Forging a ‘New Normal’ within Education Abroad
April 23, 2020
International education professionals adapt to doing their jobs during a global pandemic while working remotely.
On March 25, when employees from the Global Academic Programs unit at the University at Albany logged onto Zoom for a staff meeting during their second week of working remotely, they were greeted by a surprise guest – Snow White.
Add a little levity. “Everyone is working from home and all the kids are home, so I decided to try something to add a little levity, shake people up a bit and maybe relax them,” says Carrie Prior Wojenski, Ed.D., Associate Vice Provost for Global Academic Programs. She hired an actress friend who portrays fairy tale characters at meet-and-greets to join the meeting as Snow White. The princess sang, held a whistling contest, talked about the dwarfs and handwashing, and stressed the importance of social distancing, even in the forest where she lives.
The 10 office staff members – plus three rapt children – enjoyed the surprise. “It was dorky and funny,” admits Wojenski. “There was just a lot of giggling, and sometimes you need that.”
Providing opportunities to laugh and relax is especially important now that non-essential employees are working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The stresses associated with working from home – and, more broadly, living through a global pandemic – have uniquely affected education abroad professionals who have been dealing with the ramifications of the coronavirus for months.
In late February, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated Italy and Spain as Level 3 countries, Texas A&M University decided to return students to the U.S. and cancel all future spring study abroad programs. Staff worked around the clock to bring students home, says Holly Hudson, Ed.D., Executive Director of Education Abroad. So when her team of 20 full-time employees officially transitioned to working remotely on March 23, they had already experienced the pressure and anxiety of dismantling programs.
“For most people in education abroad, we had a three-week period of sustained crisis mode, adrenaline-driven response,” says Hudson. “To have that come into the local community, onto our campuses, was a little bit more than some people could process.”
Challenges of Working Remotely
Mandates to work remotely have presented an array of challenges as offices adapt to a new normal that entails lots of emails and “virtual meetings galore,” says Wojenski.
Education abroad offices are following up with students whose programs have been cut short and sorting through all the related issues, from academic to financial consequences, as well as planning for the 2020-2021 school year (which may or may not look different than anticipated). “There is still a lot of work related to COVID-19 in addition to the regular work we have this time of year, and the disruptions that occur as a result of being home,” says Hudson.
Perhaps the easiest hurdles to overcome are technology related – identifying suitable technology platforms and dealing with malfunctioning virtual private networks, shared drives, Wi-Fi connections and so on. Within a few days or so, most offices worked through the technical kinks. Working cohesively as a team is a bit trickier. “Just as remote learning sometimes takes a little more legwork and connection, so does remote management – staying in touch with your team and your team staying in touch with you,” says Wojenski.
One of the biggest challenges for Hudson is figuring out how to sustain momentum and motivate employees who have been working tirelessly for weeks on dozens of tasks related to canceled programming. “We hit a wall that first week of remote work: Are we really going to keep doing this? How long are we going to do this?” she admits. “We realized we can’t think about it that way. We have to take it one day at a time.”
Even though teams are working long hours, it’s hard to stay connected working remotely. “We have Zoom meetings, but that doesn’t really take the place of face-to-face connections,” says Hudson. “It’s easy to not turn on your camera one day, and that’s the beginning of not being present and not staying connected.”
With so much work to do, there’s also the risk of not shutting down at the end of the work day, says Wojenski. “We are all trying to be very careful about work creep. If you want to write an email at 6 p.m., that’s your business. But try not to hit the send button until the next day,” she says. “For my team, I have been trying to adopt strategies so they aren’t constantly feeling a blend between work and life.”
Leaders like Hudson and Wojenski are also feeling the strain of shifting responsibilities. “I find myself spending more time managing – making sure everyone’s projects are moving and reports are updated – than I do moving forward on projects I might have been focused on before,” says Wojenski. “It can feel like you’re spinning your wheels and maybe, with baby steps, you actually accomplish something every week.”
Advice for the Field
In the rapidly evolving COVID-19 landscape, most education abroad professionals are learning to adapt to work changes day-by-day. Hudson and Wojenski offer some pointers they have gleaned along the way.
