Global Engagement Solutions for Higher Education

Best Practices for Funding and Growing Global Engagement with Jill Blondin, Ph.D.

Episode 8 Transcript: Jill Blondin

[00:00:00] Steve MacDonald: Welcome everyone to the Global Engagement Insights podcast from Terra Dotta. I'm Steve McDonald, your host. Today, we're here with Dr. Jill Blondin. You are the associate vice provost at Virginia Commonwealth University and an incredibly accomplished and awarded individual. You're the SIO of the year. And you're one of the top 50 voices of 2023. We're going to be talking about a lot of things. We will discuss gartering resources and strategic budgeting, your advice on constantly advocating for your department and the entire university, and the benefits of global international education. Maybe with that, just tell us more about your background.

[00:00:52] Jill Blondin: Thank you very much. First, thank you for inviting me to share information about me and my work at VCU. I'll talk about my background and these awards, which completely humble me because they are awards for my institution and the work I've done collaboratively at VCU. But one is the 50 Top Voices given by the PIE INSIDER. And that's recognizing the 50 people in North America that people should really be listening to, but also, in some cases, probably mind the loudest voices in North America. And that really speaks to my advocacy for international education. And the work that I've tried to do really getting VCU's name out there as a place of opportunity for all students, including international students, but also I think that it really speaks to the work that my colleagues do as well that I've tried to amplify as far as the SIO of the year award, which is incredible to think about me and the word SIO of the year in the same sentence. I also think that speaks to, uh, the hard work that my team and I have done at VCU and also how much my leadership at VCU values international education, really, above all, because we've really been able to bring that message of comprehensive internationalization and trying to improve opportunities for students who study both at VCU, and our VCU students who then decide to study abroad or engage in other global learning opportunities on our campus. Both awards speak to the important role of advocacy that all of us senior international officers play. And like I said, I feel really humbled but also really excited because of the awards because, to me, it also indicates that my voice is being heard in the name of internationalization.

[00:02:48] Steve MacDonald: That's fantastic because a big part of what we're going to be talking about today is best practices around global engagement, not only getting funding right in the resources, because without that, then we can't have the programs and the success and the impact that we want, but the things that we need to be thinking about in one of the things that we talked about before. Was that the overall importance of global engagement and making the case for why it's so important because then all the internal and external audiences we need to influence that job becomes easier? So I'm going to ask you just, I'm going to ask you actually to rate on a scale of 1 to 10, how important is global engagement for higher education? 1 is not important at all. 10. It's vital to the overall growth and success of the institution itself.

[00:03:41] Jill Blondin: So, the way I would answer it is to say that it's 11. It's vital to the institution's importance because every institution in 2023 and 2024, going forward, will be a global institution, whether they like it or not. It's just how they choose to engage, and you want to do that thoughtfully because it's important for the success of your students, faculty, and staff. So, I can't overemphasize how important it is to be globally engaged as an institution. Again, in some ways, it's not a choice to be global but a choice as to how you will engage. And the more you do that to benefit your students, the stronger the institution is. And that can look a lot of different ways. Depending on the institution, you want to think about the mission and how you, as a global education office, international office, and the leader of international, are aligning with those objectives. But as far as importance, critically important.

[00:04:47] Steve MacDonald: So if you break it down on two sides in terms of the importance for the impact on the student first, and then I'm going to talk a little bit about the impact on the institution. From your years in and now the accolades and everything. Why is this so important for the students themselves?

[00:05:05] Jill Blondin: I think for a number of reasons. For students, when you have a globally engaged institution. In that case, I think what that means is that you're presenting opportunities for students to grow through these global learning opportunities, whether that's study abroad or whether that's participating in a program on campus, such as the Peace Corps Prep Program, or there are so many homegrown global learning programs that institutions develop for the benefit of their students. And when you think about the benefits of that participation, they are the soft skills employers value. Regardless of a student's major, a student could be majoring in engineering or art history, which, for my money, is one of the best majors. I say that as an art historian. Um, but in all seriousness, regardless of your major, the soft skills you develop through global learning opportunities are the skills employers value—things like flexibility, adaptability, cultural agility, being comfortable with ambiguity, and working in teams. Collaborating, all of these things that people value in their employees, are things that global learning develops. And that is true for students who are studying abroad. Let's say from the U. S. they may be going to, um, a country abroad to study, but that's also true for our international students who are coming to the U.S. to study because they're building all of those skills as well because, after all, they're studying abroad too. And so we don't want to forget that. So that's on one hand. On the other, you think about the benefit of global engagement for faculty and staff, and you think of the area of research, which can be publications, lab work, and staff exchange. Seeing how people work in other cultures is just one example that I can use, but we benefit from different perspectives. And so when we work with people from different backgrounds, and that's inter-institutional, we're stronger for it because a lot of times we realize that the way we've been doing it might not be the best way. And we rely on other people's perspectives to have this holistic approach to problem-solving. And

