“I would take this as an opportunity to think carefully about what a post-COVID world is going to look like and how we can retool our staff for that world,” says Roger Brindley, EdD. Photo: Shutterstock
The scenario is too common at institutions across the United States: After years of budget cuts and hiring freezes, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Between the resulting drops in international student enrollment and a pause on education abroad programs, many international office staff have been confronted with a slew of extra responsibilities.
The need to cross-train with other departments and learn new skill sets adds to the pressures of the job. Meanwhile, the usual professional development opportunities—such as in-person conferences and trainings, as well as the funds to pay for them—disappeared.
That certainly was the situation that GianMario Besana, PhD, associate provost for global engagement and online learning at DePaul University, faced. “We’ve had to do more with less and more with fewer people,” he says. “Things accelerated during the pandemic, when new kinds of work and new responsibilities ended up opening themselves up for members of my team.”
Some of the additional responsibilities also qualify as professional development opportunities—but overworked and short-staffed offices may not perceive these extra duties that way. Senior international officers (SIO) are responsible for changing staff perceptions so that rather than feeling that they are being forced to take on new tasks, staff see these responsibilities as a chance to develop new skills and contribute to greater internationalization goals on campus.
Managing Expectations and Staff Perceptions
These are not easy tasks, but they are necessary ones, and they should be done thoughtfully and with long-term goals in mind. “It’s a challenge because in a moment of crisis, we tend to focus on the overwhelming amount of work on our desk,” says Besana. It’s difficult to “look up and see that what I’m doing now will position me better 3 years from now.”
“I don’t lie to my staff,” he says. “It doesn’t pay. If your advising load was X number of international students, and now it’s 2X, that’s not professional development. That’s the same work, just more of it.”
Fortunately, leaders say that staff are eager to embrace real opportunities. “It’s really hard to force staff to do something they don’t want [to do],” says Lisa Eli, MA, assistant vice president, global and continuing education at Valencia College. However, “it was exciting to see the entire team pivot to something new so quickly.”
Reallocating Time and Resources
The pandemic certainly forced international educators to learn new skills. But it was also an opportunity to rethink department structures and help staff acquire additional skills—and for leaders to frame them as such.
Eli says that her study abroad and global experiences staff suddenly had the bulk of their responsibilities reduced with the lockdown.
“When you have 2 years of study abroad programs canceled at the outset, what are they going to do with that time?” she says. “We all agreed that this is a great opportunity to showcase to the college our role in internationalization of the curriculum and developing global experiences.”
That included working with faculty to figure out how to internationalize their now-virtual courses. “We had a number of faculty as well as the staff go through a variety of training,” says Eli. The cross-training paid off.
“When we shifted to virtual, we actually got higher attendance and more intentional attendance,” says Eli. “In the end, we had more students exposed to global experiences via these new activities and programs than through study abroad alone.”
For example, Valencia staff have recently worked to create a partnership with the University of Sussex on a virtual hospitality project. Students from both institutions will collaborate on assignments virtually, and Valencia students will eventually visit their peers at the University of Sussex as part of a study abroad program in England.
By launching such initiatives, staff gained valuable new skills that will be formally recognized. “We are actually updating our job descriptions” to reflect the new responsibilities, says Eli. “I sincerely believe it is an opportunity to expand [staff’s] work skills, which can lead to greater opportunities in the future for them. It helps their overall career.”
Preparing for the Postpandemic World
SIOs should also be thinking about what comes after the pandemic and how they can cross-train and prepare staff now to flourish professionally.
“I would take this as an opportunity to think carefully about what a post-COVID world is going to look like and how we can retool our staff for that world,” says Roger Brindley, EdD, vice provost for global programs at Pennsylvania State University. “As Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, ‘Never waste a good crisis.’”
The postpandemic landscape is already coming into view. “Prior to COVID, we would wonder how to bring the global experience to the 80 percent of students who would never study abroad,” says Brindley. “COVID had given us an opportunity here, because the faculty learned how to teach online. What does virtual experiential global learning look like on campus next academic year when our students return?”
Indeed, that prospect means professional development will be a crucial component for staff going forward, not just something to which SIOs can pay lip service.
“The staff have to understand that COVID is a paradigm shift in the way they think about doing their work,” says Brindley. “Staff are going to have to be more flexible and innovative and agile.”
Those changes are already underway as a result of the past year and a half. “Global learning and international education [are] intersecting with digital skills-building and twenty-first-century skills acquisitions fields,” says Besana. “Because of the pandemic, these two worlds are colliding.”
As a result, Besana says, “new professional profiles are emerging. On one side is the tech support folks and instructional designers learning about intercultural competence. On the other side, education abroad professionals are becoming more proficient in virtual collaboration skills and digital literacy skills.”
That’s a real professional development opportunity, notes Besana. “It’s on us as SIOs to name this and present it to staff,” he says. “When you can identify this new professional profile, you can motivate staff to take on a little more work and develop themselves in a space where they weren’t before.”
This article first appeared on International Educator.