Feature

Pathways to Leadership

Ten international education leaders on campuses across the United States share their stories about becoming a leader.
"My career path has been not linear," says Kalpen Trivedi, echoing the experiences of many leaders in the field of international education.
 

A mix of serendipity and strategy. A little unorthodox. Varied. Unique. Not linear. Unexpected. Circuitous and unplanned. An accidental discovery.

This was how several leaders in international education described their pathway to leadership in the field. As the number of international students at U.S. universities and colleges swelled in the past 20 years, so did the number of leaders who were just as likely to train, teach, and conduct research as they are to drive globalization in senior administrative roles.

Because there is not a traditional, one-size-fits-all pathway, many leaders in international education made their own trail. Through professional organizations, including NAFSA, they built networks to support and learn from one another, brainstorm solutions, and compare notes. Many leaders say they are leaning on these networks during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, which overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, upended travel and school schedules, reduced resources and supplies, and left countries with ravaged health systems and economies.

International Educator asked 10 international education leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds and contexts about how they got their start in international education, important leadership qualities, and skills leaders need to navigate a post-COVID-19 landscape. They share a great love for the field and find deep meaning in work that at its core involves building bridges among different cultures, furthering intellectual pursuits, and even designing systems and structures to fight the next pandemic.

Listen to more from the leaders interviewed here on the January 2020 episode of the International Educator podcast. This episode is sponsored by Education in Ireland.

 

Victoria Jones, PhD

Chief global affairs officer, University of California-Irvine
Chair, International Education Leadership Knowledge Community

How would you describe your career path?

Victoria Jones headshot
Victoria Jones, PhD

A pure mix of serendipity and strategy. I wanted a career that involves travel. I had exposure as a kid to people from different cultures and I was just fascinated by it. Part of the serendipity was that I was studying social sciences. I was very interested in things like public health and communication messages, [like] the nonsmoking campaigns. A friend of mine was a business professor, and we were comparing notes and we were using very similar techniques and studying very similar things, me from this public service perspective and him from a business success perspective. And then he told me how much money he made and I compared that to how much money my professors were making, and I shifted to international business. And that was the serendipity of meeting someone at the right time and the strategy of saying I’d rather be in the field that makes a little more money. And so, I actually studied international business.

What was your first job in the field?

Associate dean for international relations in Brazil at São Paulo School of Business Administration, Fundação Getulio Vargas. I was tracked into administration and never really got a vital research publication stream going.…But, in terms of administration, a wonderful, exciting, impactful career in international higher ed—that was the perfect start.

How did that set you up for your current position?

We had a completely integrated curriculum [at Fundação Getulio Varga]. We were operating on all continents except Africa and Antarctica. It was a huge program, and it was [in the] very, very early days in international education. Business schools were largely out in front with international education. I was the first to really build and make this a strategic enterprise. 

The job I have now, this is the fourth time I have been the first person to build an operation from nothing. And I realized that became a niche for me where I understood not just how to take over a program and make it grow, but how to actually build it when there was nothing there: how to build coalitions, how to argue for the necessity, how to get a budget in place, how to put an infrastructure in place, hiring necessary skills, triage. I’ve done that in four different places now. That’s the reason I was willing to give up my faculty position, because I felt it was so important. And to do that at a school the size of UC Irvine that didn’t have that operation in place yet—we’ve only had an office of global engagement just a little over 5 years here.

What was a turning point in your career?

I think [it] was the change from being a full-time professor and researcher to the focus being on administration. And that happened in Brazil. I tried to do it all for a long time. My research has just been a trickle, but I’ve always been teaching. It shifted for sure from being a faculty member with an administrative position to saying that my primary contribution in my career was going to be through administration, program building, [and] setting international infrastructure in a variety of institutions. 

That was a big change, to actually give up my faculty appointment altogether. And yet, [because] my whole career has been as a faculty member, I think I bridged those worlds. It’s a very important part of my success, that I understand what it is to be a faculty member and what the pressures are and what the concerns and priorities are.

What makes a good leader?