- Turn to peers for support. “People in education abroad are sharers,” says Hudson. “Within 12 hours of knowing we were going to start bringing students home from experiences due to coronavirus, there were texts, calls and social media posts with people checking in on each other.” She posted daily updates on Facebook about her office’s actions with the hashtags #HugYourEducationAbroadProfessional and #SendMoreWine. (And people did, indeed, send her wine.)
- Get regular, written reports from staff. Employees in the University of Albany’s Global Academic Programs unit provide Wojenski a summary of their work twice a week so she can keep track of projects and report to her superiors. The summaries include key actions taken by each employee, challenges they are facing, a list of future projects and any wider concerns. “People have started using those reports to self-reflect,” says Wojenski. “They say things like, ‘I’m caring for my mom this week’ or ‘This is where my mind is this week.’” Having that insight helps Wojenski know how to manage her team.
- Do daily check-ins. Hudson touches base with each of her employees every day, asking how they are doing and if they need anything from her. In addition, she periodically sends positive messages to the team. “I’m turning into a super cheesy person I probably would’ve rolled my eyes at a few months ago,” she quips. Her messages encourage staff to get outside and enjoy the sunshine or thank them for working hard during challenging times.
- Take time to chit-chat. Long days filled with video conferences can be draining. Hudson starts each meeting with a few minutes of casual conversation and ends each meeting by asking everyone to share one positive or interesting thing. “It could be as random as ‘I saw a guy walking down the street with a parrot,’” she says. “Sometimes people just need to talk.”
- Adjust your expectations for campus partners. “A lot of our heavy work was done in February and March,” says Wojenski. “While we may be ready to start slowly moving back to projects and our normal workflow, no one else on campus is there yet.” For instance, Wojenski reached out to the University of Albany’s legal team about drafting memorandums of understanding (MOU) renewals with partner universities. She asked if the team was “in a space to do this or not.” Wojenski hasn’t heard back yet and completely understands the lack of response. “It’s all about meeting your colleagues where they are,” she adds.
- Create opportunities for connection among staff. The social committee at Texas A&M’s Education Abroad Office has re-named itself the social distancing committee. They have organized unique ways for employees to stay connected, such as downloading game apps for everyone to play together and creating virtual happy hours. This is especially important for members of Hudson’s advising team, many of whom are young professionals who moved to College Station, Texas, from other states and don’t have family nearby. “We are each other’s connections at a large research university where most people are transplants,” says Hudson.
- Get creative. Nearly a month into working remotely, Hudson’s team is taking part in “Education Abroad Cribs Edition,” modeled after the old MTV show Cribs, to help the staff stay connected and have a little fun. “Staff will create a two to four-minute video highlighting parts of their homes – remote work locations, pets, their favorite room, fabulous closets,” says Hudson. “It’s meant to be funny; music and costumes are encouraged.”
- Forgive yourself and others. Wojenski read an article that stressed people are not really working from home; they are attempting to do work in a crisis situation. “That’s a good reminder,” she says. “Everyone is trying their best, but they have parents, spouses, children and dogs to care for, and they fear that every cough means something serious.” So she recommends “a little bit of forgiveness” if things don’t go as planned or get done on time.
- Document your story. One thing that Hudson’s staff has been diligent about is changing the status of student applications in the office’s Terra Dotta Global Mobility system to “COVID – returned early” or “COVID – canceled.” She is adamant about tracking and documenting the process. “It’s going to be really important for us a year from now or five years from now as we are rebuilding the work we do and rebuilding our field,” says Hudson. “The details will get fuzzy, and the data is going to tell a story that we are all going to need to tell.”
In the midst of the global pandemic, Wojenski is also thinking about the future. “I look forward to when we can start future planning, not mid-range planning; we are already doing that,” she says. Wojenski is pondering ways to take the lessons learned now and approach internationalization in a new way. For example, she plans on pushing for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) across the curriculum at the University of Albany. COIL creates equitable, team-taught learning experiences, linking classrooms in two or more higher education institutions in different countries or cultural settings.
“What could help people move forward and feel hope is to think about what we couldn’t get progress or movement on before. How can I spin that message and show stakeholders that this matters and now is the time?” says Wojenski. “I want to create something positive out of the terrible situation we've been handed during the pandemic. I want to leverage it for the good of internationalization.”
That goal just might represent the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel and one that can help all education abroad professionals remain optimistic about a future when they shut their laptops at home, return to offices on campus and forge another “new normal” within the industry.