LIMELIGHT INTERVIEW with Melinda Massaro Ingersoll
I often wonder if working in International Education is more of a vocation and a calling than a career choice based on earning capacity and job security. I sometimes see myself as an inventor, devoting myself to developing new programs, a counsellor, speaking to students around the world on how I can help them achieve their dreams, and an advocate for social justice in trying to bring equality to global education and create opportunities for all.
I recently started working with someone who embodies this notion that International Education is a vocation and someone who probably knew she wanted to work in this field when she was a child, and despite being laid off from her job as Director of Global Programs at La Salle University during Covid, knows she will return to this field and work again with students in International Education.
My conversations with Melinda Massaro Ingersoll have been inspiring and motivational and a reminder of why I work in this field also.
I started working with Melinda as part of a project with the Global Leadership League and very soon it was evident we had a lot in common and saw the world through the same lens. Notwithstanding the fact, we had both lived in and loved Manchester and China, we had a lot to talk about.
Sometimes a career choses you and I think this was the case with Melinda.
She tells me that as a child, she was encouraged to be interested in learning about different cultures.
She was always exposed to diversity, supported by her parents who were excited for her to have many friends from different nationalities, learn about different cultures, love their food, and learn their language from a young age.
When her teen friends were hanging up posters of pop bands in their lockers at high school, she hung up a picture by a National Geographic of an Indian woman during the Holi festival and remembering this being the most beautiful thing she had seen. She wrote to the National Geographic for career advice as she wanted to be a photographer, travel the world, learn about cultures, meet people and celebrate their differences.
And the National Geographic wrote back to her advising her to focus on a college degree incorporating photography but not exclusively, and from that advice she studied a degree in journalism and sociology. She still has that letter from National Geographic by the way!
You could say that Melinda’s career in International Education was born as an Undergrad student in college. Like many of us I think, she didn’t know this was a field or an industry but when she started working with exchange and international students as an RA with the International Office at SUNY Buffalo, a new world was opened up to her, and she has lived in and loved that world since!
During Grad school she became director of the International Building and with this exposure to international students, she thought she would also like the opportunity to study abroad.
Coming from a family of 8 and with little study abroad opportunities available to her at the time, Melinda had to create her own pathway and found an internship at Manchester Metropolitan University. She paved the way to her first international experience, by securing a job at the international student accommodation office in Manchester.
This was the start of a long career engaging with students, doing assessment surveys and helping them to solve problems and find solutions to improve their international experiences.
Returning to Grad School back in the US, she started working as a TA for her Chinese sociology professor and when he asked her if she wanted to join the Chinese Studies program and have the opportunity to visit China as part of the program, she jumped on it.
And thus began her love affair with China, an experience that would lead her to bring her own students back to China four years later as part of her own study program bringing US and Chinese students together. She reminisces on her time in China, that was not without its challenges. Her stay as a teacher in Dalian Medical University was during the SARS epidemic and marred by ill health during her stay, followed by advice by her father, who then worked with the WHO, she had to leave China and come home early which disappointed her deeply. But she would return four years later...
Her time in China was also when the US invaded Iraq leading to the Iraqi War which China was against and she saw the impact of geopolitics first hand on a country’s brand, the danger of stereotypes and how the actions of our governments can damage personal relationships. She saw the need for on the ground collaboration between students from the US and China to build a better understanding of each other’s cultures and the impact that forming relationships can have on better cultural understanding.
After coming home from China, she started applying for jobs with International Offices at universities and got a job with Skidmore College at Residential Life. But it was a move to Philadelphia where she started working with La Salle University that would lead to her dream job. She started doing programming and working in an activities centre and slowly started building her connections with the International Office collaborating on different activities and programs and she knew this is where she wanted to be. She had been continually applying for jobs at International Offices but when a colleague at La Salle was leaving his job in the International Office and encouraged her to apply, she took the opportunity.
She didn’t have the international experience but after successfully getting the job, her new boss told her afterwards that you can always teach someone the skills but you can’t teach them the personality. She was she was told the perfect fit!
What impresses me most from my conversation with Melinda is how she has continuously returned to her ethics and ethos and what led her to international education since putting up that photo of the Indian lady during Holi in high school.