I would argue that it’s appropriate to the circumstance at the time. There’s a very interesting human resources approach, that you need to hire people for the stage of the business. In my own career, that’s starting something from nothing. I’ve done it before. That’s a bit of a niche for me. I know how to get it done. So, I’m the right person to hire when you’ve got nothing. 

There are other people whose strength is growth, and there are other people whose strength is budget and fiscal responsibility and cutting excess. I think leadership means understanding the need of the moment and pulling from your experience and your range of skills and being appropriate for the institution and the people at a given moment in time. So, not any single skill. It’s an adaptability and knowing when you’re the right fit and when you’re not. The skill of being able to sincerely evaluate your contribution and the need of the institution and the organization is important for a leader. 

What leadership skills will be critical for international education leaders as institutions emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

I now believe there will be three phases of leadership through the COVID-19 era. The initial crisis response required decisive action, the ability to identify and prioritize challenges, and mobilizing people to action.

We are still in the second phase in which the travel that is usually part of our work has been severely curtailed. In this phase, leaders have had to refocus from the traditional activities that involve travel to new models of experience that do not require travel. The leadership skills include agility, creativity, adaptability, willingness to try new things. As this second phase was prolonged, leaders also had to attend to the emotional well-being of their communities.

I think the third phase will be a recovery phase with a gradual return to travel and traditional forms of international exchange. I also expect we will see some reticence to return to travel, and leaders will need to communicate persuasively about the benefits and risks of travel. Leaders in the recovery phase will be faced with severe budget shortfalls and a counter narrative to the importance of international education—namely, that most international education activities stopped for a year with relatively little disruption to the academic enterprise. Leaders will need to provide compelling arguments to secure funding for programs that may seem less essential than other campus priorities.


Adam Julian, MA

Director of international student and scholar services, University of Maryland-Baltimore County
Chair, International Student and Scholar Regulatory Practice Committee

How would you describe your career path?

Adam Julian headshot
Adam Julian, MA

A little unorthodox. I’m only 36 years old, and most people in my position are 10 to 15 years older. I started in international education full time at the age of 20 in the international admissions office. I was a college student at Indiana University, and I kind of call it the confluence of diplomacy in higher ed. I was working on a summer language workshop where we taught critical need languages, and I had a full year in a Fulbright fellowship in Moldova doing a sociolinguistic project in a place called Gagauzia. I met my wife in Moldova, and when we came back I started in the international student [and] scholar services field.

What was your first job in the field?

As an international admissions specialist. 

How did that set you up for your current position?

There’s a lot to know: marketing, salesmanship, and understanding the context your students and scholars are coming from more intimately and more deeply. The international education field is really not just any one thing. They’re all interconnected. They’re all dependent on each other. If you don’t have least a level grounding in one or the other, you’re doing yourself a disservice and the people you serve a disservice. Remember the bigger picture at all times.

What was a turning point in your career?

There have been a couple of turning points. I was in no hurry to graduate. So, if they were going to pay for my tuition part time and I could work full time, why not do it? It was largely a sound and fiscal decision that I made, but then I found that I enjoyed [the work]. 

At Santa Clara University, they had someone on medical leave, and they needed someone who could step in and fill in. That was a good reminder of why I like doing that work. I know it’s cliché, and I sound like an international education robot, but I really truly believe that mutual understanding is the single greatest thing that we can do to address some of the problems of the world.

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What makes a good leader?

Luck? No, I think there are some general qualities. Transparency around expectations. How you communicate expectations. Someone who can admit when they are at fault, or someone who takes responsibility for the organizations they are leading. You have to have humility. We all make mistakes, but if you don’t learn from them and if you are repeating them, that’s when you’re really not being a great leader or not doing the people that you serve any great justice. I’d say a thick skin also. You’re not always going to make everybody happy. 

What leadership skills will be critical for international education leaders as institutions emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

It will be more important than ever to approach our work with an open mind and with a diversity of thoughts, perspectives, and experiences. I think the idea that our work will quickly (if ever) resemble exactly what it looked like before the COVID-19 pandemic is unrealistic. We will be challenged to adapt to a new normal that will redefine international education and how we approach our work. 

I view the next few years as a great opportunity for us to evolve as a field and as a community. If we approach the future without expectations and use these skills to inform our decisions, I have no doubt that we can meet the challenges of the future, together. 


