~By Christie Johnson, Senior Director of Communications
Twenty years ago today (August 15, 2001), I walked into the API office to begin what I thought was a job. Little did I know that when I opened that door I was taking my first steps into a career that would span two decades, nor did I anticipate that this position would lead to lifelong friendships with individuals who have enriched my life exponentially and who have become like family to me. Perhaps most importantly of all, that day began a journey that would allow me to help multiple generations of students pursue life-changing international opportunities.
My tenure began with a fateful trip to Italy with API President, Jennifer Attal Allen. I was on the island of Sicily on September 11, 2001, and would remain in Italy until U.S. borders reopened. In that time I saw the kindness of strangers who welcomed me into their homes to contact my family who lived in the D.C. area, who refused payment for what at the time was an extremely costly phone call. Despite the language barrier and my inability to articulate my fears about my loved ones, somehow emotions and basic human compassion transcended any linguistic obstacles. That is perhaps one of the most monumental moments of my life and truly reinforced how beautiful humanity can be, regardless of our differences.
The first fourteen years of my life were spent abroad, due to the careers of my parents. I lived in 4 wildly different countries as a child, and 7 of those years were spent attending a school in Vienna, Austria where over 100 nationalities were represented within the student body, a product of the United Nations branch in the city. I literally grew up benefiting from the richness of cultural differences and exposed to the diversity of nationality, race, religion, and more. I took for granted this incredible blessing and the perspective it provided; namely, life is better when you can learn from others unlike yourself, and when friendships are built across cultural and political boundaries.
My childhood exposure to people from a multitude of backgrounds ingrained in me a deep desire to work to foster greater intercultural understanding, as I so greatly enjoyed living among and learning from people whose heritages, world views and cultural lenses, traditions, and cultural norms are so vastly different from my own. This environment produced an open-mindedness and appreciation of differences for me and my peers, so it has been my life’s goal to facilitate that same opportunity for future generations. Somehow, the fates aligned and allowed me to pursue that dream through my work at API.
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. I was privileged to work with our alumni for many years, and they have inspired me and taught me more than I could ever have imagined. Some of our students have spoken incredible words of wisdom or shared their inspiring stories that I take with me to this day:
- There is the student whose brother had been murdered in her hometown and whose uncle was executed abroad, who wanted to pursue study abroad so she could see the beauty in the world beyond her grief.
- One former student reminded me of the value of living where your feet are (i.e. live in the moment, appreciate where you are and the people by your side).
- There is yet another student who said that the tapestry of our world is made beautiful by diversity, and our differences should be celebrated not just tolerated.
- There is the student who, upon return from Cuba, was overwhelmed by the sheer wealth and privilege that many Americans take for granted. She stood in the airport and decided right then and there that it would be her life mission to help the underprivileged in her own community and beyond.
- We also surveyed the parents of our alumni, and there was one parent who said they’d never been on a plane before, and they were terrified of flying and of all that was different than what they knew. When their own child studied abroad, they finally had the courage to board that plane and travel to another country, and they said that this was the catalyst for change in their own life.
- One of the most articulate students I’ve ever met reminded me that we are all born with potential. Our circumstances may affect our choices, the path we choose affects how we pursue our dreams, but our potential is not defined by others. We all control our own destiny, we all have the potential to attain our dreams, it’s just a matter of how we get there.
- Two students passed away long after their API programs ended, and their families both reached out to us to create memorial scholarships, as both students viewed their study abroad experiences as the most important and meaningful of their lives, which were so tragically cut short. To me, that is perhaps the greatest testament to the value of what we do. Their lives were so impacted by their international experiences that their families sought to honor their memories by helping others to access intercultural educational opportunities.
I could go on and on about the many, many times our alumni have inspired me… but my time at API has enhanced my life in many other ways as well, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. It’s hard to put into words the breadth of incredible experiences this job has afforded me. To summarize in numbers:
- 20 years (7,300 days)
- 6 titles
- 152 universities visited (across 33 states and 10 countries, most of them multiple times)
- 200+ study abroad fairs attended
- 200+ information tables/sessions hosted
- 350+ meetings conducted with university partners
- 11 group site visits were conducted in 5 countries, where we visited 17 cities and 30 universities
- 52 conferences attended
- 11 conference presentations delivered (on health & safety and working with marginalized groups)
- 2500+ flights
- 200+ cars rented
- 750+ nights in hotels
- 25+ times lost (pre-GPS)
- 39 staff members and interns supervised
- 300+ lasting friendships formed with colleagues (stateside and abroad, within API and at partner universities and at competitor organizations) and former students
- 15,000+ (conservatively) conversations with students about international education opportunities and the value of study abroad
During my time I’ve helped manage API’s response to multiple crisis situations, including the attacks in Paris, earthquakes and floods, bombs in England and Spain, political protests and regional transportation and education strikes, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic that ultimately led us to bring our 2500+ students home in early 2020. While these emotional and stressful experiences were exhausting and mentally draining, I was reminded time and again that our students are resilient and brave, and hopeful in spite of the circumstances.
In these situations, I have also been extraordinarily fortunate to work with the most dedicated, ethical, and compassionate professionals in the field, all of whom are fully committed to providing safe and rewarding experiences to our students. Not once during any of these crisis moments did I think I was in the wrong field, or that we should stop sending students abroad given the catastrophic events that could take place. On the contrary, it is BECAUSE of incidents like this why we need to send people abroad. Not because we are intentionally sending them into danger, but rather, to open their minds, to expand their world views, to show others that not all Americans want to build walls to keep “others” out, and to build peace rather than create further divisions. Going abroad (especially during crisis situations) is the most effective way to learn that there is far more that unites us than divides us. People do not ask me as a parent if I still allow my kids to go to school or to parks, even after shootings have taken place in both settings. I am never asked if I think it is wise to travel by car, even when statistically I am much more likely to be involved in a car wreck than harmed by an act of terror. I believe that the field of international education exists to show people that the world remains a place to be explored, that other cultures should not be feared but rather should be appreciated. Truly, life is made greater by seeing things from a different perspective and from meeting people who can shine a light on your path, and may even illuminate a better path to follow.
Finally, I must speak to the friendships that I have formed as a result of this “job”. I count many of my current and former API colleagues among my closest friends. Many have supported me through personal challenges and loss and cheered me on during moments of celebration. They have inspired me by their humility, their dedication, their humor, their empathy, their brilliance, their compassion, and their generosity. Some of my favorite memories from the last two decades feature my international education friends, and I can say without question that I am so much better for having known them.
To all of my API family but especially to the founding mamas, who took a chance on me, I must say THANK YOU. I cannot believe how fortunate I have been to have called API my employer, my career, my home, and my family – and one that extends across continents and spans generations. I have learned more than I imagined possible; I have seen places and faces I never anticipated would cross my path; and I have had the chance to make a difference in the lives of others through fostering cultural exchange and personal growth, both for our students and our staff. I was just 23 when I started at API – virtually a child, it seems. Yet you all believed in me and afforded me opportunities beyond belief. API has impacted not only my life but also the lives of my entire family. I cannot thank you enough for all of your inspiration, support, guidance, care, and friendship over the years.