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KC Wednesday: The Impact of “Studying Abroad” as a Student Affairs Professional

by on January 9, 2013
Our latest KC Wednesdday post comes to us from the International Education KC and is written by Dr. Kelly Anne Nelson, Direct of Student Services at the Ross School of Medicine and Region II’s representative on the KC.
For most of my life, I’ve wanted to live on a tropical island. I always assumed that was, at best a stretch goal. In 2010, when most of institutions of higher education in California (and quite a bit of the rest of the U.S.) were under a hiring freeze, that I decided to get a little creative with my job search. I was 4o years old when I finally realized that I could keep my chosen career AND live on a tropical island. Even though I had just graduated with a doctoral degree, I felt stupid. Why didn’t I think of this year ago? So, with one simple click of the “international” tab on “The Chronicle of Higher Education’s” job search site, I found myself staring at a wonderful job in student affairs on a tropical island.
Four months later, my husband and I both had jobs in students affairs at a medical school on an island in the Caribbean and our two daughters (3 and 5 back them) were enrolled in the campus prep school. It all happened so fast that I’m not sure we truly knew what we were getting ourselves into. However, after almost 2.5 years, I can say it has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. As we consider where we will move next, I’ve found that our options seem much most vast than they did when we were mostly focused on staying “close to home”. Part of that is directly related to the ways in which I have grown. I sat down a few months ago to reflect on how this experience has changed me; how it has made me a better professional. I chose to use the NASPA and ACPA Professional Competencies as a framework and found that I have experienced a great deal of growth in two particular areas: 1) Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and 2) Personal Foundations.
According to the document, “The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) competency area includes the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to create learning environments that are enriched with diverse views and people. It is also designed to create an institutional ethos that accepts and celebrates differences among people, helping to free them of any misconceptions and prejudices.” I feel like I walk in this competency area every day. While the island I call home is certainly gorgeous, it is a developing nation. Moving from urban Los Angeles to a tiny developing island has provided me with all sorts of opportunities. Some of the specific areas include:
  • “Integrate cultural knowledge with specific and relevant cultural issues on campus”: This is an ongoing challenge. Our students have all attended college in the U.S., but they come from over 50 different countries. As we try to define high quality customer service, I find that I am constantly asking “from what cultural perspective”? Even if you only consider the differences between the customer service you might expect in the U.S. to the customer service found on my current island, there is room for days and weeks’ worth of conversations. I routinely have conversations with students about cultural differences related to customer service and how learning to appreciate cultural differences will help them become better physicians. I have learned a great deal about my own expectations of “high quality” customer service. I have also learned to be able to view these types of interactions from the perspective of a different culture. Even when I am on vacation in the U.., I find that I make fewer assumptions about another person’s intent.
  • “Supervise, challenge, and educate other professionals around issues of diversity and inclusion”, and “facilitate others’ learning and practice of social justice concepts”. Homosexuality is against the law on my island. I find that hard to reconcile with my own personal beliefs. My staff find my personal beliefs hard to reconcile with their personal beliefs. We have not been able to get to the point where my team would be open to formal training on this topic, but we have had conversations about 1) what I value, 2) what our institution values, and 3) why we treat all of our students, faculty, and staff equally regardless of who they love. These conversations reaffirm my own personal values.
  • “Assess the effectiveness of the institution in addressing issues associated with EDI and in overcoming any barriers that exist” and “ensure individuals throughout the institution are treated respectfully, justly, fairly, and impartially.” I have been fighting for equal pay and equal benefits, for my staff, since my first month on the job. When I started, my lowest paid full-time employee made $10,000 USD a year. Over two years, I was able to get raises for the three lowest employees and then my organization did a salary equity review and four of my staff received raises from that effort. A tougher issue, interestingly, has been benefits such as access to campus, university ID cards, and the gym. I am engaged in ongoing conversations with upper-level administrators (expat staff and local nationals) about how to bring equity and fairness tour policies. There are small wins, but overall the battle sometimes feels endless.
