One word comes up a lot among mid-career international education professionals: stuck.
“You might just get to a point—a role like director or assistant director of one particular subunit —and you feel like you’re getting stagnant,” says Jennifer Evanuik, executive director of Central Michigan University’s Office of Global Engagement. “Do you want to wait or see how you can leverage your skills for something else?”
Mid-career professionals face similar emotions in many fields, and the rest of higher education is certainly no exception. There’s even a Facebook group called Expatriates of Student Affairs, which boasts more than 25,000 members—most of whom have either left higher education or are contemplating doing so. Its slogan? “Be free.”
Within international education, the challenges of career advancement and staff retention are longstanding. There are the usual suspects, like limited opportunities to advance within institutions, low pay compared to the experience required for positions, and the need for advanced degrees to move into some of the most senior roles.
Finding ways to address these challenges and provide greater opportunities to advance and stay in the field has long been a focus of both mid-career professionals and the senior leaders who support them. However, layoffs and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the conversation for many, according to Elena Anderson, director of talent and culture for Academic Travel Abroad. That fast-tracking has posed challenges for both mid-career professionals and the institutions where they work.
“Many of our professionals faced the need to redefine themselves or make lateral moves in spaces they may not have expected,” she says. “The pivot has shifted our mindsets, and I don’t think our institutional structures and mindsets have shifted as well.”
Mid-Career and Ready to Lead
“Mid-career” isn’t just a state of mind, but it also isn’t completely timebound.
In the second year of the pandemic, the Forum on Education Abroad convened a working group to understand the challenges mid-career professionals face. The group surveyed its members in the second half of 2021, finding that those with about 7–10 years of experience identified themselves as mid-career professionals. Others see that career stage as starting much earlier—as early as 2–3 years into a role, particularly if the person has a postgraduate degree, according to Anderson. And by their 10th year in the field, most professionals expect to have made the shift from tactical to strategic or forward-looking work, she says.
At the same time, the inclination to leave the field is real for many. “It’s that slow erosion of the love and passion that you have for your job that can be challenging to overcome,” says Emile Buse, assistant director of international services for students and scholars at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a NAFSA Academy coach. “Sometimes that’s fit, direct supervisors, or the institution, and sometimes it’s all the other factors in your life.”
According to Evanuik, who served on the Forum’s working group, most of the survey respondents didn’t want to leave their job or the field; they just wanted to keep growing.
But they’re also becoming impatient. Anderson argues that the near-constant series of challenges in the years since September 11, 2001, have helped international educators at all levels learn how to pivot—and that’s translated to their own lives and careers.
“They’re ready,” she says. “Their careers [have] been microwaved, in a way. We’re no longer slow-baked. We’ve been under so much pressure to address the unexpected, and because of that, our priorities have shifted. We’re ready to lead.”
A Portfolio Approach to Career Progression
To a person, the international education professionals interviewed for this article stressed the importance of thinking beyond one’s current role, in addition to considering vertical progression through roles and titles. Whether that involves volunteer work, projects beyond defined duties, or networking, “think about your portfolio,” Anderson advises. Among some ways to do so:
Ask yourself hard questions.
Questions like what you value in your career, what you’re good at, and what truly interests you. Some people, Evanuik says, may realize that management is not something that interests them—an epiphany that can reframe their personal goals.
Executive or career coaches can help identify strengths and provide perspective during this process. So can what Buse calls a “personal board of directors”—select family, friends, and coworkers who know you and with whom you “can bounce ideas and see what sticks,” she says. Even those outside of the field may have had “a similar situation and can give you a tool in your toolbox you can try out,” she adds. Both can also help with so-called “impostor syndrome”—feeling unqualified or incompetent despite evidence to the contrary—an issue raised by many mid-career professionals.
Identify competencies and skill sets.
In particular, think about unfamiliar skills needed to advance to more senior roles. The NAFSA International Education Professional Competencies 2.0 outline 12 cross-cutting competencies that international educators at all levels should develop, including leadership; people development; risk assessment and crisis management; business acumen, data collection and analysis; and inclusion and equity, as well as “strong familiarity with current trends and issues in international education and an organization’s missions, vision, and values.” The Forum on Education Abroad working group’s competency rubric for mid-career professionals mirrors many of these skill sets and can be used as an individual assessment tool.
Seek professional development opportunities.
One challenge with professional development in the field is that many opportunities are focused on professionals as they move into early-career roles, not as they progress and move up. “Most of us have never received training on how to be a manager,” Kerry Geffert, past chair of NAFSA’s Management Development Program (MDP), said in a video outlining the need for opportunities like MDP.