Lisa Eli, MA

Assistant vice president for global and continuing education, Valencia College
International Education Leadership Knowledge Community 

How would you describe your career path?

Lisa Eli headshot
Lisa Eli, MA

I feel like my career path is pretty unique in that I started off in the private sector in the hospitality industry and then decided to pursue my passion for education. I grew up in South America and Brazil, so I always was surrounded by people from around the world at the institutions that I went to. I really wanted to be in an international environment. My path has been through administration, continuing education, and continuing education language programs. 

What was your first job in the field?

Valencia College hired me as a program manager to support what was then called Center for Global Languages. I was a responsible for coordinating language programs for the community, including ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages), Portuguese, and Spanish.

How did that set you up for your current position?

In that first job as a program manager for this new department, we ran it like a small business. We had to be self-funded. Working in continuing education allowed us to take a more entrepreneurial approach to developing our programs, which helped us to be successful. Because we were a small program, I was able to work in all areas of the department, from marketing and budgeting to curriculum development. Before that, I had done 7 years of performance consulting—I would meet with businesses, identify their training needs, put together proposals, and then help to implement it with the right teachers. If you’re able to find a job in a new area where you can do a little bit of everything, you can set yourself up for a good career because you learn so much about so many different things. That’s what that [first] job did for me.

What was a turning point in your career?

I was a program manager for a long time. I kept getting more and more responsibilities, and then I was promoted to assistant director. When my director left to establish the study abroad [office], I was promoted to her position. That was a turning point

When I became director, I became responsible for continuing education student services and all continuing education language programs, including local and international programs. I was more than ready for it because I had been a manager for so long.

What makes a good leader?

Somebody who has a vision, who can articulate that vision, is a good communicator, a good listener, and patient.  You have to have humility. As you rise up and acquire more responsibilities, you have to rely on the skill sets that you have, but you may not be an expert in everything. You have to go to the people who really have expertise in certain areas and then apply your decisionmaking and your judgment to it.

What leadership skills will be critical for international education leaders as institutions emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Focus on communication: sharing information on a timely basis with students, the campus community, and senior leadership. Without regular communication, students and staff can often jump to conclusions that are incorrect and may think that the institution lacks awareness or doesn’t care.

Flexibility and patience as we emerge to a “new normal” and work to implement our plans for returning to our campuses. We need to be flexible and listen to our students and staff and their concerns as they relate to the pandemic. Not everyone may feel comfortable returning to a face-to-face environment, and we need to find ways to be flexible and offer choices to students and staff. Our plans might have to change suddenly due to changing circumstances, and we will have to be ready to pivot. We can’t afford to be rigid in our thinking.

Create opportunities for asking questions and carefully listening, so that we better understand what is going on and are able to resolve issues as quickly as possible. The most successful leaders and institutions will be those who are able to move quickly, who are willing to try out new ideas, and who are able to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. There should be a strong focus on fostering creativity and nimbleness.

In a time of decreased funding, travel bans, and increased competition for students, we need to be resourceful in our work, whether it’s student recruitment, internationalization of the curriculum, or study abroad. Take advantage of the many webinars, town halls, and resources that are available in our field provided by NAFSA, AIEA, and others, to learn what other institutions are doing. Form a network of support colleagues to share ideas and learn from one another. 

We need to keep in mind that we are here to serve our students and, ultimately, to make decisions that support academic continuity and to ensure that we are helping our students progress in their learning journey.


Maka Hutson, JD

Counsel, immigration and international trade, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP
Region III Regulatory Ombudsperson

How would you describe your career path?

Maka Hutson headshot
Maka Hutson, JD

I’ve been very happy doing what I’ve been doing at every stage of my career development. I loved my job as a student adviser and scholar adviser at the University of Texas-Austin (UT Austin). I could not have been happier. I started running into situations when student and scholar questions were more complex than what I could handle, but I also knew that I couldn’t venture into that territory without having a law license. That was the impetus to go to law school right there at UT Austin. 

What was your first job in the field?

