LIMELIGHT INTERVIEW WITH GRACE TWARDY
Grace Twardy recently took the time to share her experience working in the world of global education with us. Grace entered the field of international education in 2016, and had just transitioned into a new role with Boston University in 2019 right before the COVID-19 pandemic caused everything to come to a screeching halt. Because of that, her experiences have been shaped by this event. However, her passion for connection with others and finding community in cross-cultural collaboration has kept her motivated and enthusiastic about international education. Read on to learn more about Grace Twardy.
1. What is your current title, and where do you work?
Senior Manager, University Relations & Program Development, Boston University Study Abroad
2. How did you learn about your current position? (Ex. Networking, Promotion, External Job Posting)
I was fortunate enough to have been promoted to my current position! I have now been in my current role for almost six months after transitioning from my former role as a Program Manager. I have been working at BU Study Abroad for nearly four years now, and it has certainly been an interesting and unique time- having joined the organization in the Fall of 2019, right before the pandemic. I learned a lot about BU Study Abroad from my network and colleagues who were already working in the office, and I feel lucky to have gained such insights about the organization before even interviewing. There have been some great individuals who have come and gone from our office and many who still work there, and I knew I wanted to be working as a part of this team. BU Study Abroad was a place I really wanted to be, and I’m thankful to have had an opportunity to continue to learn and grow here in different roles in the organization.
3. What sparked your interest in working in international education?
While many might typically answer this question by saying how their own study abroad experience inspired them to work in international education, I wouldn’t say that was the main motivator in my case. Of course, my semester abroad in Spain certainly influenced my desire to work in the field, but I didn’t really know that jobs in “study abroad” existed at the time I was beginning my career and exploring my options. I was fortunate enough to work in my study abroad office as a student worker during my senior year of college, and I had some great mentors who encouraged me to consider applying for some jobs with study abroad providers upon graduation. What I love about the field, and what sparked my interest in deciding upon this career path, was the fact that international education combines a lot of my passions that help foster a sense of community: experiential learning, foreign languages, and cross-cultural connections.
4. What was your first job in international education?
My first job in international education was actually working for the same organization that I studied abroad with, CIEE. My role was part of a pilot program they were experimenting with at the time, the Campus Coordinator Program, and it honestly felt like a crash course in the field of international education. I supported the Institutional Relations team with student outreach efforts on campuses in the Northeast, and I was traveling around from campus to campus, tasked to find unique ways to connect with students and help them explore their study abroad opportunities, whether it was tabling, giving info sessions, attending study abroad fairs, or participating in student events. Many of the connections I made during that time are ones I still have to this day, and I’m thankful to have had such great mentors who took the time to let me shadow them and teach me the ins and outs of this particular area within the field.
5. Tell us about your first international experience, either traveling or working abroad.
My very first international experience was when I participated in a Spanish exchange program in high school and had the opportunity to travel to Madrid, Spain. I was very lucky to have attended a high school with a robust foreign languages department, and the exchange program allowed us to host students from a high school in Madrid to stay with us for two weeks in the fall, with us then having the chance to stay with them for two weeks in Madrid in the spring. I love learning foreign languages and learning Spanish and Russian in high school was the gateway for me to learn about the world and other cultures. I am the first in my family to have left the United States, and my parents actually still never have. To have been able to experience and see such a lively, multicultural city at that age really opened my eyes to all there is to be explored, and Madrid holds a special place in my heart because of it. I loved the exchange model because I also really appreciated and loved being able to connect with students our own age from another country, and to this day, I still stay in touch with my exchange student.
6. What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I believe my job really allows me to have such engaging and creative conversations with our partners. I love getting to connect with so many different people from so many different types of institutions. While it can be a bit overwhelming at times, the fact that we do not have regional representatives on our University Relations team and that we cover everywhere across the country gives me the opportunity to meet with people outside of the region that I would never likely cross paths with.
