By Bruce Gleason, PhD
Last year I concluded a two-year term as the interim director of international education at the University of St. Thomas (UST) in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since returning to my primary role on campus as a tenured faculty member in the Department of Music, and now as chair of the Department of Teacher Education, I’ve had the time to reflect on how the interim role as an international educator administrator challenged me and changed me.
While my knowledge of UST global initiatives was minimal going into the job, I had developed a respectable personal international travel portfolio of 30 countries—research in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe; several concert tours through Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic; music history and conducting study in Switzerland; and performing in a U.S. Army Band in Berlin for ceremonies for the reunification of Germany. As well, I had kept up with international politics and culture in general, so I hadn’t expected much of a learning curve. However, in reflecting on my international education experiences, it appears that I’ve come through them a changed man—albeit in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to me years ago.
As the international education director, my work consisted of overseeing the directors of international admissions and study abroad, who in turn oversee a combined staff of 10—as well as numerous undergraduate student workers and several graduate assistants. Additionally, our adept international education office coordinator also reported to me.
Within this capacity, I was pleased to meet many faculty members with whom I previously had had little to no contact—individuals who have been doing wonderful work with our international students as well as with our domestic students in study abroad arenas. I was pleased to find many kindred spirits in the multitude of gatherings that became part of my weekly life—making decisions with the Academic Review Committee for International Education on new and repeat study abroad courses; conferring with the International Risk Assessment Committee on UST-sponsored travel to destinations under U.S. Department of State travel advisories; and gathering monthly with the “International Programs Matrix,” a group combining international education with International Student Services and International Academic Advising as well as staff of the regional ELS office—all with the combined goal of joining efforts for campus global competency. As well, there were meetings with Fulbright application committees, internal international faculty grant applicants, and service learning committees—not to mention typical budget, dean’s, and provost’s meetings. Moreover, on a regular basis I worked with vice presidents and associate vice presidents whose titles and offices prior to my international education appointment I had never encountered—or heard of.
However, it wasn’t my newfound knowledge about administrative functions that changed my view of university work, but rather the daily rubbing of shoulders with international education staff members. While I had worked with clerical, registrar, admissions, university relations, promotional, and human resources staff over the years, this was the first time in my 30-some years within academia that my schedule consisted primarily of working with and among a professional group of staff members on a daily basis. And the experience was eye opening.
While I understood firsthand the preservice years of undergraduate and graduate academic training and in-service tenure preparation that faculty members undertake, it somehow had never occurred to me that staff members are indeed formally educated and trained for their professions as well. Among the undergraduate degrees represented by the 11 international education staff members are Irish studies, English, communication studies, Spanish, Latin American studies, global studies, biology, anthropology, classics, public relations, art history, political science, American studies, quantitative methods, computer systems, and English language and literature—with minors too numerous to list here.
Moreover, UST international education staff members have earned graduate degrees and professional certificates in leadership in student affairs, higher education administration, student development, software systems, English, Chinese language proficiency, English as a Foreign Language, Irish studies, social and cultural foundations of education, communication studies, educational leadership, and Spanish linguistics. Further coursework has been done in cultural anthropology, “Augustine’s Confessions,” Hispanic linguistics, intercultural communication, and “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Religion in Society.” Additionally, several military specialty schools are represented, as U.S. Army and Navy veterans are also part of the mix.
However, these lists don’t include the countless international education short courses, webinars, workshops, seminars, etc., that staff have attended along the way that are offered by many professional organizations with which my staff were affiliated, and with which I’ve become acquainted—organizations that helpfully and crucially focus on particular elements of the international education world. As an aside here, for the uninitiated, an understanding of these organizations takes some time to maneuver. While every academic discipline has its respective unique professional language and organizations, I think the world of international education may have a corner on the acronym market. Descriptions and backgrounds of the following could be the basis of several seminar sessions on their own: NAFSA, UMAIE, HECUA, ACE, AIEA, CIGE, ACTFL, AMG, EAP, EFL, ESL, ELS, TOEFL, UCTS, NESCO, and etc. Needless to say, I’m still working on figuring out the focus of each and applaud staff members who are far ahead of me.
Added to the rich canvas of formal coursework and other academic accomplishments of UST international education staff, are further colors provided by languages spoken in-house—French, Hindustani, Polish, Japanese, Hungarian, Spanish, Chinese, and my painfully poor German—and by the varied places staff have lived and worked, including Scotland, England, France, China, Hungary, Ireland, New Zealand, Germany, and Northern Ireland. Even the office coordinator, who could conceivably do her job with less international experience, has a master of arts degree in Irish studies from Queen’s University, Belfast, focusing on Irish medium education—and in fact teaches an online religion and culture course for another university. While I’m used to faculty members stacking up degrees with the linear goal of teaching and researching those subjects, I’m not used to professionals using their degrees and education in a broader liberal-arts context, which is ironically the very purpose of a liberal arts education.
After an initial and cursory glimpse at the many jobs within the international education house, I quickly came to the conclusion that it would take me a while to understand all of the staff members’ collective charges as well as the international education discipline and profession—individual areas and as a whole. However, I needed to quickly grasp some kind of knowledge of staff jobs if I were to effectively do mine. Fortunately, I had willing, helpful in-house instructors.
