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Christie Johnson

17 Dec 2019 4:12 PM | Anonymous

What was your dream job as a kid and why?

If it changed, what led to that decision?I was rather fixated for on becoming a dentist. I came to realize as I grew older that I didn’t actually want to spend my waking hours looking in the mouths of strangers. When I entered college, I planned to teach high school German.  Prior to graduation, my fiancé (now husband) got a job in a different state that would have required different certification, so I decided to focus first on finding a job to pay the bills. As luck would have it, I discovered an opportunity in the field of education abroad, and have not looked back since. 

Tell us about your first international experience and how that influenced your current career choice.
I grew up as the child of career diplomats, so I didn’t actually live in the U.S. until high school. I was born in Colombia, and lived in Burma, Hong Kong and Austria. I spent my pivotal childhood and adolescent years in Vienna, where I attended an international school, which was comprised of students from around the world. This exposure to a multitude of cultures engrained in me a deep desire to foster intercultural understanding, as I greatly enjoyed living among and learning from people whose heritages and cultural norms are so different from my own. This environment produced its own culture of open-mindedness and appreciation of differences that it has been my life’s goal to facilitate that same opportunity for future generations.

What was your first job in international education?
I learned about my first job in through a Washington Post print ad. Just a few months out of college with a degree in German and Spanish, there wasn’t a clear career path for me. I applied for an position at the College Consortium for International Studies (CCIS). The idea of working to facilitate educational experiences abroad piqued my interest. Fortunately, I was afforded the opportunity to work at CCIS by two people who took a chance on a recent graduate, and it is perhaps the single most pivotal experience of my professional career. I quickly fell in love with the work and the people within the field, and my professional trajectory has evolved entirely due to that first opportunity.

Describe a typical day/week at the office at your current job.
Oh, if only there was a ‘typical’ day!  It depends on the time of year and world events! Much of my time is spent working with the API University Relations team. I also get to meet with new API staff across divisions to provide the historical context of our work and to provide new professionals with an overview of international education in the U.S. I also communicate regularly with U.S. university partners, answering questions ranging from program-specific details to emergency management. My responsibilities also include planning site visits and serving on the API Crisis Management Team. I am responsible for ensuring that our partners are fully informed of our response to any crisis that occurs. Finally, I work with our Advisory Board to discuss current policies and future initiatives, which allows us to gather external feedback to ensure that we continue to employ best practices.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?
My job allows me to work with the most incredible people. My responsibilities are broad enough that I have the fortune of working closely with both API domestic and on-site staff, and I could not ask for a better work family. I enjoy working with new professionals in our field, as I love seeing them grow. As I age further away from the college student demographic, it’s also informative for me to learn from the younger staff just what drives the current generation. I also am afforded the opportunity to interact regularly with U.S. institutional partners across the entire country. I enjoy visiting campuses all across the U.S., and it is fascinating to me to see just how different each campus culture is, and how a student’s background and institutional choice informs their awareness of and feelings about study abroad.

If I had to name my favorite part of my job, it is the chance to work with our students, both prior to and following their term abroad. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing how international education has impacted the student, their family, and their community, and the fact that my work may have played a tiny role in their journey is profoundly moving.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
I am intrinsically a people-pleaser, which makes it challenging when I can’t make everyone happy. When it comes to managing staff, I try to ensure that each individual feels supported and valued, and that I am advocating for their best interests. However, there are few circumstances in life that allow for every person involved to be 100% thrilled with the outcome; given how much I care for those I supervise, I always struggle with decisions that may lead to somebody being disappointed. Similarly, I want each of our students to view their time abroad as absolutely perfect; however, there will always be students who don’t love every moment of our programs, almost always due to circumstances beyond our control.  At the end of the day, I have to be comfortable knowing that I’ve done everything I can to make the majority of people happy, and I remind myself that out of disappointment comes personal growth.

What has working in international education taught you about yourself and your own culture?
I can say with some confidence that the vast majority of Americans have not traveled outside of the U.S. It appears from my personal experiences with people who live elsewhere and with people who have never left, that Americans tend to be less apt to explore different cultures and tend to be less comfortable traveling to places where they do not speak the language nor understand local customs. I also think that we, as a culture, may not fully appreciate the privileges and conveniences we have come to expect. If it’s all you’ve ever known, then It’s hard to appreciate that it is not a given that you will have the right to vote or the right to protest peacefully, or guaranteed public education, etc. In terms of conveniences, so many in the U.S. take for granted things like running water, air conditioning, cell phone service, etc. I think this lack of awareness plays a role in intercultural misunderstandings on a micro level, and factor into the isolationist or anti-immigrant narrative that seems prevalent today.