I started in 2001, 2 weeks after September 11, in international education as a student adviser at UT Austin. And I learned everything about student immigration in that position that there was to learn. Five years into that job, there was an opportunity to become a scholar adviser. I internally transferred, and for the last 2 years of my tenure there, I worked on scholar issues. 

I always joke that I got a job at the international office at UT because I knew what a visa was, because I came from abroad and had to apply for a visa to pursue my graduate studies. But it really changed my life and changed my career trajectory and got me very interested in immigration law [to the point where] I decided to do it long term.

How did that set you up for your current position?

I graduated in 2011 [from law school], right in the middle of a recession. Legal jobs were very few and far between, so I was very lucky to secure a position with a large firm. I started in Washington, D.C., which is where I wanted to be. I focused on various issues, litigation and internal investigations and immigration to some extent, but primarily on the pro bono side—working on asylum applications and filing petitions for victims of violence and victims of domestic violence in particular. Within the first few years, key people at the firm recognized that I had this expertise in immigration law and started getting interested in developing a full-fledged immigration practice.

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What was a turning point in your career?

Ironically, the 2016 election was a strong turning point, because immigration was such an important part of the presidential election. Whichever candidate won, there would be a focus on immigration—either on enforcement and restriction, as we have seen in the last 4 years, or potentially on immigration reform that everybody was sort of gearing up for. When President Trump got elected, it was clear which way the federal government’s policy was going to go, so it was really important for us to have a full-fledged immigration practice to provide counsel to our clients. That was the turning point when I started developing an immigration practice at the firm. 

What makes a good leader?

The ability to trust people that you work with. Leaders who hold back responsibility, hoard responsibility, don’t trust their staff, [or] don’t delegate management responsibility ultimately fail because they lose the trust and the respect of their staff. I think that is the biggest change that I have seen. People are now very conscious of it.

What leadership skills will be critical for international education leaders as institutions emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

The most critical leadership skill in the field of international education as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be flexibility. Just like we had to flip a switch and move all of our operations online, we may encounter similar changes going forward and will need to be just as flexible and creative in meeting the needs of international students and scholars without skipping a beat. 

We may encounter fluctuations in student enrollment—either a decline due to financial and public health uncertainties, or an increase, if the vaccine distribution goes smoothly and the global economy recovers quickly. We may see a recurrence of COVID-19, especially next winter. And we will likely see significant changes in government policy due to the change in the presidential administration. 

Most importantly, we don’t know what changes to expect exactly, as the pandemic has proven. We need to be able to adapt quickly, keep our students’ and scholars’ interests front and center, and inspire confidence and flexibility in our staff. Being mentally prepared for the unexpected is a hard skill to develop, but we need to practice flexibility, and it will pay off with dividends.


Jennifer Apthorpe

Coordinator of global learning, Jamestown Community College, State University of New York (SUNY)
Chair-elect, Region X

How would you describe your career path?

Jennifer Apthorpe headshot
Jennifer Apthorpe

It’s been varied. I began as a language teacher, and then I was a stay-at-home mother to four beautiful children. Then I began working as an adjunct and as an international student adviser. Mainly my position is partnerships and recruitment for the school as well as PDSO (principal designated school official) responsibilities. Outside of teaching, I also worked in sales and marketing for a while. I find it’s a great fit—like with recruitment, you’re selling school. 

What was your first job in the field?

It was as an international student adviser.

How did that set you up for your current position?

I liked the problem-solving aspect of working with students on visa compliance and issues. It’s gray, it’s not always clear, and you kind of navigate the best way to handle a situation.

What was a turning point in your career?

At my institution, we were going through some budget cuts and we’ve seen declining enrollment across SUNY for a while. I was notified that I would be losing my job. It would be part time, and it’s unsustainable for that type of position to be part time and that the other person in my office would lose their position completely. 

I started researching, and I realized very quickly that we were growing in enrollment in our office when the rest of the college was shrinking. I was able to speak to other people in the network from NAFSA, and I [drew] upon research done through NAFSA and IIE. I went to Mike, our vice president of administration, and said, “Why are you cutting a program that’s growing and bringing money to this institution? Look how much it brings, and not just dollars and cents.” I pulled the data, and he looked at it and said, “Jen, you’re right.” 

