How a decision to live in Japan launched her passion for international education.
This is the third Staff Focus, a new regular feature in George Washington Today that introduces university staff to the GW community. The staff profiles result from feedback gleaned from a GW Today reader survey on ways to better serve our readers. The profiles will be published every few weeks on Mondays. If you want to recommend a coworker for Staff Focus, contact us at [email protected]. Please put Staff Focus in the subject line.
By James Irwin
Katie Ray didn’t own a passport until she decided to study overseas during her junior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One year later, approaching graduation and on a whim, the mass communications major applied for a teaching job—in Japan.
“UNC had these career fairs based on field of study, business, communications—that’s the one I should have gone to,” Ms. Ray said. “And they had one, I think it was something like ‘alternate things you can do after you graduate.’ I attended hoping to find some opportunity that would enable me to live and work abroad, while learning how to communicate more effectively across cultures. I went and talked to this gentleman.”
She doesn’t remember his name, or what he looked like.
“What I do remember is he was happy,” she said. “I remember he had just gotten back from the teaching program, and he was so happy.”
She applied, and spent two years in Japan teaching English to high school students and setting up international exchanges with schools around the world. It was her first step toward a career in international education, one that continues today at the George Washington University.
“I can’t even describe how much I loved it,” said Ms. Ray, who today is the international student liaison for the Global and Experiential Education Office at the School of Business. “That experience led me to this field.”
A growing population
Ms. Ray has been at GW since November 2013, but in her current role for only a few months. At the School of Business, she provides visa support and implements social and cultural programming for international students. She previously worked in GW’s Division of Development and Alumni Relations, where she helped manage the university’s international alumni communities.
International students, parents and graduates are growing populations at the university. According to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning, international undergraduate, graduate and non-degree seeking student enrollment increased in fall 2014 for a seventh consecutive year to 3,746 students. Globalization of educational and research programs is one of four themes of GW’s strategic plan. Soon—likely within the next few years if demographic trends continue—there will be more than 1 million international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities.
As campuses become more global, universities have increasingly emphasized the international student experience. That’s what brought Ms. Ray to Washington, D.C., and GW.
“What I love about both the roles I’ve held here is that my job is to improve the experience of students,” she said. “And the way they interact with each other is important—just making sure students are studying, living and socializing in an environment that encourages collaboration and social integration.”
Improving the student experience
Getting to know people from different parts of the world is a highlight of the work, Ms. Ray said. In her previous role, she often brought students, parents and alumni together, working with current students and graduates to help understand the thoughts and concerns of prospective students and their parents. That’s how she met Huanran “Davis” Sun and Fangliang “Mike” Ding, two students from China.
“Staff throughout the university go to people like Mike and Davis for their insights on how to improve the international student experience,” Ms. Ray said. “I go to them all the time.”
Mr. Sun, a senior from outside Beijing, is studying international business. He transferred to GW from the University of Washington and is the public affairs director for the Chinese Students and Scholars Association. Mr. Ding, a junior from Beijing, is studying sports management and is the former vice president of the Chinese Cultural Association. They, and the student organizations they are part of, are small examples of what the GW community does to support international populations on campus.
“Katie and the Alumni House do a good job overall to connect international students, alumni and parents,” said Mr. Ding. “For us, we are a connection between students and parents. Many of our parents don’t understand English at all. We translate information or send out newsletters so they have a better understanding of what’s going on around campus or what GW is doing in Beijing or around the world.”
Practitioners and scholars
Building a career in international education comes with its share of international travel. In addition to her abroad experience in England and her two years in Japan, Ms. Ray has been to China, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, France and Scotland. Lately, she’s been making domestic trips. She just ran her first marathon in Chicago. And she often spends her weekends exploring the D.C. region.
“I also love that we’re so close to Virginia, and it’s so easy to get to Shenandoah to go hiking, it’s beautiful,” she said. “And Charlottesville is one of my favorite places on earth. This is just a great area.”
Ms. Ray also is pursuing a graduate degree in international education. It allows her to view her field as both a practitioner and a scholar.
“I have a professor in one of my classes, Bernhard Streitwieser, who talks about how international educators should strive to be both,” Ms. Ray said. “On the day-to-day, I get the practitioner side, and at night I read articles and have discussions that are more geared toward the academic side.”
As for the decision that launched her career—teaching English in Japan—Ms. Ray is positive about its effect.
“It changed my life,” she said.