Someone once told me that they believe working in university relations actually allows you to have more of an impact on our students because you get to be the one to work to understand an institution’s needs and challenges and work with them to support them in providing these experiences to their students. This has resonated with me a lot lately as I have continued to understand our partnerships and learn what their students’ interests are as they explore their study abroad options. On a systemic level, I hope that I can have an influence on the opportunities that are available to students and in supporting our partners to make these opportunities feasible for their students. I love when this leads to conversations about how we can collaborate with our partners to create new programs or new courses, and this area of program development that is a new part of my role is something I am really looking forward to continuing to dive a bit deeper into as we learn what the ever-changing needs and interests of our students are.
What I love about my job is what I love about the field of international education: the connections, the community, and the opportunities to continue to learn and grow from our networks and the various professional development offerings we have available to us as we try to ensure we are truly serving our students.
7. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
For me, while I do see travel as a benefit, it can also be quite draining when you are on the road for several weeks at a time. Coming back from the pandemic, I’ve struggled with continuing to maintain my sense of routine and balance. When I’m traveling, it’s even more difficult to keep up with some aspects of my routine that are easier to do when I am in the comfort of my own home. There are times of the year when I might be driving to Vermont, flying to Colorado, and then going right to California during the same week- or spending a whole week on the road for a conference. There are about two months straight where the travel can be intense, and for me, it is a challenge to maintain healthy habits and find times for myself when traveling- especially since I like to also try to take advantage of being in a new place and wanting to explore.
Another challenging aspect of my job is also something that drew me to BU Study Abroad in the first place, which is BU’s unique structure and identity in being both a provider and a higher education institution. This dual identity drew me to BU because I love feeling like part of the BU community on campus, but I also get to work with other colleges and universities to welcome their students to our programs. In many ways, I have both colleagues and teammates at BU and also at these other partner institutions, and I love the opportunities that BU’s structure provides and the reach we get to have with our programming. At times, however, there can be competing priorities dealing with these different audiences, and, of course, working for a higher education institution has its layers of bureaucracy that you typically don’t have to navigate when working at a provider, so it can sometimes be difficult working as a “provider” in a higher education setting and needing to work through the bureaucratic channels when implementing new changes.
That all being said, I do believe that it is when we are challenged that we will grow the most. That’s why I think it’s important to see opportunity in our challenges and why it feels like many of the aspects I love about my role and organization are ones I struggle with at times.
8. Do you have a career mentor or someone that you consult with about career growth?
Yes, and I think the value and importance of mentorship cannot be overstated! I am very lucky that I have some incredibly supportive mentors from various stages of my career; some who have seen me at some of the more difficult times and at the early stages, and some who I have connected with recently who are at similar points in their career and where we have been supporting one another as we continue to evaluate our professional goals.
While I’m lucky to have a supportive manager who supports my career growth and helps me explore my personal interests, not everyone is always able to have these types of conversations with their direct supervisor. That’s why it’s so important to have others who don’t work directly with you act as mentors as well so you can get another perspective. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am in my career without the mentorship and support I have been given.
9. Describe a moment in your career that you consider your greatest achievement.
One thing that I’m really proud of is the work I did as one of the Boston Area Study Abroad Association (BASAA) Co-Chairs during my time in that volunteer role. The mission of BASAA is to provide a platform for international educators in the Boston and surrounding areas to engage in professional development, networking, and collaboration. I happened to take on this role during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused us to have to really think about our programming and how we could continue to support our community during a time that was really challenging for everyone in our field.
We ended up deciding that we would find a way to transition to a virtual format for the first time. I have to say, I think it ended up being a huge success, and we actually had a larger reach and participation rate in our programming now that these opportunities were virtual and more accessible to colleagues from all over, not just the greater Boston area. One session I was most proud of that we offered as part of our 2021 Virtual Spring Conference (Where Do We Go from Here? Moving Study Abroad Forward Sustainably) was our keynote panel, where we actually had the opportunity to connect with program leaders around the world to learn more about how the pandemic was impacting them abroad. We were very conscious of the fact that, of course, in education abroad, many of us were furloughed, laid off, and/or unable to do our work. For the sites, without having students on the ground, we felt it was important to hear their perspectives and provide them an opportunity to connect as well. We had people Zooming in from Greece, South Korea, Uganda, Ireland, and Peru, and via Zoom, we were able to learn what their experiences were like all over the world while navigating similar challenges and opportunities in their locations. For those of us who work with colleagues internationally, of course, we find ways to connect every day- but what an incredible opportunity to bring in their perspectives in a conference setting and be able to offer this type of session to our community.
