Recently, I attended the NAFSA Region IV regional conference and was fortunate enough to be paired with a senior administrator mentor. This allowed me to ask specific leadership questions and get insights from her extraordinary journey to becoming the Senior International Officer (SIO) of two world-class American universities, as well as a Vice-President at her current institution.
In addition to all of that, she sits on the NAFSA national board of directors. In that capacity, she plays a high leadership role in the biggest international education organization in the world.
Considering my interest in accelerating my career in international education and higher education leadership, I asked her a variety of questions. She willingly shared her wisdom. To me, three things stood out:
1. Engage in Research
She confided that her role as a researcher and her terminal degree had been instrumental in her career. She often felt that Internationalization was never a priority and that the field put it on the back burner. This is definitely something I have experienced, as well. She pushed her projects and initiatives forward by engaging in research activities and producing data and insights that justified allocating time and resources to her activities. Without this, she said she would not have been able to progress as much in her career and make her superiors understand why internationalization was important. She encouraged me to look for a terminal degree, whether that be a PhD or an EdD. In my case, she suggested an EdD even though I personally leaned more toward a Phd.
2. Involvement Beyond Your Institution
Her involvement in NAFSA years ago was a good way for her to network on a national level and to collaborate on a plethora of projects. This allowed her to gain leadership skills, experiences leading teams and managing people and it exposed her to opportunities, as well as best practices from all over the country and beyond. This was especially useful since international education is not as established of a field and ever-changing. I would think that this would also be true of other areas of higher education and student affairs, though. She agreed that student affairs was a collaborative field. To accelerate my career, I had to connect with peers far beyond my institution.
3. Just Do It
Finally, we talked about how life can get in the way. Most professionals have long weeks, filled with meetings and important tasks. This leaves little time to pursue innovative projects and to push boundaries in our field. Nevertheless, going above and beyond is imperative in our field. As a result, she encouraged me to just do it. She told me not to wait for the perfect timing because, well, it simply is never going to be. She told me to go at it boldly. Make mistakes, but to keep trying and to use every minute of the day.
In summary, becoming a leader in higher education and student affairs, specifically in international education requires time and effort. More than that, it requires one to be purposeful about professional development and involvement in professional activities. These three tips stemmed from our conversation and I adapted them for my journey. However, I am convinced that there is value in these for any professionals in my field.
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Podcast With Kyle James on Student Leadership Careers