This is the third 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 Traci Gunderson.
Traci Gunderson joined the Office of International Education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in January 2007. Prior to her current position as Assistant Director, she taught for the English Language Institute and then served as an Advisor and later an Assistant Director for the Academic Advising and Career Development. In her current role, Traci develops short-term language programs, bilateral exchange opportunities and articulated dual degree programs. She is utilizing the post-COVID-19 environment to expand the university’s offerings in English for Specific Purposes including Aviation and local industry needs.
Traci loves to contribute to the vibrancy of UNK through active participation in committees and programs outside her department. She is a graduate of Leadership UNK and a former President of Staff Senate. She currently serves on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Council, the Title IX Advisory Committee, and the Diversity Recruitment advisory committee, among others.
Traci has been a member of NAFSA since 2015 and is a frequent flier when it comes to participation in webinars, workshops, pre-conference forums and the International Conference. She is also active with NAFSA Member Interest Groups and Knowledge Communities.
When she’s not in the office or on the road, Traci enjoys spending time with her family including her two young children, reading, exploring new foods, and travelling for fun.
1. What made you decide to choose international education as a career path, and specifically your specialty?
Growing up in a small town, working through high school to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up and what I was going to study in college, I never knew international education was a thing. It wasn’t until I had been in college for some amount of time and was introduced to the idea of studying abroad that I crossed paths with the field. After returning from my first study abroad trip, I quickly changed my major to International Studies and knew that I had two passions – education and travel. Following a few more study abroad experiences and graduation, my first position was as an ESL instructor. I loved it but knew that it wasn’t exactly what I needed; that’s when my focus turned to International Recruitment and Marketing.
2. What does a typical work day look like for you?
Each day is so different, and that is one of the reasons I love this field. Different countries, different cultures, an openness to new ideas and ways of thinking, variety. When I’m “on the road” as they say, I am meeting many new people, learning about different education systems, visiting with students and parents, and sharing the story University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) experience. Back in the office, I work with our digital content team creating marketing campaigns, collaborate with faculty and department leads on new articulation agreements, and correspond with our various university and 3rd party partners. I spend a good bit of team on email and zoom, meeting with my Recruitment and English Language Institute teams, and serving on various university committees and advisory councils.
3. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?
One of the things that I have discovered about myself is that I enjoy looking at our office processes and identifying areas where we can become more efficient. In this regard, collaborating with our digital communications team at UNK to create our first international marketing campaign was an exciting project for me. It has changed the way we spend our time in the office, and it has grown to encompass our Admission and Pre-arrival processes. Collaboration and communication are key to taking on new projects like these, you don’t have to know everything because with a good team, you can accomplish more than one might imagine.
4. What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
One of my greatest challenges has been learning how to navigate a professional field as a young, female, first-gen professional. Early in my career, I didn’t have a strong mentor to help me navigate the political undercurrents in higher education. Things that seemed so simple could become so complex for what seemed like no reason at all. It was frustrating and exhausting. So, identifying strong mentors and allies, those who can help you look at situations from different perspectives and also allow you to vent and move on, are so valuable.
5. How did the global pandemic affect your day-to-day working life?
The pandemic changed everything. I was with a colleague in Bogota when the university announced a travel ban and campus shutdown, and the uncertainty was scary and unsettling. As we see student mobility beginning to bounce back, it’s interesting to reflect on the pandemic adjustments that have proven to be of long-term benefit. The opportunity to redraw the boundaries of work-life balance while also continuing to Zoom with international partners during the months between the NAFSA Annual Conference have brought people and partnerships closer together. Things that were traditionally done through back-and-forth emails, are now completed more quickly and with greater value through video conversation.
6. Where would you like to see your career path going next?
I don’t know what my next title will be or if/when I’ll crawl higher on the ladder, but I hope to always maintain connections with our students and those who go out everyday and do the work to make the international student experience unlike any other. It’s a team effort. And not just the International Education team. Staff and faculty across campus must value the cultures and customs that international students bring to campus. Whatever position may be next for me, I hope it includes a close connection to our students.
7. What membership benefits offered by NAFSA have helped you in your career?
NAFSA has helped me significantly throughout my career. The resources and networks that I can tap into when a student comes with a peculiar situation or to troubleshoot a process have saved me a lot of time, energy, and stress! I’ve enjoyed serving as an interim this or that for a number of different positions within our department, and I could not have survived those days without NAFSA. Also, as someone who manages our international collaborations, the annual International NAFSA meeting does a wonderful job creating an environment where we can meet many of our partners from around the world in just one week. Reconnecting, sharing ideas, and getting to know people in a more valuable way than one can do through email. I also recommend the webinars, training, and pre-conference workshops to help specialize and refine your skill sets and areas of expertise.
8. Do you belong to any special Member Interest Groups, Regions or Knowledge Communities? And if so, which ones and why?
The Intensive English Program (IEP) Network has been so helpful as we re-examine what it means to be an IEP and who we serve. We can no longer serve only those on a pathway to a degree. We must look at our communities, our academic programs and our institutional mission to serve new populations – refugees, migrants, those who need English for specific purposes, etc. and connecting with colleagues who are also working through these challenges brings to light opportunities and challenges that we haven’t seen coming. The same is true for the larger International Enrollment Management Knowledge Community when it comes to recruitment outside of an IEP. I also subscribe to a handful of the Member Interest Groups to stay aware of developments within the field, changes to government regulations, and opportunities for advocacy.
9. What impact has NAFSA had in shaping your career?
NAFSA has enabled my ability to be a bit of a utility player within the office. Earlier, I mentioned having the opportunity to serve as an Interim for various positions and NAFSA played a big part in my ability to find information, sources, and webinars about topics that were relatively new to me. Having that experience and knowledge of other parts of the office has enabled me to collaborate in more meaningful ways with my colleagues. Additionally, without NAFSA, I would not have the international network of colleagues, mentors and partners that I have and that is the most important component of successful international recruitment.
10. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new international educator just beginning their career?
Join NAFSA! And more importantly utilize it for all it’s worth. Too many people join professional associations but never actively engage with the community and resources that are available. None of us will ever have all the answers so utilize the pre-existing network while you gain experience and build a network of your own.
11. Is there a particular area of international education you enjoy working in, such as campus internationalization, global learning or thought leadership etc.? Why?
As a member of the UNK Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council, I am particularly interested in the role of International Education within the larger Diversity conversations that are happening across higher education. It is so important for us to tell our stories and to give space to our students to share their experiences and ideas. There is important work to be done in this area, and International Education representatives need to be welcomed at the table.
12. Finally, what is something unique about your career, or career path?
Perhaps my career path is a bit unique because I grew up in a small, rural town where 95% of people look the same and international travel is seen mostly in the form of all-inclusive resorts not too far from home. I didn’t always recognize it, but I’ve always had this innate interest in what was happening outside of my borders – whether that be other family units, states, countries, etc. It wasn’t usual for people of my age at that time to be wondering about the world and why everyone seemed so content to stay right where they were. I remember telling people that I was going to study abroad for the first time in Morocco and everyone thought I was going to Monaco ... maybe that experience alone summarizes why our work is so important and why I love this field and I love what I do!
Learn more about NAFSA and its members.