Whilst working as an international education coordinator in her new role at LaSalle, she also started teaching a Chinese history courses and brought students back to her beloved China each year. She closed the circle on the Dalian experience by returning four years later and met many of the colleagues and friends she had to say good bye abruptly to during SARS.
She loved bringing students to China and showing them the China beyond what they knew from mainstream media, beyond Beijing and Shanghai, travelling south, meeting minorities, getting off the tourist trail and was always very excited for her US students when they saw a different China and understood the diversity, cultures, history and anthropology of that country.
She did the same for her students by bringing them to India, pulling back the curtain from the usual tourist spots and studying and meeting people discussing social stratification, the caste system, arranged marriages and helping students correlate this back to US, for example with the issue of racism.
She tells me she felt very honoured to be able to bring students on this journey, to see them face the challenges of culture shock, studying ethnic minorities, social injustice issues, human trafficking in Nepal, social stratification but importantly that correlation back to US society and the US system.
Her goal through it all was working with history, travel and social justice issues – through this she wanted students to get an understanding of where US culture lies and the challenges in the US. Being able to show that the US was not perfect either in terms of challenges, in terms of poverty and social injustice.
I am made very aware of how Melinda’s programs were probably ahead of their time when we see the social justice uprisings in the US recently.
She has seen the impact of these study programs. Students on their return from China and India formed lasting relationships, looked beyond poverty and cultural challenges to create lasting connections. Students felt more empowered to understand connections better, they reached out to the Chinese and Indian community in Philadelphia when they came back, promoting cultural understanding and a more inclusive community…
And surely this is at the very core of all of our work as Global Educators...
For her, the ethos of international education is to give students that nudge and bravery to step out of their comfort zone. She has seen her role as a guide for students, to be able to encourage them, to give them the opportunity, to square the circle for them, to provide them with such unique experiences, as they gain so much out from these experiences.
So now, having been laid off from her job, her work which was her true passion, I ask her how Covid-19 has impacted her life and does she see a return to her career in international education someday?
She is currently volunteering with several organisations as she still wants to be part of global education, she wants to return to this career, does not want to feel disconnected and therefore is doing her best to return to the work she loves.
She sees the role of communities such as the Global Leadership League as being very important now that people in our industry are being laid off, furloughed, or are under pressure financially, or have been through difficult times, trying to homeschool children, care for relatives and are under significant pressure in their personal and work lives.
With Covid-19 and the impact it has had on international education, she and so many of our community have lost all the passion and excitement, that came with their jobs. There is a loss now where there was so much passion before.
We ask ourselves, had we put too much commercial value into International Education and is that why we have lost so much so quickly? Was there so much tied up in international education commercially that it was the first to go at so many institutions.
Melinda sees international education as a service to students and there were huge personal losses as a result of layoffs. Students, both incoming and outgoing were cut off from opportunities, personal connections were lost, and so many stories were behind these job losses
People such as Melinda have made such an impact to Global Education, their connections run deeper than the job and the university … and this is why she knows she will return to this field
What advice does she give to fellow colleagues and readers that have lost their jobs, are being furloughed and are experiencing stress and challenges due to Covid 19?
If you can wait this out, for people lucky enough to find another job, do other things on the side, and when we are able to, she knows there will be a chance to return to this work. It is very important to stay connected, volunteering with organisations such as NAFSA, Forum on Education Abroad and the League. It is important to stay connected, feel connected and stick it out.
She is currently completing her MBA, has been caring for her family and has been busy with side projects. Some days it is difficult to overcome with uncertainty when so much stability is gone from her life and so many of our readers will relate to this.
We are all in this at some level and we have all been affected at some level and she believes it is good to remind ourselves of this and that we are not alone. It is comforting but also very difficult when so many of our colleagues are going through tough financial times.
So many are struggling.
She sees the positives of being able to spend so much extra time with her daughter. She also realises she is now out of her comfort zone, something she so often told her students they needed to do. Her father often told her, the best path in life to go down is the least unknown path.
She is now on that path so is taking her own and her father’s advice.
She says to stay positive, stay connected and use this time to be ready for when we have the chance to come together again and do that work we love as global educators
I have been inspired by my conversation with Melinda. I would encourage every reader that has been affected by Covid 19 to reach out and connect with people in similar situations. There are huge challenges but it is important to feel connected, you are not alone.
- Interview by Global Leadership League member and volunteer, Noreen Lucy
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