In addition to national training programs like NAFSA’s offerings, training focused on management development may also be readily available locally. “You’ll discover how much you don’t know,” says Abi Cavazos, associate director of study abroad at Siena College, who also served on the Forum working group.
Expose yourself to other areas of the field.
Early- and mid-career professionals who have specialized in one area—education abroad or international student and scholar services, for example—should seek opportunities to learn about other parts of international education. “If you want to move up, knowing enough so you can talk intelligently about the trends and pain points in different subfields is hugely important,” Evanuik says.
It’s also valuable to think beyond the international office, says Alissa Morson, designated school official (DSO) and assistant director for strategic communication and recruitment at the Kearney International Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.
“We get really focused on getting those students to campus or abroad, but it’s been impactful for me as a professional to understand the entire university and help it internationalize,” she says. “The more we can insert ourselves into the core values of a university is the only way we’re going to continue to build.”
“When you do project-based assignments or volunteer experiences, it allows you to have a safe space to practice and learn,” Anderson says. “It’s often just a couple of hours a week and you can control the level of work, but it may be appreciated more than enrolling in a course that costs thousands of dollars and may be obsolete before you leave.”
Within institutions, seek opportunities to work with peers in other areas or on cross-department teams. Look beyond your school as well, and consider volunteering with organizations like NAFSA or others in the field. “Beyond the fun part of getting to know people, it lets you designate an hour or two to figure out what our colleagues are doing in the field and what’s working and what isn’t,” says Morson, who volunteers for NAFSA, EducationUSA, and a variety of local organizations.
Volunteering outside your institution, Evanuik adds, helps “make a name for yourself, not defined by what campus you’re working at. Volunteering with NAFSA made me feel more confident in myself and overcome impostor syndrome.”
Some members of the Forum working group found it difficult to create a network of other mid-career professionals. It’s important to learn from peers in similar roles at other institutions, particularly when you’re in a one-person shop. “Knowing you’re not alone is really important,” Cavazos says.
At the same time, your professional network should also include more-senior leaders who are not your manager—or at your institution. “If interviewing, you need a safe space to practice and get honest feedback,” Evanuik says. Informational interviews present one opportunity to build networks and knowledge, both in terms of understanding what other jobs entail and whether you have the right education and skills to be hired for them.
Conferences such as NAFSA’s regional and annual events also provide an invaluable opportunity to build networks and maintain the passion that drives many international educators. Randeep Kullar debated whether she wanted to stay in international education after returning to a role in career services during the pandemic. Ultimately, for Kullar, “it was conferences like NAFSA that fully brought me back.”
“That’s where the energy comes from—passion is renewed in those spaces,” adds Kullar, now partnership director for diversity initiatives at CEA CAPA Education Abroad. “It’s a reminder of the work we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
Have conversations with senior leaders about what skills you can develop within your current role. “You have to be creative in how you grow your position,” Cavazos says. Lean into finding innovative solutions to challenges. “The freedom my boss and my dean give me when they ask, ‘This is the problem—how are we going to get the solution?’ is really helpful to me,” Morson says.
Of course, the receptiveness to these proposals depends on your institution’s culture—and its leadership. If these are difficult discussions, consider working with a coach, Cavazos says. And, in some cases, resistance may be a sign that you may need to move on to continue to grow, she adds.
Build your professional reputation.
Through presentations at conferences or publications, lean into your expertise in specific areas. “Finding your niche can help you see how you use your own strengths and interests in the field,” Evanuik says.
Kullar says presenting “equalizes the playing field” and builds confidence for those suffering from impostor syndrome by affirming that they “have the abilities and skills and knowledge to contribute to the space.”
“Don’t let yourself be your own barrier,” Kullar advises. And for those who don’t want to present, other opportunities exist, including publications or posters. “Everyone can find their space and place in the industry,” she says.
For SIOs, Listen—and Lead
Advice for senior leaders in international offices boils down to one simple thing: know your staff. “There has to be intentionality around it,” Kullar says. “It’s important to understand what your staff needs—and that not every staff member needs the same thing.”
One-on-one meetings with staff can help with both relationship building and “identifying where staff want to go,” Buse says. Among the strategies for supporting mid-career professionals:
Examine existing structures.
While senior international officers (SIOs) can’t upend institutional policies and pay structures, they can still look for opportunities to update job titles and classifications to align them with those at the rest of their college or university. Leaders can also conduct market studies to determine if pay within the international office is on par with what peers offer. “Knowing what your resources are is key,” Buse says. If salaries can’t be adjusted, consider scaffolding job titles—adding terms like “senior” to existing roles that demonstrate professional growth.