We had a new president at the time, and we went to meet with him. Mike pulls out my numbers and the information I had for him. And the president looked at it, and he looked at me, and he said, “I’m going to give you a week. Show me what you can do.” And in that week, I wrote a strategic plan to grow my department, to save people’s positions, and to grow our international student population. It was about numbers and what that brings to the college, but it was also about what globalization and those experiences in the classroom bring to the college. 

I went back a week later and presented that plan, and we’re now in year 2. It’s going to be interesting to see with the coronavirus situation what’s going to happen with the plan. But I look for opportunity, and even in a time like this, there’s opportunity to innovate and there’s opportunity to grow. What I’ve learned from NAFSA has really put me where I’m at in my field. I could not have done it. I could not have done any of these things without being a member of NAFSA.

What makes a good leader?

I think a good leader is someone who inspires others and empowers others around them with a clear vision.


Elizabeth Smith, PhD

Former assistant director of international student and scholar services, Center for Global Engagement, University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Chair, Employment-Based Subcommittee of the International Student and Scholar Regulatory Practice Committee

How would you describe your career path?

Elizabeth Smith headshot
Elizabeth Smith, PhD

Unexpected. I never would have imagined myself [working in international education]. When I was in my undergrad, I just knew I wanted to study abroad. So I studied abroad the fall semester of my junior year. And then it so happened that I was able to go overseas for a couple of years after that. In doing that, I realized I wanted to work with study abroad students. When I did that as a graduate assistant during my master’s program, I actually enjoyed working with the exchange students who were coming through that unit, and my focus shifted toward international students. I worked with international students for a few years, and the opportunity arose to learn and work with international faculty and scholars. 

What was your first job in the field?

I was a graduate assistant here at the University of Tennessee. It was a graduate student position, 20 hours a week, but that’s where I really started learning about [the field], starting with study abroad and then international student services.

How did that set you up for your current position?

My boss was Joann Ng Hartmann, who works for NAFSA now. I learned so much from her regarding immigration, working with students and scholars, regulatory information, [and] how to analyze information. I learned so much from her about the field, and I feel like that gave me a good base. She saw that I was interested in staying in the field, she saw where my interests lie, and she helped cultivate those. I see her as a good leader, and she helped and allowed me to pursue those areas of interest.

What was a turning point in your career?

I was a graduate assistant for 3 years during my master’s at the start of my PhD, and a job became available on our campus in academic advising outside the international education field. Being a poor graduate student, I jumped on that opportunity because I had done an internship in that office. I worked for 2 years as an academic adviser on the campus. I’m very thankful for that opportunity, because it allowed me to see more in depth what the rest of the campus does and how they interact with students and different processes on campus. 

During that time, while I enjoyed the position and enjoyed working with all of the students, I realized how much I missed international education and felt like [that was] where I really belong. You could almost say it took me leaving the international education focus to realize how much I missed it. When a position opened up back in the international education office, it was a full-time position. I jumped on that.

What makes a good leader?

Listening is critical, so that you can discern what the issue at hand really is so that it can be addressed appropriately. In addition, recognizing that managing and supervising is not the same as leading. It is important to know what motivates those you are leading and help them to reach their goals and use their strengths. What can you do to help them be the best they can be at their job and as a person? How can you help them use and develop their strengths and become leaders as well? I also think that a leader should be willing to do whatever they ask others to do. I still have a lot to learn about leadership, but the principles of servant leadership are ones that I try to strive toward. 

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What leadership skills will be critical for international education leaders as institutions emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

As we emerge from the pandemic, some of the leadership skills that I believe will be important include clear communication, active listening, flexibility, and strategic thinking. Everyone has had different experiences working (or studying) from home, and some individuals may face challenges when moving forward beyond the pandemic. Clear expectations for employees and services provided for the populations we serve should be communicated; some individuals may anticipate life to return exactly as it was pre-COVID, while others may expect processes and procedures to resemble what they were during COVID. 

We’ve been in the pandemic for a long time, and it is important to listen and be flexible as we navigate more changes. I think it is important to strategically consider what we’ve learned during the pandemic and apply it to life afterward. I’ve heard from multiple leaders in my life that we should not blindly return to everything as it was prepandemic: Take the “forced” changes that have been successful and mix those with the benefits of not being in a pandemic to do all that we do better than ever.


