Dr. Jeffrey Simpson
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 Dr. Jeffrey Simpson.
Dr. Jeffrey Simpson, Assistant Dean - Director of Global Partnerships at Oklahoma State University, is a NAFSA Academy 7 alumnus. He has served in several positions on the Region III Team, including Chair in 2020. He was the recipient of the NAFSA Award for Service for Oklahoma in 2017 and the Special Service to International Education for Region III in 2014. Simpson received his Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership and Policy from Oklahoma State University. His primary research interests include the imagineering process students engage to imagine and construct study abroad experiences, the application of self-representation in narrating international experiences as well as the salience of gendered behavior when constructing experiences in international education spaces.
1. What made you decide to choose international education as a career path, and specifically your specialty?
International education was a mid-career shift for me, moving from design and architecture into higher education. When I decided to return to graduate school in 2008, I chose global studies primarily based on my experiences studying and interning abroad while an undergrad at the University of Arkansas. DeDe Long, 2019 NAFSA Lifetime Member Award recipient and former director of the study abroad office at Arkansas, opened my life to the world when she helped me study abroad in Finland. I dreamed of some day helping colleges students have similar, transformative experiences, and my career in international education has exceeded anything I could even imagined when I started.
2. What does a typical work day look like for you?
I am in a major career transition at the moment, moving from director of the Center for Global Learning into the assistant dean role, so a typical workday for me is unpredictable at best. I choose to focus my energies on what I can do support our amazing team in the center as well as what can we as a university do to serve our state, region, and the world. As I write this, I am sitting in the Mexico City airport returning from a partner site visit. Tomorrow will be strategic planning meetings, hosting a visiting delegation on campus, and ending with a meeting for a volunteer position I hold on a national board. I guess I thrive on the day-to-day variety of my work!
3. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?
Without a doubt, my greatest success in this career is mentoring staff and seeing them advance in their careers! It is always a challenge to see anyone move on from our office, but I believe that as a leader it is my responsibility to help foster an environment that encourages professional development and growth. It is also upon me to continue to work at developing an office where opportunities for advancement exist to retain exceptional staff. However, I look at former colleagues at universities across the nation and a few around the world, and their success in finding careers that inspire them—and knowing they are paying it forward mentoring others—is the greatest reward I can have as a leader. I think I accomplish this by taking the time to hire strong staff, dedicating time to helping them grow, and creating an environment where innovation, creativity, and strategic thinking offer each individual the opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways to the work we do. Leadership is not a position title but a way of being, and my hope is each member of our team feels like a leader.
4. What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
International education is rich with challenges, and I think people who are comfortable with uncertainty and change thrive in this environment. One of my greatest challenges has been shifting from a position of authority, which was needed in my prior career in the business sector, to one of service leadership in this field. By that I mean that I can not possibly do my work from a top-down position. My work now is one of collaboration and giving voice to all. I enter each day from a position of humility, service, and eagerness to learn. That is not as easy as it may seem. I have spent a lot of time focused on how to express gratitude to those with whom I work, empower colleagues to lead, and recognize that my role is not to direct but to facilitate. This challenge is a daily struggle but one I find personally rewarding.
5. How did the global pandemic affect your day-to-day working life?
It was a good reminder that we don’t really control what we think we control. We can only shift and adapt each day as we encounter new challenges. The pandemic was humbling but also provided an opportunity to rethink how we do our work and what are we spending time on that does not serve a positive purpose. I think many of us, across all fields of work, remain exhausted from the pandemic as daily work became hard. I rediscovered empathy and acceptance that we each need compassion as we work day to day. This includes being kind to ourselves when we fail to meet our own expectations. Whether it be students, peers, or partners abroad, the pandemic has reminded me of our humanity and our common struggles.
6. Where would you like to see your career path going next?
I am feeling very good about where my career is now. Moving into assistant dean will provide me new opportunities for personal growth and many challenges ahead! I am at the most joyous time in a career as I have the experience, maturity, and understanding to do what I feel is good work. By good I do not mean the quality of my tasks but the effectiveness and ability to foster positive change. If I continue to see those with whom I work grow in their careers, and find opportunities to provide students, faculty, staff, and our community access to the work we do to address the challenges we face as part of a shared global community, I will feel nothing but happiness at the future of my career path.
7. What membership benefits offered by NAFSA have helped you in your career?
As a mid-career changer, NAFSA has been instrumental in educating me and positioning me for success in my work. The NAFSA Academy was critical to my early need to learn all I could about international education. Other trainings and opportunities to serve on the Region III Team provided me an opportunity to create a network of peers who are now lifelong friends. I would not be where I am today in my career without all that NAFSA has provided.
8. Do you belong to any special Member Interest Groups, regions, or knowledge communities? And if so, which ones and why?
Network NAFSA and networking groups are a key part of staying connected with colleagues doing amazing work. The great thing about NAFSA is we are all willing to share ideas and practices to help all rise to their potential. I belong to many communities beyond what I could list here, including Trainer Corps (another member benefit that changed my career!), Region III, Domestic Exchange (an area I strongly believe in), Sustainability, and the Teaching, Learning, and Service. I have had the pleasure many years to serve as the regional contact for the Rainbow MIG/SIG and the scholarship work of the group continues to inspire me. A favorite time of our Region III and annual conferences is seeing all of the MIGs gather for their meetings and building sense of community and belonging.
9. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new international educator just beginning their career?
I have observed in the field of international education that we tend to shy away from hierarchy. If you are wanting to enter the field or are new in your career, reach out and connect with others doing the work you dream of doing. I have had aspiring individuals reach out for advice, to shadow people in our office, to participate in conference résumé reviews, and other opportunities to connect. There is no need to be shy within the NAFSA community! Some of my NAFSA colleagues don’t believe it, but I am generally introverted by nature. There are times I had to force myself to walk up to strangers at a conference or reach out to someone who might be able to help educate me on something I need to know, but in doing so the rewards have flowed to me. I even served as a regional chair—so if I can do it, so can you!
10. Is there a particular area of international education you enjoy working in, such as campus internationalization, global learning, or thought leadership etc.? Why?
I most enjoy working in partnerships and collaboration. Seeing the hard work of building the deep relationships with our partners provide amazing outcomes is rewarding. Seeing a faculty member create their first successful study abroad course, or two faculty find each other for collaborative research, or observe international students thrive on our campus, and all the other possible outcomes of partnership drives me each day to be a better leader, colleague, and friend.
11. Finally, what is something unique about your career or career path?
I think my career path has shown that it is not where you are, but what you do with the opportunities that present themselves if you remain open, that can most impact your career path. People ask me all the time why I do what I do where I do it, and for me I have found a beautiful balance of being needed, doing important work, and, through service to international education, finding my own needs greatly rewarded. I am grateful every day!