This is the latest in a series of interviews with members of NAFSA: Association of International Educators to share insights, knowledge and expertise about career opportunities, growth and development. Today we hear from Alexis Akagawa.
Alexis Akagawa is the Senior International Student and Scholar Advisor at Columbia University and assists the very large number of international students in matters relating to their immigration-related needs, providing advisory and documentation services and information on a host of issues, including, but not limited to employment, visas, enrollment and travel.
1. What made you decide to choose international education as a career path, and specifically your specialty?
I came into international education through teaching. I worked in Japan as an English language teacher, and I came back to the U.S. and taught in the public school district where I was educated. I was recruited for my alma mater’s international student adviser/study abroad program coordinator position by my director of alumni services.
2. What does a typical work day look like for you?
I advise students and work on individual cases by creating data fixes or corrections to student records with Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) Help Desk, communicating with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) regarding Optional Practical Training, and referring students to immigration attorneys. As one of 15 advisers serving a population of 19,000 students and alumni, I work hard but make time to use advocacy tools like the Connecting Our World platform when Erica Stewart emails me. I love NAFSA advocacy!
3. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?
One of my career successes was as a one-person international office at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. My first meeting with a group of international educational professionals was my mini-NAFSA group called Minnesota International Educators. During a professional meeting, they said, “I think you’d be good at advocacy. Would you consider being Minnesota state whip? It’ll be great fun!” I accepted with enthusiasm and traveled to Washington D.C., where I found myself sitting at a large conference table surrounded by NAFSAns. They were mid-career professionals, and I was a newbie.
It was nerve-wracking the first time visiting a senate building I’d only seen on television, especially a Republican’s office who was on the Foreign Relations Committee. I was disarmed as the staffer listened to me about visa wait times and why study abroad was so important to my state. She understood the economic impact, as higher education contributes to the inflow in the U.S.’s current account balance. She agreed that statesmanship on the microlevel—on my campus— improved the image of the U.S. worldwide. With mentorship and coaching from the late Erika Rohrbach and NAFSA public policy team advocacy training, I learned how to convey my message in a way that was illuminating to those in power.
We are all experts in what we do, but it took the passing of the baton, allyship, mentorship, and support to learn how to become an advocate. By doing my part in this sometimes overwhelmingly huge and complex democratic process, I came into my own as a proud NAFSAn, deeply moved that we could be seen and appreciated for what we do every day.
4. What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
As someone in the field since 2003, challenges I’ve faced were recessions and the corresponding reduced student numbers, travel bans, and government policies and agencies who act counter to NAFSA’s vision. At times it felt like I was swimming upstream, fatigued by current events beyond my control and driving the course of daily life. I made a promise to myself to keep active—to speak up and get in the thick of things within what’s proximate. I strive to cultivate curiosity and self-awareness, resiliency, passion, and empathy for others and prioritize inclusion and community with an open growth mindset.
5. How did the global pandemic affect your day-to-day working life?
The day before the office shut down to work remotely for the pandemic, we did 539 travel signatures and 60 document pickups in 6 hours. Our students were very anxious, mad, and confused. They asked questions about travel topics which we couldn't answer… or wanted visa solutions beyond the purview of our office. The good thing is pivoting to remote work increased my efficiency. My work-life balance improved as there was no commuting, but I did miss the face-to-face interaction with my colleagues!
6. Where would you like to see your career path going next?
I’d like to do more advocacy. From an international student adviser’s perspective, advocacy is a way to reflect on my daily practice, get a bird’s-eye view of our field. I feel powerful in my voice, honor my family’s history, and recognize the endeavors of others. Incorporating more advocacy into my career path in whatever shape it takes is a way to recenter and recommit to my values, to be hopeful for what’s possible now, and to act for a better future.
7. What membership benefits offered by NAFSA have helped you in your career?
The membership discounts at the regional and annual conferences and travel grants are great. Attending NAFSA conferences to network—listening and learning from colleagues who are expert practitioners in our field—is an important benefit, because I never stop learning about risks, best practices, and policies, which equips me to best serve my stakeholders. Meeting with elected officials during NAFSA Advocacy Day is thrilling; the Connecting Our World platform makes me feel accomplished; and I use the Adviser’s Manual and IssueNet to receive policy updates. NAFSA’s platforms are exciting, because together, we can give voice to ourselves and to all the people we serve.
8. Do you belong to any special Member Interest Groups, Regions, or Knowledge Communities? And if so, which ones and why?
I’m a NAFSA member in Region X in the International Student and Scholar Services Member Interest Group. I was a founder and member of the Creative Industries Member Interest Group. It was a great resource to consult with colleagues to share best legal and tax practices on advising, brand management protection, selling creative work, entrepreneurial and small business formation, employment, and import/export issues with CBP Customs and Border Protection head officers and attorneys.
9. What impact has NAFSA had in shaping your career?
Through NAFSA’s credibility, number of members, and platform, I’ve used the organization to advocate for myself and my constituents. NAFSA helps me prove my role on campus as essential, amplifying the needs and reporting on the amazing accomplishments of our international scholars. Through NAFSA, I’ve also developed a great relationship with the Student and Exchange Visitor Program field representative and SSA public affairs specialist. I am grateful for their help with my student cases.
10. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new international educator just beginning their career?
Get involved and volunteer to meet people! I’ve volunteered at conferences, chaired the Minnesota International Educators state professional organization, served as a NAFSA state whip for 3 years, and met so many great colleagues I can count on. My current volunteering is centered around encouraging and hosting social and networking gatherings.
11. Is there a particular area of international education you enjoy working in, such as campus internationalization, global learning, or thought leadership etc.? Why?
I’ve done so with LGBTQ committee work for Safe Space training and as a strategic team member of the University Life, Race, Ethnicity, and Inclusion Task Force. It is my job to build bridges within my communities, whether creating a merit scholarship, or spearheading the implementation of the administrative program from the Japanese Ministry of Education.
12. Finally, what is something unique about your career, or career path?
Every day is different! I feel lucky to be active in a field which calls for evolution and adaptation.