musha Doerr in the retreat’s keynote address. What followed was innovative and inspiring, and completely different from the typical education abroad workshop.

Each participant came to the retreat looking for something different, and as the retreat drew to a close, it was evident that each would leave with equally diverse outcomes. I came away from the retreat with a richer vision of how education abroad fits into the shifting landscape of global higher education, as well as new ideas and pathways to explore to ensure that the global programming in my care meets the needs of 21st century learners. These insights will certainly inform my work at Duke and as a leader in NAFSA’s Education Abroad Knowledge Community.

I could point to many elements that came together to make the retreat a success, but I’ll highlight three that continue to stand out to me months later.

Strategic RetreatFirst, the retreat was organized on an “open agenda” principle, allowing participants to ask their own burning questions, which then became small group discussion topics for the rest of the day. Moving from topic to topic, group to group, we proved that PowerPoint presentations and months of session planning aren’t a required prelude to powerful learning opportunities in the field—give us the opportunity to talk to each other and our discussions will be meaningful and productive.

Second, retreat planners hired a graphic recorder to illustrate our discussions, infusing the note-taking process and overall retreat atmosphere with creativity. It was fun to look back on two days’ worth of illustrations to see how our ideas flowed and evolved according to the artist.

Third, the participants came to the retreat ready and open to share, listen, and consider new ideas in a context wholly different than what we’ve come to expect from a field laden with workshops and conferences. I doubt NAFSA will be holding “unconferences” for 10,000 people anytime soon, but I would love to see more retreats like this one. It was refreshing and spontaneous and the kind of environment in which one really could imagine new ideas emerging for global learning in the 21st century.

Read a full recap of the inaugural Strategic Retreat for Education Abroad leaders.

Amanda KelsoAmanda Kelso is assistant vice provost for undergraduate education and executive director of the Global Education Office at Duke University, and chair-elect of NAFSA’s Education Abroad Knowledge Community.