By Christopher Connell
When international students go home after receiving their education abroad, they can make an enormous difference in home countries and the international community. Here is one former international student's story. Read other profiles in the print version of International Educator or online.
Isabelle MagninSan Diego State University, B.A. (1999)
Switzerland's Isabelle Magnin remembers her student days at San Diego State University a decade ago as very typical of what Americans experience in college and very untypical for the Swiss. Unlike compatriots back home who were studying for free, Magnin put herself through college, without family or government support. Hers was a familiar face at the front desk of the International Student Center, where she led the corps of intercultural ambassadors. In summers the medical sociology major returned to Geneva and spent two months toiling as a nurse assistant in retirement homes. "Really, during the whole length of my studies in the U.S., I never had a vacation. I was always working," she said.
Magnin is still working hard, but these days she tackles international business projects for Deloitte, the international audit and consulting business. Her job is to develop Deloitte's work in the not-for-profit market in developing countries, which means working with Geneva's myriad of United Nations and other international donor agencies as well as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. She previously did a six-year stint with PriceWaterhouseCoopers in the city surrounded by the Alps. These jobs have meant travel to Africa, the Middle East, Central America and Asia, including two trips to Sri Lanka after the Indian Ocean nation was devastated by the December 2004 tsunami. The Federation of the Red Cross sent her to help write financial guidelines for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on repairs and reconstruction. "There were so many actors, there was potential for redundancies," she said.
What stands out in memory is how empty the land looks where communities once stood. "There's nothing standing, just some sand and grass. It wouldn't shock you -- if you didn't know that houses used to be there," she said. As for the psychological damage, Magnin observed, "I would say the Buddhists are much better dealing with grief than we are. I have seen that in Africa as well. I think in our highly technologically advanced countries, we try to fight death; death is perceived like a failure of the medical world." In developing countries, "it is a reality. If you go to Southern Africa, the life expectancy is 33 years old because of AIDS. People are faced with death all the time."
Magnin did not know what her life's work would be when she left San Diego State. She majored in sociology instead of business because "I always wanted to study something I had pleasure learning." It was a pathway that would not have been open to her had she stayed in Switzerland. The sociology there would have been more theoretical and research oriented, preparing students to push on to a Ph.D.
Magnin (no relation to the high fashion San Francisco retailer) had one rude awakening when she arrived in San Diego in 1995. "The first thing I remember is that the English I had learned in school led me nowhere in the U.S. I thought I spoke English, but really I didn't. My accent was too strong to be understood by most people. I had to learn English from scratch," she said. It was also a struggle to convince the SDSU academic office to accept all her Swiss math courses, because she had gotten a low grade on an oral math final. "They told me I had to do three years of math," she recalled. "But overall, I had the average that was needed. I had to fight with my very poor English to get in." She missed the fall semester, but started in the spring.
Magnin initially considered attending college in New Zealand, "but stopped halfway." One extra motivation was that Arash Bodaghee, her then-boyfriend, was a student at the University of California at San Diego. She and the Iranian-born American met as 14-year-olds in a public school in Geneva. The couple recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, not long after Bodaghee completed a Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Geneva.
Back in Geneva, she was the bread-winner while Bodaghee pursued graduate studies. Magnin first landed a job with IBM's technology group "as a strategic marketing assistant. It was a big title that didn't mean much," she said. Then the opportunity came along with PricewaterhouseCoopers, a firm that she had never heard of until not long before (her husband filled her in on PricewaterhouseCoopers' contribution to the arts: tallying the votes and safeguarding the ballots for the annual Academy Awards).
Magnin started working in the financial sector. "I had really amazing projects. I was traveling all over the place, working with really exciting people, coming from all walks of life, but really smart and well brought up, educated people, who all speak several languages. Culturally it was such a great experience, kind of like my experience at San Diego State, interacting with people from everywhere all the time. I really treasure that," she said.
These days the management consultant does most of her work from Geneva, managing projects in other parts of the world. "I want to be traveling again, but since I am developing markets, it's up to me to find ones that will make me travel," she said. In the meantime, she pedals the nine miles to work on her 21-gear bicycle. "It's a city bike, between a mountain bike and a road bike," she said. "It's got all the little equipment so I can carry my laptop, and I don't get grease from the chain."
She also bikes to see clients. "Not everybody likes it. It's not very common to do that in Switzerland; we are not in the Netherlands. There are hills and sometimes I arrive in a bit of a sweat. But that's OK. It keeps my morale going," said Magnin. She and her husband hike and snowboard in the mountains. "I like the great outdoors," she added.
Although she works with humanitarian and health agencies trying to alleviate health problems and disparities in some of the world's neediest countries, Magnin takes a down-to-earth approach to what she does.
"I'm not saving the world. International development is a business. I'll tell you, frankly, humanitarian development, NGOs, all these things. It's a business. it's a business of making money. I'm not going to be all utopian about what I do," she said. "It's a job, just like working for a bank."
But isn't it an attempt to do well by doing good?
"It's also controversial. The UN is very controversial. Why do we focus so much effort on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria? Why don't we look at cancer, obesity and chronic diseases because they are hitting the developing countries as well now. AIDS is something that really needs to be tackle, but why does all the funding go there? There's plenty of diseases that should be looked at," said Magnin, who is studying for a certificate in public health.
Magnin believes the Swiss could learn some lessons from the U.S. system of education. While it was difficult to go to college and work at the same time, it prepares students for real world jobs. "You always have a foot in the academic world and in the professional world. You're very attractive for an employer. The Swiss should learn about that, about that flexibility, about being able to take classes at night," she said. "We should learn from the American system. We should try to teach our people to be more flexible, and to speak in public and to sell themselves."
Magnin, who was the first person visitors saw when they entered the International Student Center during her years at San Diego State, has fond memories of the staff there, including Director Ron Moffatt and Associate Director Jane Kalionzes, and Dawn Renze Wood. Moffatt, a past president of NAFSA, says Magnin was one of the best students who ever worked on his staff. He calls her "a brilliant, conscientious professional who consistently performed outstanding work."
Magnin adds, "It's nice to hear that NAFSA is interested in what their old students are doing."