While the shift was challenging, a big takeaway for me during this time was that we realized how much of a reach we could have with Zoom and creating a virtual space to be able to continue to foster a sense of community. In our tenure, we are proud to say we offered 16 unique sessions across four main virtual events, and that doesn’t include our makeshift virtual happy hours or monthly community discussions. While my time with BASAA was not at all what I thought it would be, I can honestly say that it was such an important part of my life, especially during the pandemic, where I felt a continued sense of purpose and connection to our community. The virtual space allowed us to connect easily, have a larger reach, and force us to be creative and intentional about our programming. I think this is something that anyone could organize within their networks across our field, which sparked a session that I co-presented at the Region XI Conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, last year about how to create and support your communities in the virtual space.
10. How has COVID19 Impacted your work life?
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted all of us in international education in many ways, and I think it’s important to recognize that we are still recovering and processing a lot of what we went through over the past three years. The pandemic impacted my work life quite literally, where I was furloughed for two months during the Summer of 2020. In the grand scheme of things, and compared to other colleagues, I do feel fortunate to still have my job, but it was a stressful time filled with a lot of unknowns. In many ways, I think we are still learning and unlearning as a result of the pandemic, going back to the basics and back to projects and ideas that we are only just now getting to after all this time. We’re still adjusting to being “back,”, especially for those of us who have returned to a mostly in-person work schedule.
I think that having worked through the pandemic and the transitionary period of trying to return to the way things were, I have come to appreciate the benefits of working from home. And having had the chance to pause allowed me to also recognize I need to learn when to intentionally take pauses at work.
11. If you are working from home, has that adjustment been difficult or enjoyable?
I think I might be one of the only ones I know (besides some of my co-workers) that is going into the office most days a week, not that I am complaining. I do actually like working in the office, although I often times find myself being a tad more productive working from home, not getting distracted by all of the social interactions. I think there are pros and cons to working from home, and certainly, everyone’s work style is different. When I was working completely remotely during the pandemic, I did find the adjustment difficult as I missed the in-person connections and collegial aspect of our work. But I did also find it easier to set a routine and more of a work-life balance.
12. What is the best advice you can give to other global educators right now?
Right now, in many ways, I think we are still recovering from everything we experienced during the last three years. There was a lot of pressure to “get back to pre-COVID numbers” and go right back into the swing of things with our work, but so much has changed, and we are still adjusting. Our students have differing needs and require additional support, and as global educators, so do we. It’s important to remember that we are still building ourselves back, and that takes time. We’ve put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and we do need to celebrate our comeback and that we are sending students abroad again!
While many of us are experiencing burnout at times, for me, it’s really important to remember my “why” and why I love the work we do. A lot of those reasons have to do with the people I get to work with and the opportunities that working in this field presents. We are still recovering a bit, but I also think it is a really exciting time for there to be some real change. The pandemic forced us to think critically about our work and continues to highlight some of the issues we need to focus on. I’m excited to see what shifts might take place, whether that’s in regard to our programming and the opportunities we create for our students or the ways in which we advise and prepare our students for these experiences. As we continue to build ourselves back up, there are more opportunities than ever before, and it’s important we continue to pause, reflect, and not be scared to ask questions.
One statistic from the NAFSA Region XI Conference last year (that I helped plan as part of my role as Conference Chair Designate) which has continued to stick with me is this: 51% of conference attendees were attending their first regional conference. We have so many newcomers in the field right now, and for those of you who are new to the field, don’t be scared to reach out and connect with others in your network. For those of us who have been in the field for a bit longer, my advice would be that it’s important for us to help those entering this field understand the importance of our work and get them excited. Connections and community are so, so important for what we do- and my community, colleagues, mentors, and students are what motivates me to stay involved with this work and all that we do in international education.
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