Connecting the Dots: Sustaining Self, Staff, and International Education Amid COVID-19

During challenging times, self and staff care may seem separate from the internationalization mission—but they’re all connected.
Sustaining internationalization begins with international educators taking care of themselves and each other. Illustration: Shutterstock

In the middle of a semester during which study abroad programs were canceled and international office staff alternated days in the office, Sara Easler, PhD, grabbed her staff and headed for the woods.

More specifically, staff in the international programs office at the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business went on an optional, socially distanced camping trip as a way to recharge and reconnect with each other this fall.

“Everyone had their own space, but it was a way for us to see each other and have some fun,” says Easler, Haslam’s director of international programs and study abroad. “We had a great time—we hadn’t laughed together in so long. It took the pressure off. We felt we could do this.”

To be sure, 2020 has been a year unlike any other for international education—and for the people who support and sustain it at all levels. Rapid, and often complicated, measures to safely bring home study abroad students in the spring have given way at many institutions to empty campuses, limited or virtual programming, and uncertainty about when travel and other activities will resume. Few of these factors are within the control of international educators, and these new circumstances are challenging to navigate. 

“As the months evolved, everybody realized we were in a much longer-term situation,” says Carola Smith, MA, dean of educational programs at Santa Barbara City College in California. “But we have to get out of this reactive space and move toward a more proactive way of leading and managing teams and making decisions.”

“We have to get out of this reactive space and move toward a more proactive way of leading and managing teams and making decisions.” —Carola Smith

Making that shift is a central part of supporting what is best about international education and the people who make it a reality for students, from study abroad program managers to senior international officers to international student advisers. Doing so involves looking within ourselves, helping peers and colleagues do the same, and identifying new ways to maintain the international project on campus—even when its most visible elements seem absent.

“We are no longer able to do the things we are used to,” says Ravi Srinivas, PhD, a retired senior international officer who now works as an independent consultant and NAFSA trainer. “But what we want to do and accomplish for our students and our institutions does not necessarily change.”

Starting with Self

One of the reasons the pandemic has been so challenging for international educators may boil down to a common goal: to share the international education experience with as many students as possible (a reflection of educators’ love for the field). 

“We’re the cheerleaders—we’re the ones delivering exciting news about people going abroad and having great experiences,” Easler says. “Now we’re the bearers of disappointing news. That’s a difficult thing….It’s hard to feel that same purpose and satisfaction.”

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In order for leaders to effectively support their staff, managers must take care of their own needs first, say experts. Illustration: Shutterstock

Easler argues that she and many of her international education colleagues are aspirational goal-setters. “When things don’t go the way we want, it’s easy to feel very frustrated,” she says. “Find an outlet for the moment where you have to have that release of frustration and regroup.”

International educators interviewed for this article suggested several outlets for frustration and self-care strategies:

Put your mask on first. 

While masks have taken on new meaning during the pandemic, think instead of the ones found on airplanes and the common message of preflight safety checks: Put your mask on before assisting others. “It’s a visual that comes to my mind so many times during all this,” Easler says. “As managers, we are responsible for our teams, but sometimes that can result in us not really taking care of our own needs.”

That may mean finding time for self-reflection or extending grace to yourself in the face of mistakes and setbacks. What matters is finding “a healthy balance in your workday,” Easler says.

Be intentional about what you can—and cannot—control.

Since so much of what is happening is driven by global forces, it can be helpful to step back and think about what actually can be done amid the current uncertainty. “If you look at the overall picture, it can be so overwhelming it could be paralyzing,” Smith says. “We did not have control of the decline in international students. We don’t have control over immigration changes unrelated to the pandemic. But we can take all that information and develop multiple plans for multiple scenarios.”

Stay connected with peers.

On many campuses, international educators, especially leaders, may be the only people with comparable roles. In the absence of in-person opportunities to collaborate with colleagues at other institutions at conferences and trainings, it is important to find intentional ways to maintain relationships.

“When things don’t go the way we want, it’s easy to feel very frustrated. Find an outlet for the moment where you have to have that release of frustration and regroup.” —Sara Easler

“I don’t have to explain [to peers] why it’s hard; they understand why it’s hard,” Easler says. “We’ve had to be a lot more intentional in nurturing those relationships and connections because the normal ways were suspended.”