On a positive note, I have traveled widely and spent almost half of my life living in other countries, and I can also say that Americans do tend to be among the friendliest in the world. I appreciate the American ethos that service to others is important and critical to the success of the community. Volunteering is something that is commonplace. It’s also common for those with lesser means to donate to causes important to them, which is something that I have heard from other countries is “inherently American”, and I love that!

Is there a value or principal from another culture that you have embraced and applied to your own life?
While I was immeasurably fortunate to grow up traveling as much as I did, one byproduct of this lifestyle was that I rarely saw my extended family. In my experiences with other cultures, family is paramount and time spent with relatives is valued above all else. I have seen this across cultures, across continents, and I absolutely wanted to provide this kind of experience for my own children. As such, we have remained in the same area for the last 18 years, in large part because we want our son and our daughter to grow up near their extended family, as we so appreciate the importance of fostering strong, intergenerational relationships with our family members, who themselves bring their own varied cultural and personal lenses to every interaction.

On a different note, as an American, I’ve heard time and again the old adage, “never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table.” This is completely contrary to what I have witnessed in many other cultures. While I do generally tend to shy away from conflict, I also firmly believe that the political polarization and divisive discourse that seems to be so prevalent in the United States today could have been mitigated if we were willing to have open and honest conversations with those who may not agree with us on important issues. I try to encourage open dialogue with my children on topics that could be construed as delicate, as I hope they will learn to seek out opinions different than their own to foster better understanding, and hopefully this will allow them to explore new ideas and formulate their own values based on what they learn from others.

Do you have a career mentor or someone that you consult with about career growth? How has that person influenced your career growth?
I have been blessed to work with the four women who founded API 22 years ago, all of whom have served as personal and professional mentors. Each one has taught me how to balance work and family life, and have truly led by example. They inspire me on a daily basis, and have proven that women can successfully pursue their passion and can succeed in a landscape often dominated by men, while managing to retain a supportive and welcoming work environment. The four “founding mamas” of API have always encouraged me and all of my colleagues to lead with compassion, to advocate for myself and for those I manage, to walk with confidence and trust that making the ethical decision will always lead to greater fulfillment and professional success, and that every voice matters when making decisions. 

Describe a moment in your career that you consider your greatest achievement.
My proudest professional accomplishment is a direct result of a personal circumstance. Specifically, I have been blessed to raise a son who falls on the autism spectrum. I have learned more from him, and from being his parent, than I could ever have imagined. In my role as his parent, I researched autism day in and day out so that I could understand and support him better. I also wanted to advocate for awareness of the reality of autism. As autism diagnoses have increased in the U.S., it was only a matter of time before we started to receive questions about how to support those on the spectrum should they wish to study abroad. I have been able to work with our on-site staff as they prepare to host our students abroad, and I have also been fortunate to serve as a resource in the field for those who are hoping to send their students on the spectrum to study abroad. In 2015, I had the honor of presenting at the Forum on International Education Conference with a panel of likeminded individuals, all of whom wished to increase access to international education for those with disabilities or special needs. This opportunity was without question a highlight of my professional career, and I am beyond grateful to have been able to share what I’ve learned to hopefully advocate for greater participation in education abroad for those on the autism spectrum.

In my own research and personal experience, I discovered a lot of parallels between neuro-typical students in the throes of culture shock and those on the autism spectrum. I wrote an article on this topic that also provides advice on how to support students on the spectrum abroad, which can be found here.

What’s one piece of advice that you would give your younger self in high school or college as it relates to your career?
I would reassure my younger self to have faith that things will work out, even if the path seems obscured or unclear. Virtually nobody I know is doing exactly what they thought they’d be doing when they were 16, and I am personally much more fulfilled than I ever imagined, in spite of my career being dramatically different than anticipated.

Secondly, I would remind myself that the number one thing that led to my own professional opportunities is the development of professional and personal relationships with individuals in the field, or within organizations that support my field of interest. My transition to API was facilitated due to a personal connection with somebody who developed study abroad websites, who was able to introduce me to management at API. My subsequent successes at API have stemmed in large part from the relationships I have developed with colleagues, both domestically and abroad. In a field as insular as education abroad, it’s all but guaranteed that your path will cross with others repeatedly, and you can never underestimate the value of a solid relationship. I often think of the international education field as more of a large family, as it seems that we’re all separated by no more than a few degrees… and we all ultimately just want the best for others. It’s incredibly rewarding to work in such a supportive environment, and I would not be where I am today were it not for the friendships I have developed with people across the country and across the world.



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