What’s It Like to #SApro Abroad? I get that question sometimes, when fellow student affairs professionals learn that I spent nine academic years directing a student life department in Florence, Italy. As the number and scope of study abroad opportunities continue to grow, and as we see the number of students studying abroad increase year over year, I see a corresponding bump in #SApros looking for career-relevant positions abroad.
While still relatively scarce, these positions do exist! So, if you’re lucky enough to land one, what can you expect?
The only rule that I can confidently say applies across the board is: everything is magnified. Positive experiences are even more joyous, and challenges are often significantly more difficult. How does this play out in practice?
Connection with Students.
As SA pros, we already have the privilege of being witness (and, in theory, party) to the significant learning and growth students experience during the college years. Navigating a new location, culture, and language without the support systems from home accelerates and intensifies that learning. In the space of one semester, I’ve seen individual students overcome fears and adversity, increase competence and confidence, and blossom into maturity and resilience you wouldn’t believe was possible in such a brief time.
In my experience, even students who would regard student affairs staff with skepticism (as “The Administration”) on their home campus would consider us more as companions on the journey in Florence. I attribute that jointly to the experience of being foreigners together, and to the small size of the program and therefore high visibility of staff. The opportunity to develop meaningful connections with those students was invaluable, and one I hadn’t experienced on any scale prior to working abroad.
Communication with Parents.
If you’re a parent, have parents, or spent any time working with parents, you can imagine how having a child thousands of miles from home changes the equation. Time zone differences contribute to the challenge in their own special way. Imagine: student, or student’s friend/roommate, contacts parent to discuss a problem (subject to the “Everything is Magnified” rule) at 1:00am local time. It’s midday back at home, so parent calls the President’s office in a panic/in a rage/with a question/with a concern. Hours later, SA pro awakes from a blissfully ignorant sleep to find an inbox exploded.
Response to Crisis.
Crisis takes on a whole new meaning when you’re abroad. Handling emergency situations will require every bit of creative problem-solving, diplomacy, language proficiency, and grit you’ve got. Just as students are without their known network of support, so are you, the SApro. Most likely, campus police and counseling staff will not be available to you; in fact, chances are you’ll be the only staff member on site. There may be vastly different protocols in the local culture for mental health emergencies, alcohol or drug overdoses, and misdemeanor-level offenses than you (and students, and their parents) are accustomed to in the U.S. That said, a deftly-handled crisis will leave you feeling exceptionally relieved and triumphant, and in a better position to face the next one.
Richness of Experience.
That may sound nebulous or idealistic, but I struggle to come up with a more authentic label. For me, there was so much to be relished in doing the work I love while abroad. Traveling with students allowed me to get to know them (and them, me) in different and deeper ways. Conversations about alcohol consumption were almost delightful; they could never default to “you’re underage.” So the context was “you are in charge of your life” and never “you are breaking the law.” Every moment feels so important because of the constant environment of exploration and discovery. As did the knowledge that it would end all too soon.
Living and working abroad challenged me, enchanted me, afforded me dozens of opportunities I may never have again. It made an indelible, beautiful mark on my professional identity. If you ever have the chance to be an SA pro abroad, take it.
This post is part of our #SAinternational series. We will hear from #SApros who work in international student related services. We’ll also hear from those those who have had the opportunity to work overseas or have a global perspective to #highered. For more info, please see Kim Irland’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series.