Supporting Staff

For international educators who manage staff, it is important to recognize all these same difficulties equally impact—and frustrate—their colleagues. “It’s been challenging as a manager to have agency while you’re constantly reacting to things you have no control over, and to empower your staff to have agency,” Smith says. “As a manager, you need to be patient, empathetic, and flexible. There are a lot of things you can do to show your team that you’re supportive and understand their challenges.”

Several staff-care strategies can help both managers and team members through this trying time:

Check in with your staff.

Remember that everyone involved in higher education has been involved in managing rapid change—shifting activities online, taking on new responsibilities, handling unanticipated crises, and thinking about the uncertainty to come. As many staffers continue to work in remote settings, they may face family challenges at home. Understanding that not all staff members will willingly share these difficulties is a key to leading with empathy during these times.

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Efforts to best support staff, both professionally and personally, begin with trust, says Srinivas.

“In person, I can see their body language and hear their stories,” Easler says, stressing the need to “try to observe where I might need to intervene without breaching boundaries” in remote settings.

Smith focuses on “being really carefully aware of who is participating in staff meetings and who is not talking.” Her goal, she says, is to “not monitor, but observe which staff members are doing well with the changes and which ones are struggling” and provide supports as needed.

The key, Srinivas says, is establishing trust: “Trust is the glue that holds together people and processes.”

Provide flexibility.

One way in which trust manifests itself is by offering staff additional flexibility during this time of remote work, including shifts in working hours that allow them to address family or other obligations. Another is encouraging staff with particular interests to pursue “passion projects” that fit within the new context.

“You need a great deal of empathy to not only recognize but also acknowledge the circumstances of individuals in a team,” Srinivas says.

Of course, leaders must balance these needs against the mission of their unit or office to continue serving students and move toward ongoing objectives. One strategy for managers, Srinivas says, is focusing less on tracking individual tasks and more on monitoring the overall performance of the team or department. He advises asking, “Is the team delivering on what needs to be delivered?”

Maintain connections.

While virtual meetings and check-ins are now the norm, maintaining informal connections that keep staff connected and spark new ideas has been more challenging. “Fostering belonging in a remote environment is really tough,” Srinivas says.

For managers, one key is constant communication. At Tennessee, for example, staff met virtually three times a week to talk and address new roadblocks. Understanding that screen fatigue is real, however, means ensuring that more formal meetings have a clear purpose and value to all participants (see below).


Gather, Don’t Meet

As the title suggests, facilitator and author Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering takes an expansive view of meetings of all kinds. Among the takeaways that may help temper virtual meeting fatigue are the following:

  1. Have a purpose for gatherings.
  2. Be intentional about who should attend; more is not necessarily merrier.
  3. Attendees want their host or facilitator to be in control.
  4. Ninety percent of what makes a gathering successful is put in place beforehand.
  5. Don’t be afraid of (good) conflict—it can make a gathering matter more.
  6. Consider reentry, and help attendees find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside.


Celebrate wins.

Safely bringing students home was a significant accomplishment in the spring, but the continuing work is equally important—and recognizing accomplishments can be an important way to bolster staff morale.

For example, one unit Srinivas worked with celebrated staff who devised ways to extend the working hours for virtual support to better meet student needs. “It may not be unique, but it is responsive,” he says. Identifying staff who make these kinds of changes “showcases your ability to give credit where it is due.”

Sustaining Internationalization

Because of their expansive roles, international education units can see themselves as “mini-universities” in their own right, Srinivas says. But this is a critical time for leaders to deeply understand how internationalization fits into the bigger picture of their institution in order to advance it.

“In my experience, most of the people I speak with in international education leadership roles tend to see themselves as managers and less as leaders,” Srinivas says. “But every manager is a leader, and the shift they’re being asked to make is being more leader-like.”

There are several actions leaders can take to sustain internationalization on their campus:

Think systemically.

Unlike past international crises that temporarily hampered mobility, the pandemic has had a massive, and potentially long-lasting, impact on higher education writ large. “We’ve been confronted with many challenges extending from the external environment, but those have been isolated to international education units,” Srinivas says. “To make a distinction between isolated and systemic disruption is a useful starting point to think about how we respond.”

