When I reflect on my international education experiences from high school to the present, I recognize that diversity and representation, as well as a sense of community is usually what guided me. Many of the academic or extracurricular programs I participated in were introduced to me by friends or heavily influenced by whether or not I saw versions of myself within the staff, participants and/or mission. It is the reason I advocate for access, diversity and inclusion in education because exposure and perspective is vital to productive and effective learning and work environments.
My mother moved to the United States the same year I was born leaving behind her family in Germany and Eritrea. We spend multiple summers traveling to visit family, but it wasn’t until high school that we became familiar with the concept of study abroad. I was introduced to two Seattle-based extracurricular programs – OneWorld Now! and Global Visionaries. OneWorld Now! aims to develop next generation leaders by providing opportunities to learn critical languages, develop leadership skills and study abroad. I participated in Arabic language courses twice a week, attended leadership workshops and traveled to D.C. with my peers to meet with professionals at The World Bank, Peace Corps and the Aspen Institute. Global Visionaries is a program that offers a two-week language, education and service immersion program in Guatemala. It was my first international experience without family and it jumpstarted my wanderlust and desire to develop proficiency in the Spanish language. Both of these programs exposed me early on to the significance of international education and global awareness, and largely influenced my academic and professional journey, which has led me to pursue an MA in International Education at New York University.
I attended the University of Washington for my undergraduate degree as a Husky Promise student, which provided tuition coverage for academic and income-qualified students. I credit the Husky Promise scholarship as my gateway to participating in multiple study abroad programs. And although costs exceeding tuition were supplemented by work-study and internal and external scholarships, I understand the financial challenges that are attached with cross-cultural exchange programs and may not have participated in as many programs if tuition costs were a larger concern for me.
The first step to internationalizing my academic experience was applying for the Certificate of International Business (CISB) Spanish Track, a program available to Foster Business students that required taking language courses, studying abroad and attending cohort development meetings. A friend in my Spanish course encouraged me to join her in the summer Exploration Seminar: Communication and Culture in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I was exposed to public relations and gained introductory experience to observational research and conducting interviews. While learning about the experiences of the Chinese diaspora community in Buenos Aires, I realized my interests in working with underrepresented groups given that I identified with some in my own country. Shortly after, I participated in the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity study abroad program to Brazil where conversations of race, identity and education were placed at the forefront. It would also provide me the opportunity to learn about special education practices and mental illness in Brazil.
My decision to participate in the CIEE Liberal Arts program in Santiago, Dominican Republic was ultimately the deciding factor in pursuing a fifth year at the University of Washington. Internally, I felt as if I was going against a social norm because college is generally marketed as a consecutive four year term. The program would expend an entire quarter and a part of me grappled at the thought of wasting time. But I asked myself, what’s the rush? My scholarship would cover tuition for up to five years and I figured, if my plans were to travel after graduation anyways, why not complete an academic program that would not only be covered financially, but allow for greater accessibility and resources in the host country. I took advantage of the additional time on campus and had the opportunity to join a sorority and instruct a course that provided resources to ease the transition from high school to college for first-year undergraduate students.
My non-traditional undergraduate career gave me ample time to hone in on my academic and professional interests and provided me with experiences that are now attractive to employers. I was offered a position as the Event Coordinator for an Atlanta-based non-profit organization that works to offer cross-cultural education programs through Destination Dinners, international trips and Lunch and Learns. I worked alongside the founder and partnered with consulates, tourism boards and community organizations to promote unity and eliminate the idea of “other”. The role solidified my interests in international education and ultimately, my decision to pursue graduate studies in the field.
Now, tuition is not only a concern for me, but a bold reminder to take advantage of my graduate school experience. The coursework is demanding and my approach toward my academic experience is focused on knowledge and development in the field versus obtaining a grade. Communicating with my advisor, setting a graduation plan and practicing time management have been vital to balance courses, serving on the International Education Student Board, providing outbound visa and immigration support at the Office of Global Services as a Graduate Student Employee. I even managed to fit a Cross-Cultural Counseling course in Shanghai, China. However, in times of doubt, when I feel inadequate, or it seems twice as difficult to keep up with course work, or there isn’t diverse representation in course materials or faculty, I remind myself of the importance of community and passing the torch. Therefore, my professional goals revolve around diversifying the representation of students participating in study abroad by creating access and awareness to cross-cultural exchange opportunities and higher education. I want to make an impact toward creating next generation’s leaders and build capacity for opportunities of global citizenship.
About the Author
Senait received her undergraduate degree at the University of Washington. She is currently pursuing her MA in International Education at New York University.