The second competency area where I feel I have experiences significant growth is that of Personal Foundations, which “involves the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to maintain emotional, physical, social, environmental, relational, spiritual, and intellectual wellness; be self-directed and self-reflective; maintain excellence and integrity in work; be comfortable with ambiguity; be aware of one’s own areas of strength and growth; have a passion for work; and remain curious.” I find myself challenged, personally and professionally, in this area every day that I live here. Some specific items include:
  • “Identify the present and future utility of key elements in one’s set of personal beliefs and commitments.” I have always been interested in world events. As an undergraduate, I went study abroad to Australia. While the culture there was not so very different from my own in South Florida, I found that my Australian friends were much better connected to what was going on in the world than I was. I felt a bit ashamed at my lack of knowledge of geography, political structures of other countries, and how little I had traveled outside the U.S. That experience changed me. I began to see myself as a citizen of the world, not just of the United States. Living outside the U.S. for an extended period of time has helped me reconnect to my global citizenship. It helps remind me, daily, that people are people no matter where they are from. It’s easy to understand that in a cerebral way, but I feel it much more viscerally than I did before. The recent conversations about the rape of a young girl in India sadden me to the same depths as the rapes of women in the U.S. From my expatriate lens, I am able to compare the response of one nation to that of another with less bias towards my passport country.
  • “Recognize needs and opportunities for continued growth.” This experience has helped me live up to one of my own personal values; lifelong learning. On days when I am really tired, worn out from an overload of cross-cultural interactions, I wonder why I chose to go straight from my doctoral program to another incredibly challenging experience. On those days, my family and I go have dinner on the beach, watch the sunset, and remind us of all the amazing things this island has to offer. Growth can be exhausting, but it is truly worth it. The things I have learned about myself while living here are quite possibly things I might never have learned had I stayed in the U.S. for my entire career.
  • “Identify sources of dissonance and fulfillment in one’s life and take appropriate steps in response” and “recognize the effect between one’s professional and personal life, and develop plans to manage any related concerns.” The island culture here is very family centered. Work is a way to pay the bills to be able to live your life. In Student Affairs, we have a tendency to cram an incredible amount of work into one week. I have never been to a professional conference without at least one session on managing work-life balance. I am proud to say that I don’t struggle with much of that here. We work mostly 8:30 to 5:00. There are a few nights and weekends during the busy times of year, but mostly, my wonderful job is just that…a job. It pays the bills and helps me feel like I am contributing to the life of many students, but it is not my life. My job is what enables me to have the life I want. I am somewhat afraid to move back to the U.S. I’m still working on ways to bring this up in a job interview without sounding like I’m afraid to work hard. I just want to be able to do good work without sacrificing my family for my career.
  • “Analyze personal experiences for potential deeper learning and growth, and engage with others in reflective discussions” and “seek environments and collaborations that provide adequate challenge such that personal development is promoted, and provide sufficient support such that development is possible”. I have made some amazing friendships on my campus. One of the benefits of an expat-heavy environment is that everyone has been the “new kid on the block”. As a result, a newcomer is never lonely. My husband, kids, and I made friends fast and have been able to develop meaningful relationships with other faculty and staff who came here for reasons similar to our own. We spend time with friends talking about the uncomfortable feeling of complaining that our hot water heater was broken when three of our nearest neighbors do not even have running water. Does that mean I shouldn’t fix my hot water heater? No, but it does give me a much great appreciation for how privileged our family is to have water, let alone hot water.

As I reflect on all the amazing experiences I have had here and look forward into the future, it is hard to imagine myself living in the U.S. again. I know we will move back there eventually, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet. I have learned so much but, at the same time, it feels so unfinished. As I review the NASPA and ACPA Professional Competencies, it is clear that choosing to move away from our home country has made me a stronger professional, but I am also certain it has made me a better person. If you have ever thought about making a similar move, my advice would be this: Don’t wait!

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