For instance, added to my nascent knowledge of student recruiting—I witnessed our staff adding several dimensions to these operations by adeptly undertaking this work in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Columbia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Norway, China, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Who knew that there were so many types of visas, and that there were this many details in successfully launching the educational careers of 450-plus international undergraduates? Likewise, how long did it take our staff to learn to compensate for the statistical likelihood of offending and/or misunderstanding countless cultural differences along the way? And then there was the added component of working within a campus system that was trying (hoping?) to catch up in terms of support for international students and faculty members—the greatest share of both groups understanding that we can’t simply plant international students in a U.S. context and expect them to succeed without a substantial support network in place.
Coupled with this were our attempts at holding the line with our own well-meaning deans who, in attempts to bolster admissions numbers, have inadvertently lowered the bar by waiving TOEFL requirements and other benchmarks that have been carefully placed to ensure success for the hundreds of international students new to the UST campus in particular and to the United States in general. Yet, I think my favorite incongruity with our international admissions proceedings is the immense yet necessary amount of work that our staff undertakes for graduate students: verifying English proficiency and financial support; issuing I-20s and managing students’ SEVIS records; advising students about immigration issues such as applying for F-1 and J visas; applying for OPT/CPT; changing visa status; maintaining status, etc.; and advising about general issues such as arrival dates, new-student orientation, etc. The inequitable part is that these 200–300 students who take several hundred hours to process don’t count for our annual admissions goals since the actual recruiting of graduate students resides in individual departments, and thus is not undertaken by our staff. Therefore, international admissions staff members spend a disproportionate amount of time providing service to students who don’t count toward our enrollment goal for freshman and transfer students (I’m hoping my successor is making some adjustments here).
My initiation to study abroad operations was just as invigorating—especially when it came to glimpsing what is involved in successfully sending 500-plus students to scores of destinations in a typical January term with an additional 350-plus students on semester and summer programs—and the unfathomable number of steps, time, and cycles this work takes—from orientation and visa management (a related but different set of skills and operations than handling incoming student visas) to development of programs (UST-sponsored, cosponsored, etc.), and budgets. As an aside, if I stayed in this job years longer, I could write an article on the intricacies of study abroad budgets, but with a meager two years of experience and only a passing understanding of these fiscal arrangements, I’ll save myself the embarrassment.
On the customer service front, I’ve watched staff members calmly and professionally respond to countless requests from students, faculty, parents, and administrators who don’t understand the complexities of their demands for exceptions to policy.1 I confess that this element has perplexed me more with time: faculty members providing advice to international education staff as to how things should run—advice freely given without understanding all of the intricacies as well as operations as a whole. I’ve often wondered how faculty would react if international education staff offered them suggestions on their grading, assignment construction, discipline focus, class scheduling, etc. The purposes and jobs of the two sides of the international education house are clear in the minds of many individuals and offices across campus—but I have found my calling several times by explaining to members of both the faculty and administration that the jobs of international education staff members are not simply that of a travel agent.2
In retrospect, I’m pleased things worked out as well as they did and that everyone is still standing—although I look back in disbelief on my first four months when my task was to resurrect and conclude a reclassification of four study abroad positions with our human resources staff (started by my predecessor). As they had worked without accurate job descriptions and contracts for a year, time was of the essence. However, the likelihood of me doing a good job at this without having a clue about the respective disciplines was low at best. As to how I (and my superiors) thought this would be a fruitful task in light of the fact that I did not understand the complexities of the profession shows our ignorance. Fortunately, diligent investigation and much dumb luck helped get the job done close to what I hope is accurate.
There are countless other pieces of international education administration that I encountered—with each day bringing new challenges and lessons, which are no doubt familiar to those of you in the field. Each of the components I’ve mentioned here could yield an article of its own. But as I imagine that the pictures I’ve painted of the University of St. Thomas system here are similar to many across the United States, I hope my observations are helpful to others who inadvertently land in the international education world—as well as to those who purposely and thoughtfully prepare for it. I am especially sympathetic to upper-level administrators who find their portfolio of charges including yet one more component of something their graduate education/teaching/researching/advising/administrating work has not prepared them for.
I wish you the best, and encourage you to listen.
In closing, kudos to all of you who work in the field of international education. You’re doing good work for generations of future problem solvers, and I’m grateful that I was able to hold a front-row seat for two years—time and experience that will inevitably shape the rest of my life and career.
Bruce Gleason, PhD, a tenured professor in the Department of Music at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota (UST), served as the interim director of international education from 2012 to 2014. He is currently serving as the chair of the Department of Teacher Education in the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling at UST.
1. I think the conversation that still ranks as my favorite was when one of our staff members responded to a query about travel restrictions—indicating that a phone call to the Cuban government was probably not going to result in a waiver or policy change.
2. Lest I show my naivety further, I’ll note here that as I have no idea what it takes to be a travel agent, I’ll wager that were I to enter that world, I would find something similar to the international education arena—highly trained, highly educated people working with scores of data, cultures, economies, etc.,—elements that hadn’t occurred to me (or to my upper administrators).