Education Abroad: A 2020 Perspective
As 2020 comes to a close, I find myself listening to every webinar I can find on how to resume education abroad mobility. Combining a walk or hike with a podcast helps me manage my anxiety. With every step, I’m adding to my long list of variables to evaluate when determining whether it is safe to send students abroad again.
One detail that is missing from most of these conversations is who will do all of the analyzing, benchmarking, and communicating. Evacuating study abroad students this past spring was a Herculean effort for most institutions and organizations. Ramping up to send the next big cohort of students abroad will be just as labor-intensive. And I have no doubt that when we are ready to open the gates, the number of students willing to travel will be large.
Who will provide the support these students will need, given the staff reductions and changes at many organizations and institutions? It was crushing and anxiety-producing to watch earlier this year as our colleagues in the private industry started being laid off. We heard a lot about our institutional representatives, but less so about the on-site staff and those in admissions, advising, finance, and other areas who were quietly exiting our field.
In the institutional offices, we saw some layoffs but not as many—or perhaps they are just delayed. As a field, we are not really talking about the impact that a reduced staffing level will have on the student experience. I keep thinking about those anxious students, whose parents will be even more anxious than before the pandemic to let them travel, who will need extra advising, training, and support on site. We had some anxious students prior to the pandemic, but moving forward, I am preparing to treat each student as a highly anxious traveler.
I have no doubt that when we are ready to open the gates, the number of students willing to travel will be large. Who will provide the support these students will need, given the staff reductions and changes at many organizations and institutions?
As the pandemic drags on, our organizations are experiencing increased financial pressure. The question is, how do we retain our education abroad staff while increasing their training, so our institutions and organizations are prepared to support the post-pandemic student traveler ethically and with expertise. Here are some strategies I would like to propose.
Articulate the value of well-trained professionals.
With student mobility suspended, would our leadership look at international education staff as an easy place to make cuts? Are we the low-hanging fruit in possible staff reductions? One of my mentors, Kim Howard, MEd, at the University of Vermont, shared a great tip with me this summer: “Don’t wait for leadership to make decisions for you. Educate them on what the situation is, and propose solutions through modeling.”
We should all take her advice to heart. Be proactive in educating your leadership about the value of a well-trained professional. It is costly and labor-intensive to properly train and mentor a new education abroad adviser. A seasoned professional is priceless.
Do not let leadership assume that when we are ready to resume travel, we can quickly hire and train. Clearly explain the multi-area expertise advisers need to develop: marketing, program portfolio knowledge, recruitment, advising, event planning, financial aid literacy, and relationship building. Advisers have the expertise, contacts, and confidence to execute sudden pivots and professional pirouettes. They have clout with faculty and staff on campus, especially at smaller institutions.
Provide more training.
Use this time to offer professional development to your education abroad staff. There are so many wonderful free and low-cost training opportunities through NAFSA and other organizations. Do staff members need more cross-training with financial aid? Offer your colleagues in the financial aid office help with triaging phone calls. The knowledge and relationships gained will be invaluable.
Have you wanted to increase the number of athletes in your program? Ask if you can shadow an athletic adviser and learn about different sports, schedules, NCAA rules, and other details. If there are other offices on campus with which you want to forge stronger relationships—career services, academic advising, the diversity and inclusion office—ask how you can help them if a way to help is not readily apparent. If you have always wanted to move your orientation and training to a virtual model, this is the time to get a certificate in instructional design to learn how you can offer the best virtual training experience to your students.
Temporarily reassign your staff.
Keep your education abroad colleagues busy. If another area of the international education office is low on staff, reassign your team members to that area. Since many of us start in one of the knowledge areas, it takes a lot of maneuvering to learn another functional area. The pandemic is offering us a cross-training opportunity on a silver platter.
Since many of us start in one of the knowledge areas, it takes a lot of maneuvering to learn another functional area. The pandemic is offering us a cross-training opportunity on a silver platter.
If there are no opportunities in the greater international education office, consider other campus offices. For example, professionals in admissions offices are experts in recruitment, credit conversion, and automating processes. An education abroad professional can learn a lot from admissions colleagues about strategies to widen the recruitment funnel, communicate effectively with leads through customer relationship management platforms, and improve conversion rates. I suggest admissions because these offices often have high turnover rates, need staff during peak application review time (such as this winter), and have quick training programs to onboard new admissions counselors.
Recalibrate your education abroad office.
Dig up your dusty wish list of NAFSA annual conference ideas. Brainstorm ways to address your colleagues’ priorities and tasks, such as developing innovative ideas, revising your program portfolio, flipping orientation, and developing better marketing materials. Could this be the time to implement the use of a new education abroad software? If you are in a privileged position to retain staff, then use this time wisely to make your wish list a reality.
A word of caution: Come up with priorities, timelines, and goals, then develop benchmarks so your staff can keep each other accountable for moving these projects along. It is easy to get overwhelmed and lose track of time and goals.
Resume operations after losing staff.
I am sure some institutions will make deep cuts and possibly suspend education abroad programs temporarily. How would an institution resume operations with low or no staffing? There are a small number of education abroad organizations that specialize in staffing solutions for our industry; my prediction is that as the pandemic stretches on and then comes to an end, this sector will see great demand.
If I were an education abroad consultant now, I would be working with my network to create a long list of professionals who had to exit the field and whose ultimate goal is to return to education abroad after the pandemic. Organizations will need the help, and job-seekers will be grateful for the leads.
Anticipate future staffing trends.
Education abroad positions were always competitive, both at institutions and in the private sector. With thousands of study abroad alumni envisioning a career of nonstop international travel and working with impressionable minds, we had a steady supply of eager job-seekers. But what happens if we don’t resume travel for another year, or two, or three? What is the impact on whole cohorts of U.S. undergraduate students who won’t get this global experience?
Just like we try to engage all academic disciplines in global education to create a future workforce of globally minded individuals, we are trying to engage with different sectors of the economy.
Yes, we have the virtual options, but for one reason or another, students are not flocking to it. This gap in global experiences will also affect our future staffing in the field. How can we be proactive to build this skill set on our campuses? It is important to expose students to our field as a career choice.
It’s not all doom and gloom.
One of the best parts of living in rural Maine is the abundance of beautiful trails for walking and hiking. On one of my walks in the woods, as I was trying to escape news of the pandemic, I saw a beautiful tree with the most vibrant yellow leaves.
While taking a pause to enjoy nature’s beauty, I found some silver linings in this whole situation. Just like we try to engage all academic disciplines in global education to create a future workforce of globally minded individuals, we are trying to engage with different sectors of the economy. Think of the hundreds and possibly thousands of education abroad professionals who are leaving, or not entering, our field. Instead, they are joining fields such as insurance, K–12 education, and retail and infusing organizations with their intercultural skills, global mindset, ability to work with diverse colleagues and clients, and crisis management experience. •
Orlina Boteva, MEd, is the director of the Office of International Programs at the University of Maine.
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