[00:07:27] Steve MacDonald: Every higher education institution thinks about this. The enrollment cliff, right? The declining enrollments are happening. What is global engagement's role in, uh, in addressing this big elephant in the room? So that's a really good question. The first thing that I would say is that we need to approach it by asking a little bit of a different question: Think about our strength in the U.S., which is our higher education system. I will say, and I say this often, that the United States's greatest export, in my opinion, is our higher education system. And I think it's incredible, and it provides opportunities for students, and we see that all the time in the number of people who go on to successful careers who have studied in the United States. And so we see this time and time again. So, when I understand, the tendency is to talk about the enrollment clip and how international education is the solution because we could bring more students to the United States. And it's a bit flawed, it's certainly not a here's your problem, here's your solution. It's more what opportunities we want to reframe it to think about the opportunities we're providing for students who could contribute mightily to both American society and their own. We really want to think about the added value we're providing to international students in the United States, both through the curricula and programs we offer and those post-graduation opportunities. That will really drive students to want to come and study in the United States and then stay and help innovate for careers and fields of which we're not even aware yet because everything is changing. So when we think about the enrollment clip, it's really easy for us to answer the question with the response, Oh, international students are going to solve that problem. A couple of things. One is that, again, I don't like that approach because it's not the international student's job to solve our problem for us. Look, it's our job to provide opportunities for all students that can translate into their success. And when we lead with that, we present those opportunities. More students are interested in studying in our institutions. That's the way I would answer that.

[00:09:54] Steve MacDonald: It's a reinforcement of the very role of higher education. Absolutely.

[00:09:56] Jill Blondin: Yes. Absolutely.

[00:09:57] Steve MacDonald: So it's another boost in that in not only the different cultures and perspectives and creativity and research and economic impact and all of that's why there is higher education, right? Exactly. Okay. That's a fantastic answer. So I want to understand a little bit more about how you think about this, and you've got a strategic program called Dare to be Global. And if you can, give us a little bit of an understanding of what that program is. It's very provocative. I love the Dare to be Global, especially in the context of what we just talked about there.

[00:10:35] Jill Blondin: Absolutely. So, when I talk about Dare to be Global, I mean our strategic plan for internationalization. So, that was developed and led by our global education office at VCU. Still, we had stakeholders from all over the institution who helped fashion a plan to move internationalization ahead and try to promote campus-wide internationalization in a really thoughtful, methodical way by engaging all of these stakeholders. And in that way, we can do, we did a needs assessment, that sort of thing. Then, the plan that came out of it is called D. A. R. E. To Be Global, which sounds great, but what does it mean? And so it's an acronym, D. A. R. E. is an acronym for Data Informed Accessibility Recruitment and Engagement. So, it's important because it really leads us to think about how we approach campus-wide internationalization. From those four pillars, of course, if you would read our plan, there's specificity underneath each pillar that talks about milestones and timelines. But it's most basic. Thinking about those four pillars allows us to ask, What you want to do is X. Does it fall under those? Is it related? How does it move internationalization at Virginia Commonwealth University forward? Really, that serves as a guide for everybody at VCU, particularly in our global education office because it's work we do every day, but the opportunity to infuse that mindset in moving forward throughout the institution.

[00:12:13] Steve MacDonald: Is the DARE recruitment and engagement fairly easy to understand? Please go into more detail on the data provided in the assessment, what you're thinking there, and why that made it into the strategic plan.