Kalpen Trivedi, PhD

Associate provost for international programs, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Chair-elect, International Education Leadership Knowledge Community

How would you describe your career path?

Kalpan Trivdei headshot
Kalpen Trivedi, PhD

My career path has been not linear. International education is becoming much more professionalized and much more of a field now than it was when I got into it 15 years ago. I like to think that in some way I’m maybe of the last generation who trained academically in a different field but fell into international education leadership. I don’t have a degree in international higher ed. I don’t have a master’s or a PhD in higher education administration. This is much more the emerging pathway people really are looking at….It is a profession; it is a field that has its own theory, emerging theory. It certainly has a great set of scholar-practitioners. 

I look at my own training and my own pathway, [and] it really was to be a faculty member. I have a PhD in English literature. I started work as a faculty member at the University of Georgia. I was not intending to make a career in international education, if I even knew what that was when I started doing my faculty work. I sort of fell into it by getting involved in study abroad, teaching on faculty-led programs, and then finding I had a sort of a knack for administration. 

The other part of it was that I saw the value and the benefit of the work of international education, both to the individual student or faculty member, but also to the institution as a whole. And I felt like that was a place where I could make a difference. In some ways, I suppose my own journey of having moved across different countries and continents is some part of that. But that’s how I came into international education—sort of a sideways entry.

What was your first job in the field?

My first job in this field was teaching as a faculty member on the University of Georgia summer program in Oxford.

How did that set you up for your current position?

After having done this for 2 or 3 years, there was the opportunity to become administratively involved with the program. I think that was my first taste of academic administration. As regular faculty, you’re trained to think more in terms of, “I’ve got to do this research. I’ve got to publish. I’ve got to get tenure. I’ve got to move from one academic goalpost to the other.” 

About 3 years into my tenure at the University of Georgia, I had the opportunity to step back a little bit from the pure academic side, do some administration, and see how that works. [I became] the associate director of the University of Georgia’s program. I was thinking of it in terms of administering and delivering the program, rather than just teaching on the program. That was the first time that I started thinking about curriculum outside of the English department for what the business students need, what the journalism students need, and how do we make sure that the structures are safe and healthy, and what’s our risk management policy. 

That was my first real job in international administration. From there, I went on to become director of that center. I’ve chaired the University of Georgia study abroad committee for 5 years, so any new proposal came through my committee, any periodic reviews came through my committee. I was involved with the university’s international risk management committee. It was a progression that started as a result of teaching on that program a couple of summers as a faculty member.

What was a turning point in your career?

The turning point would have been when I became director of the University of Georgia’s programs in Oxford full time. That was the point where I had to decide that the standard academic, research publication, tenure route was not the route that I was going to be taking.

What makes a good leader?

I think a lot of that is so situationally dependent. Whom are you leading? What is your team like? What is your institutional context? Leadership is not just about managing down, but it’s also about managing up and managing across. 

A 360-degree situational awareness is perhaps the most important thing for anyone who fancies themselves as a leader to have. No point in saying, “This is my leadership style” if your staff does not respond to it. There’s no point in saying, “Here are my objectives, and this is what I want to get done” if you find that campus leadership actually has an entirely different set of priorities for the university. Having that 360-degree situational awareness and then having the flexibility. [Having] the humility to know what your role as a leader is. For me, it’s about the deliverable—what am I here to do? 

What leadership skills will be critical for international education leaders as institutions emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Innovation and resilience will be crucial for internationalization leaders as we look beyond the pandemic. By this I don’t just mean in response to further crises, but rather as a mindset, because some of the pivots (everyone’s favorite word these days) we’ve had to make during this crisis will stay with us. We can’t go back to business as usual, because many institutions are coming out of this with smaller teams and constrained resources. Constant change and innovation can be hard on personal and team morale and leaders are going to need to grapple with change management and developing resilience, for themselves, their colleagues, and their teams.


Ling LeBeau, PhD

Associate director of international student success, Syracuse University 
Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship coordinator, Content Team, 2022 and 2023 Annual Conference Committees; NAFSA core trainer; Region VII NAFSA Academy coach

How would you describe your career path?

