It’s been over one year since I began working at Cal State LA, and just over four years since I began my career as a study abroad professional. What led me here, not only to this campus but to this career? What keeps me here?
A Hill Country Beginning
Having taught for years and after completing doctoral research on international student support, I was not professionally prepared for a position in education abroad. Unlike so many current professionals in this field, I was over-educated and underprepared. Yet one institution decided to take a chance on me: Schreiner University. In July 2014, I moved to the Hill Country to take the poetic title of Coordinator of the Changing Global Society Initiative. While Schreiner had only been sending a handful of their students abroad, I proudly helped double study abroad rates over two years.
Texas was the birthplace of my professional development in the field of education abroad. Thanks, largely in part to mentors like Charla Bailey, the Director of International Education at Texas Lutheran University, and the Texas International Monthly (TIM) group of international educators who met on rotating campuses, I was able to speak with some of the most influential people in education abroad, particularly at large universities like Texas A&M University and University of Texas, both sending over 3,000 students abroad each year. Their best practices have continued to inspire me to pursue excellence wherever I work.
I surprised myself with my passionate dedication to the job. However, I never stopped wishing to see the Los Angeles mountains again. And though I found joy working at a small, liberal arts campus, I knew I wanted a challenge: a large, public university, in California.
Right Back Where I Started From
When Cal State LA announced an open position of Education Abroad Coordinator, I applied. The reason? I was a two-time graduate of one of this country’s greatest public higher education systems. I was also a proud CSU alumna. My two years at Cal Poly Pomona included studying rhetoric and philosophy, teaching freshman composition, and visiting the Arabian horses whenever I had a free afternoon. This was my homecoming, not only to California but also to the country’s largest four-year public university system, known for graduating “low-budget, career and vocational” students.
Yet, while returning to a CSU was my homecoming, I had lived in California long enough to know that it was the younger sister of the Californian higher education system. For years studying at University of California (Zot! Zot! Zot!), it was implied that studying at one of the nine UCs was a better decision than one of the 23 CSUs.
This claim – that CSUs produce job-minded students while UCs produce academics – is rooted in its very blueprint: the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which stated that “state colleges” (now known as CSUs) “shall have as their primary function the provision of instruction in the liberal arts and sciences and in professions and applied fields.” The University of California is also more highly ranked, landing in top-100 lists nationally and internationally (U.S. News; Times Higher Education). In contrast, few CSUs make it on these lists, and none of them are ranked higher than # 200 (nationally) or # 600 (internationally). Cal State LA, in particular, is nearly invisible on these lists.
Graduating an Upwardly-Mobile Generation
Yet, the CSU system is nearly unparalleled in one regard: it is still one of the most affordable university systems in the country. For instance, at $6,600 Cal State LA’s tuition and fees hover at approximately $2,000 more per year than the cheapest in-state tuition in the country. And the CSU system has continued to advocate for student-friendly budgets; they recently decided not to increase tuition at all (they had only increased tuition once since 2011).
Consequently, our university has recently become famous for its social and upward mobility. For example, Cal State LA is first in the country for “upward mobility,” defined as “the fraction of its students who come from a family in the bottom fifth of the income distribution and end up in the top fifth.” Similarly, many CSU campuses (Cal State LA included) help students increase their “social mobility” by educating “more economically disadvantaged students at lower tuition, so they can graduate and obtain good paying jobs.”
As the study abroad coordinator at Cal State LA, I have worked with many first-generation students and personally seen several of them graduate debt-free. In a state where most students graduate with over $21,000 in debt, graduating a generation of students without debt feels like an anomaly. It’s no wonder I love my job; I’m contributing in a small part to a better, more debt-free society. Who wouldn’t want to join that revolution?
My favorite part of working at an upwardly-mobile campus is the optimism and resilience among first-generation students. These students are blazing the way forward for their families and themselves. They create new histories. Study abroad, to me, allows these students to have an even higher impact experience. Not only are they the first in their family to complete a university degree; they are likely the first in their family to study abroad.
I have embraced this optimism, turning them into tangible outcomes such as a strategic plan for study abroad, an 80% increase in outbound exchange student applications, and a 100-200% increase in study abroad scholarship applications. In the adapted words of Buzz Lightyear, students studying abroad with Cal State LA will lead the way, to infinity … and abroad. I’m just happy I’m here for the ride.