In similar fashion, when jobs become vacant, consider rearranging tasks and duties to provide opportunities for existing staff to take on new roles while being mindful of not increasing workloads. “You have more leeway than when you’re fully staffed,” Evanuik says.
Recognizing the limited opportunities for growth within other institutions is important when senior leaders recruit from outside the organization. “If I look at someone’s résumé and they don’t have the director title, I look at what they’ve done,” Cavazos says. “Maybe they’ve been involved in professional development, working groups, things about diversity. That says that the person is clearly motivated and wants to do a lot in the field, is growing professionally, and not staying stagnant.”
Find ways to help people grow—but make them realistic.
Too often, requests made by staff for opportunities to grow are translated into “do more work.” Leaders need to find ways to expose staff to new skills or areas of the field without overwhelming them on top of their existing responsibilities.
One way is to provide staff with connections and opportunities to “mix and match” with peers in other departments and projects, according to Kullar. Another is including staff in conversations about the direction of the department—and the field. Focus on “where we see international education going in the next 3–5 years and what the goals are down the line,” Cavazos says. “Bringing staff in on those conversations makes them part of building it.”
Support—and institutionalize—professional development.
“If someone feels supported in professional development, they will continue to grow,” Cavazos says. “Maybe their job title isn’t changing, but for a lot of people that’s okay if they feel they can network, attend workshops, and grow.”
Find ways to ensure staff development remains a consistent priority. For example, at one institution where Kullar worked, a dedicated professional development fund was overseen by a team of nonsupervisory staff. And if limited budgets rule out travel to national or regional conferences, consider local opportunities. Buse also recommends that leaders look into NAFSA’s RISE Fellowship program, a 2-year professional development program for early-career international education professionals from underrepresented backgrounds.
Deepen mentoring experiences.
Many senior leaders mentor staff, but they should also consider involving them in high-level decision-making—“not just having your person understand what you do as a leader, but welcoming them to the table and the conversations you’re part of,” Anderson says. “Mentorship is really strong in international education, but not that kind of side-by-side partnering.” It’s also important to enshrine mentoring by allocating time in both the leader’s and the mentee’s schedules.
Offer greater flexibility.
Across all fields, moving into a mid-career role often coincides with stages of life with growing personal responsibilities, such as child or elder care. Flexibility has proven a postpandemic challenge in many international offices because of the large number of high-touch roles in the field, but leaders must recognize that expectations have shifted, according to Anderson. “It’s difficult to convince someone they’re valuable without it,” she says.
While remote work isn’t possible for many roles, consider other options. For example, help adjust schedules to allow staff to pursue continuing education. And if staff members have to leave their full-time role because of external challenges, consider ways to keep them involved—perhaps in a part-time role or as an adviser on special projects—“so they don’t lose that career connection,” Evanuik says.
Focus on DEI initiatives.
Making an impact on equity within international offices requires intentional decisions by senior leaders, which can ultimately help retain staff. Changes to roles and job qualifications can both broaden the field of potential applicants in roles at all levels and support existing staff, who see a diverse workforce as a benefit in its own right and a reason to stay, according to Anderson. Kullar points to unintentional barriers in job requirements—such as requiring staff in education abroad positions to have studied abroad themselves when in college. “I could argue that someone who is bicultural has more skills [for those roles] than someone who spent 2 weeks in London on a program,” she says.
Help staff remember the “why.”
Postpandemic enrollment issues have put pressure on all levels of institutions—and international offices. “That’s really affecting people at my level and lower,” Morson says, adding that senior leaders should help staff “remember why we’re doing this and use that to guide the goals of our mission.”
Finally, recognize that these steps are not just about retaining staff but also supporting promising leaders and the field more broadly. “I only had more opportunities because I had a manager who invested in my growth and knew at some point I would leave,” Evanuik says. “If you’re a manager, it’s just the right thing to do.”
Stick, Not Stuck
For both mid-career professionals and their more-senior leaders, the emphasis should be on growth. Kullar recalls meeting with her supervisor after her first year working in the field and saying, “I’m content as long as I’m growing. The minute I stop, I will leave.”
Buse says that discussions with personal networks and introspection can help mid-career professionals navigate the challenges of this career inflection point. “Once you’ve made it through a couple of years, you figure out if it’s a good fit or not,” she says. In other words, professionals will learn to stick, not be stuck. •
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