Ling LeBeau headshot
Ling LeBeau, PhD

My career path, my whole life actually, has been higher education. Before I came to the United States, I was on faculty in a Chinese university. For 12 years, I taught English as a foreign language. Then I moved to the United States, I pursued my PhD in higher education more toward administration. At the same time, while being an administrator, I do teach and research. I see myself as a scholar-practitioner; I need to do research and learning and teach occasionally to keep my administration work more informed, more grounded. 

What was your first job in the field?

International admissions. I was at the Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). My job was basically processing international graduate student admissions applications.

How did that set you up for your current position?

My first job [was in] international admissions, and I did that for 1 year and a half. Then I moved to international scholar advising side. I did that for another 7 years. Because I learned more, I wanted to grow, and then I moved to the Indiana University-Bloomington, main campus. I took a leadership position, the associate director for the Chinese flagship program. It’s a federal program, managing the grants and students, everything like that. It’s more like a study abroad program; it’s not a traditional one. I worked there for 3 years and continued to grow. 

Western Carolina University had a position open as the senior international officer, so I moved [there] for 5 years. I was really proud of what I have achieved there. Because of a leadership transition at Western Carolina University, everything changed. The university’s priority totally switched. I left and moved to Syracuse University. 

What was a turning point in your career?
I think the turning point was moving from Indiana University-Bloomington to Western Carolina University. In North Carolina, I tried to have many more responsibilities. I led a team. I oversaw all internationalization initiatives for that university. I got the opportunity to envision what campus internationalization would be like. That 5 years there, I think I grew tremendously. 

What makes a good leader?

There’s a good leader I really admire in my career, and she’s still with IUPUI. Her name is Sarah Allaei. She’s a leader I look up to. She’s so calm, first of all. Whenever any crisis happens, any emergency, she handles it very calmly. She’s very diplomatic. She knows how to balance conflict, how to talk to people with different personalities, different work styles. She knows how to prioritize what’s important, what’s less important. She makes people feel like everyone’s important to her [and] is valuable in the office. 

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What leadership skills will be critical for international education leaders as institutions emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Consistent and reliable communication, empathy, and flexibility. There is no such thing called “overcommunicate” during the pandemic. Faculty, staff, students, and parents want to be informed of any change or update daily. Stakeholders need to be fully aware of what is happening with the institution. Being honest and transparent is the key. While students and parents want absolute answers, if we do not know for sure, we must admit [what we do not know]. 

The most challenging task during the pandemic is to work with freshmen who are not able to study in person on campus. In addition to regular motivation and supports, those students need nonstop counseling. The students may appear fine, but their behaviors and academic performance indicate concerns of anxiety, depression, and lack of academic navigation. Responses to students need to be sensitive, caring, and encouraging. 

Things change daily during the pandemic. There is no clear yes or no, but many maybes. Leaders cannot stick with one decision and refuse to change, because the uncertainty is so unprecedented. We need to be willing to receive feedback and change course of direction if necessary. 


Rick Lee, PhD

Director, programs and partnerships, Rutgers University
2021 Annual Conference Committee member; International Education Leadership Knowledge Community representative

How would you describe your career path?

My career path has been very circuitous and unplanned. I’ve been in this role since March 2015. I’ve been at Rutgers for 23 years, so I came to the job as someone who knew Rutgers, who could get things done. I was kind of a known entity that way. 

What was your first job in the field?

Rick Lee headshot
Rick Lee, PhD

This is my first. I did come to Rutgers to complete my PhD, and I did teach nontenure track faculty for a few years. I know everything about the international office in part because I was an international student. I’m from Canada; I went through the whole process. I was an F-1 H-1B process, and then the green card. I had gone through that whole process and then as a faculty member, I was always writing letters for students who wanted to study abroad. I was very familiar with the international office. 

How did that set you up for your current position?

I had been in previous administrative roles. In addition to teaching in the English department, I was a director of alumni and public relations. I also was a coordinator for Asian American studies programming. Then for a couple of years I had helped set up the Tyler Clementi Center [for Diversity Education and Bias Prevention] at Rutgers. I’ve had a lot of administrative roles at Rutgers; coming to this role, I brought those skills with me.