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The pause on mobility during the pandemic has freed up time and resources for institutions to step back from day-to-day operations and identify ways to improve moving forward. Illustration: Shutterstock

In thinking how to navigate the complexities of the current landscape, Srinivas points to an acronym first introduced by the U.S. Army War College in the 1980s: VUCA. Drawing on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, VUCA encourages leaders to navigate challenging times by responding to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

“Yes, you have volatility, but can you as a manager come through with a vision that creates a common understanding from the uncertainty to bring clarity from the complexity?” Srinivas asks.

To that end, Smith has been mapping out strategies based on different levels of enrollment shifts and whether classes will be predominately online or in-person during the spring semester. She also is focusing on ways to enlist current students in digital marketing efforts to ensure her institution maintains visibility with prospective international students.

“These are all things I can control within my team,” she says.

Connect—and coordinate—across campus.

Peers in other departments are facing similar challenges: stress, the cancellation of in-person classes and programming, and uncertainty about the future. With that in mind, it is critical to extend the same empathy and flexibility to external stakeholders while collaborating on shared objectives—and work together to ensure that joint efforts realistically account for each stakeholder’s own challenges involving capacity and uncertainty.

“We’ve all seen a disruption of all our normal timelines,” Easler says. “In adjusting, we have to find some sort of alignment.”

Serve as a resource for decisionmakers.

International education leaders also can focus on being present as administrators and other campus leaders navigate broader institutional challenges. Smith has made it a priority to attend a wide range of institutional meetings, from the college’s academic senate to its board of trustees meetings, to be available when questions arise.

“That has been really helpful on a number of occasions where I’ve been able to provide input and a better understanding of what we can do to ensure the viability of our programs moving forward,” she says.

Prepare to Pivot

The oft-repeated silver lining of the pandemic is the idea that the pause in mobility offers an opportunity to rethink the entire concept of international education. Focusing on the mechanics of programs like study abroad, for example, “takes a lot of resources,” Easler says.

“It held us back from prioritizing international programs that were not study abroad,” she says. “Study abroad is not solely who we are. The physical geography of it is inconsequential. This gives us an opportunity to build programs where we haven’t had time to [build] before.”

Experts urge international educators to step back and think strategically. What are the nonnegotiable elements of international education? Are there opportunities to engage students in new ways that will persist beyond the pandemic? One way of doing so draws from a leadership theory espoused by Simon Sinek and others: Start with why.

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In rethinking the role and purpose of international education, new ideas may emerge to help sustain the future of internationalization. Illustration: Shutterstock

“The ‘how’ changes. The ‘why’ becomes really crucial to navigate this period of disruption,” says Srinivas. “Once we have agreement that our central purpose has not changed, then we can go about thinking about what needs to be done. If we are really clear about why we want to internationalize and why we want those students to have those kinds of experiences, then we have a better shot at thinking about the value-added things we might do right now that will remain with us and bolster the value of international education in the future.”

Many international educators have pointed to virtual exchanges and other new models for programming as opportunities to engage the large numbers of students who never participate in mobility-based experiences like study abroad. At Haslam, which has one of the largest proportions of first-generation college students of any top business school, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to “reduce barriers and bring more people to the table,” Easler says.

It also has provided an example of crisis driving change. Study abroad is a degree requirement for many of the college’s 5,400 undergraduate business students. With spring study abroad prospects undecided for students as this article went to press, the prospect of three semesters without that option represented “an enormous bottleneck for degree progression,” Easler says.

“Many of the changes at our institutions are going to be permanent. If that’s the case, how are we going to reposition ourselves to be relevant, significant, and integral to the institutions we serve?” —Ravi Srinivas

Staff rapidly designed a variety of virtual international research and consulting projects that allowed students to fulfill the study abroad requirement and were rich enough to not be seen as a compromise. Easler considers this a more productive solution than completely eliminating the degree requirement because without a meaningful international experience, students would have “nothing to hang their hats on,” she says.

“What we want to do and accomplish for our students and our institutions does not change,” adds Srinivas. “Many of the changes at our institutions are going to be permanent. If that’s the case, how are we going to reposition ourselves to be relevant, significant, and integral to the institutions we serve?”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.