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KC Wednesday: International Education Knowledge Community

by on July 12, 2012

This week’s blog post represents the International Education Knowledge Community.  NASPA Region 2 is currently seeking a Representative for this KC (if you’re interested, email us at wsimpkins@jjay.cuny.edu and mgrab@seas.upenn.edu with a resume and statement of interest!), so we asked our colleague Matthew Nelson, Director of Student Development at the Ross University School of Medicine in the Commonwealth of Dominica, to discuss his experiences working abroad.

1.      So, Matt, how did you come to work for Ross University in Dominica?  Was working on a Caribbean island always something you aspired to?

In 2010 I finished my Ed.D, had worked at USC for a number of years and was looking to new opportunities and the next stage of my career. My wife works in student affairs as well and was graduating from the same program and so we were looking for two positions. A dual job search in Student Affairs can be challenging and so one day we decided to “go global” with the job search. It has always been my wife’s dream to work on an island but being from Colorado I had never thought of that!  My motivation was to challenge myself with a different experience. Working in Student Affairs I have attended and presented many times on diversity education, however I had always done so situated within the dominant culture. For me this meant that I cognitively explored issues of diversity but had never truly experienced another culture or being culturally out of place. As a result I wanted an international experience for my own personal and professional development but also for my young children.

2.   How does your current position “fit” with your career plan?

My current position as Director of Student Development is a departure from my previous experience in Student Affairs. I worked in Residence Life for over ten years and plan to return to that when I leave this position. While it is a tangent in some ways I view it as an adventure for me and my family.  The benefit professionally has been my intercultural development as well as experience in other functional areas such as campus life, orientation, and academic advising. Finally, working at a Medical School has given me experience working closely with graduate students instead of the traditional undergraduate population.

3.      What have been your biggest challenges in working overseas?

The challenges to working overseas for me have been both personal and professional. Personally while I made the cognitive decision to undertake international experience I was not fully prepared for how I would feel living in a developing country.  I was initially overwhelmed with everything from the climate and food to being away from friends and family.  I thought I understood the wealth disparity of the US as compared to other nations, but this came to life more vividly as I came to terms with my first world privilege.

Another challenge, but also an opportunity, is that while the med school is not marketed as a study abroad it has all the aspects of this type of experience.  If the students engage in the intercultural experience they can set themselves apart from US trained physicians. The same is true of the expat faculty which creates a shared experience for the majority of faculty and students that come from somewhere else. This creates a great educational environment and opportunities for intercultural dialog.

A challenge for the day to day work with students is that the level of “in loco parentis” is heightened both from students and their parents because students are away from their support systems.  In practice this means that we provide guidance to students in a number of ways because they are navigating another country.  Our challenge is in supporting them in a way that facilitates their personal and professional development into self-sufficient adults and medical professionals.

4.      What skills, experiences have you gained as a result of your current position that you might not have gotten had you stayed in the U.S.?

What I have gained the most in my current position is working through the challenges of living and working in another culture. Personally I have learned to be resilient and adaptable and professionally I have learned cultural competency in practice. Through having to constantly negotiate cross cultural interactions I have learned how to communicate effectively with multiple constituents to meet shared goals. I would not have been able to gain these experiences as immediately or intensely in the United States.

On a more practical level I have gained skills and experiences related to working at a branch campus. Our institution is US based and has several offices in the United States. This is the case for many US schools that have international branches. This dispersed model can easily become disjointed as we work to provide students a seamless experience. Much of my work is to collaborate across sites and offices to make sure the student voice and experience is heard. In absence of in person contact with colleagues this has meant utilizing technologies for communication (Video Teleconference) and finding new ways to build solid collaborations.

5.      What advice would you offer to other professionals who are considering taking an appointment overseas?  What should they consider before diving in?

The first bit of advice I would be to think about the type of experience desired. Considerations include location of the country, primary language spoken, and type of institution and student population (ie US Based / US Students, US Based / Non-US Students, or Non-US Based/ Non US Students). For example Ross University in Dominica is a US based institution with students that come primarily from the US and Canada.  Additionally Dominica is a relatively easy transition because it is an English speaking country with similar laws and cultural norms.

Another helpful area to think about is the personal transition in taking an appointment overseas.  As I said previously I thought I was adequately prepared for the transition but still experienced culture shock. I have come to learn that everyone experiences culture shock to varying degrees but you can prepare yourself by being intentional beforehand. For example there are self assessments that can facilitate reflection and preparation. For example the IDI “intercultural development inventory” (http://www.idiinventory.com/) places participants on a continuum bases on how they view and understand cultural differences between themselves and others. The BIG 5 framework of personality traits (Costa & McCrae, 1992) can be helpful in thinking about adaptability and resilience in living in another culture.

6.      When you think about student development theory, does our understanding of students’ experiences still resonate in Dominica?  Are there ways that the theory might not apply as well overseas?

As I said above Ross University students have a primary residence in the US and Canada so there is a baseline experience in terms Student Affairs in a US setting. I have found that Student Development Theory is very relevant but is strongly influenced by a number of factors. For example even with a primary residence in the US and Canada, 40% of the students were born in another country. As a result we have an interesting mix of cultures and structural diversity all arriving to a Caribbean culture on the island. As a result Student Development Theory is very applicable with all students but requires the same kind of holistic view of the student to recognize the diversity of experience.

One interesting observation I have had is that in some ways the students (avg. age 25) seem to regress in terms of their actions and exhibit behavior that I had previously associated with a traditional age undergraduate population. For example we have challenges with binge drinking, managing emotions, and mature interpersonal communication. We are continuing to assess reasons and students needs, but we have attributed this so far to students being away from support systems, the amount of significant academic stress and culture shock.

7.      How have you managed your own professional development?

We are lucky to have generous allotments of PD monies to attend conferences in the US. Additionally there is an understanding that trips will take longer and colleagues willingly cover while others are away. These benefits have made working abroad more manageable. To supplement my PD I have taken advantage of webinars as well as involvement in NASPA Knowledge Communities.

8.      And, finally, is it true that you sit on the beach all day and “work” from your phone?

That is absolutely, totally NOT true! I use an iPad on the beach. 🙂

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