What was a turning point in your career? 

The turning point was my first day at the office. I was talking to the then-vice president of international and global affairs who was a friend and a mentor—Joanna Regulska, [who is now] vice provost and dean of global affairs at the University of California-Davis. She really was pushing me to get involved in professional organizations. And I said to her, “I just started this job; give me 6 or 9 months to really learn.” She said that one way of learning is just getting involved. 

That was one piece of professional advice that I really took to heart. Because of that, I got involved with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’s Commission on International Initiatives (CII), and Rutgers hosted the CII summer meeting in 2016, which I organized. Through that, my first meeting, I met with Dorothea Antonio, who is one of the deputy executive directors at NAFSA, and got to know her. When an opening came up on the International Education Leadership committee, she and I had a conversation. 

The advice of getting involved with professional organizations was a way to identify future mentors and to learn from colleagues. Learning within an organization is great; there’s lots of people you can learn from, but there are so many other kinds of varied perspectives within the profession itself. 

What makes a good leader?

Someone who is able to set the right priorities in the service of establishing and executing a particular kind of vision. I have this motto: An idea is only as good as the execution. Other qualities [include] a good listener; someone with very little or no ego at all, because it’s about the organization; empathy; someone who is able to support the team, whether it’s the immediate team or even the team’s direct reports. I think that’s important. Creativity—someone with an ability and willingness to seek opportunity. Someone with the ability to make hard decisions for long-term solutions. One of the things that I would consider as crucial to leaders, really, is a genuine commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. What would it take to have genuine diversity within international education?

What leadership skills will be critical for international education leaders as institutions emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has foregrounded the creativity and commitment of international education professionals in creating vital virtual communities that helped to keep us connected to each other, within our own organizations and institutions—and beyond. By reinventing ourselves and our work, and by practicing and leading with compassion and empathy, we have come to appreciate our strength and resilience as individuals, and, in the process, strengthened our sense of belonging and purpose within the profession. As colleges and universities emerge from the pandemic, international education leaders and practitioners will continue to play a significant role in underscoring the value of global engagement in our interdependent world. 


Piram Prakasam, PhD

Executive director, Office of International Education, Ferris State University

How would you describe your career path?

Since graduate school, I’ve been very interested in teaching. I had focused on being in a teaching position at a university where the focus is on teaching. Many people who end up in international education [did so] because of accidental discovery, or accidentally they fall in place. 

What was the turning point in your career?

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Piram Prakasam, PhD

For 2 years [in my capacity as a chemistry professor], I was bringing all these visitors on campus and talking about globalization to our students. I’m driving Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Naomi; we had invited her on campus. She’s sitting next to me talking about her father, and I’m driving her to the president’s house. And because we had a dinner and the president had invited all the key people in the community, because it was a big deal to have Naomi Tutu, it dawned on me: I’m a chemist—why am I sitting with Naomi Tutu? It doesn’t really make any sense. I should be focusing on chemistry and not talking about Desmond Tutu. I go to the dinner, and the vice president came and asked me, “Piram, would you like to be the director of the international office?” I found the answer to my question, and it [has been] 10 years of helping to globalize our university. 

What makes a good leader?

Somebody who is willing to collaborate with others. There has to be a level of humbleness. To be successful, you have to be humble enough to know what you don’t know and what others know. Being able to listen and being able to trust, that comes from being humble. Knowing that there’s a lot more people who have lot more understanding and experience that you can learn from. And [being] willing to collaborate and be honest to yourself and honest to others. Honesty will bring transparency. But truly, you have to be driven by commitment and passion. If you’re driven by commitment and passion to make a difference, then all of these things would help you being collaborative. 

What leadership skills will be critical for international education leaders as institutions emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Adaptability. The post-COVID world will have a higher level of digital integration with the international client/student journey at a lower cost and with a deeper reach. It can pay off significantly to support students and strengthen institutions. International education leaders have to be adaptable to the digital integration and be nimble and flexible to lead individuals and teams and provide support to the larger organization to cope and adapt to change.  •

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.

About NAFSA

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.