[00:12:31] Jill Blondin: Yeah. So the data-informed aspect of it was really, I think, historically, and a lot of senior international officers would say that. Sometimes, with initiatives in campus-wide internationalization, people either do what's always been done, or sometimes we go by instinct, which is not wrong, but how do we measure what we're doing? How do we determine how we're going to engage? I'll give an example if you can do a scan and determine where your faculty research interests lie. Then, that's where you should approach international partnerships. If you have a critical mass of faculty members who have an interest in one geographic region or have connections, then that gives you the information to make informed choices about partnerships that are going to work. The same is true for faculty-led study abroad or thinking about recruitment plans. Where are you drawing students? What programs instead of just relying on, well, that sounds good. Which I think oftentimes we do, or I really like this, um, then instead what we're doing is we're really coming up with a decision making based on the data that we have, and of course that varies at each institution, and that can be informed by, in some instances, locally and global learning opportunities, but really doing a scan of the data and trying to determine how do we engage or how many students, if we have a large number, for instance, Of students from a certain major who are participating in certain study abroad programs or have expressed interest but then haven't followed through on the applications, we have to ask ourselves, what's that telling us? What aren't we doing? We're trying to lead by being data-informed and careful not to say data-driven because the data is not driving us but informing us in our decisions. So that's one aspect of the plan. The other is the accessibility piece, which is VCU, which is an MSI. We're an R1 institution, and we have a lot of first-generation students. And we want them to have global learning opportunities. We want them to have every opportunity. So how do we do that? Increasing accessibility is a huge part of removing barriers in the application process, barriers to studying abroad, or engaging in other global learning opportunities. And sometimes you can think, oh, so you're, it's all, resource intensive. In some cases, yes, but in some cases, it's looking at our processes and our procedures and saying, what could we do better that would remove some of these institutional barriers? Of course, financial barriers, where we look at that too, but we're trying to improve and increase access at a university that has an access mission. So, that is totally aligned with what VCU is trying to do. Anyway, that makes it very easy for us to collaborate internally. Another part of that plan is recruitment, which is the R, and international student recruitment is important to the institution for all the reasons that we stated, including all the opportunities it provides students. And thinking about how we're going to build that out to recruit in a thoughtful way is something that we have been working on. The final piece is engagement, which is the E. Engagement, which centers around faculty engagement and partnerships and how we, again, are intertwined in all of those four pillars. You can't really work on engagement without being data-informed. And, of course, recruitment is, it's very smart. It's going to be data-informed and accessible. So I think that the kind of genius behind the plan, uh, which I'm very clear to say, is not my plan. I helped spearhead the effort, but I wasn't on the committee. So I want to say that the genius about the plan is how intertwined it is, both within the plan itself and how aligned it is with our mission at VCU.

[00:16:37] Steve MacDonald: So one of the big takeaways from everything you said there was because the theme to what we're talking about here is how are we garnering the resources to fund our global engagement programs? And that means that we have to have internal champions, right? We must have data to determine what we want to do and how well something is going. Every aspect of what you talked about there was an important part of that case in continually making sure you're making the case and garnering the resources and getting the partnerships and looking down to the data of what your faculty wants to do, you know, what, where's their emphasis in, in aligning that with your global engagement. So that's fantastic. That is then a good segue into, let's talk about some strategic budgeting best practices. And how you just, you think in, in terms of strategic budgeting, just to begin

[00:17:29] Jill Blondin: with. Yeah. Absolutely. So I'm the first to say that I once worked with a wonderful colleague who would tell me that she dreamed in, um, Excel spreadsheets, but which I do not, I do not. That's not my strength. So I'm here to tell everybody that it's possible to excel in budgeting and be an art historian, but also I'm joking about that. But the truth is that. It's possible to maybe not think that your strength is necessarily in budgeting or numbers or whatever but to still be able to excel in this area, because really what it is about is aligning what you're doing with the mission of your institution, and to be very clear that what you're doing is for, is for the good of all, but that you're not just in a vacuum in the International Education Office, It's just moving forward with initiatives that sound good, or it's not even about size or capacity. It's about alignment. And so I think that as we think about that, and the reason I say that is when I was talking about our strategic plan a few minutes ago that's also where we know to put the human and financial resources. And as you're doing that and you're measuring it, where you're going versus we have a bunch of things that we do, some of which aren't necessarily related, or even worse, the idea of we've always done it, so we're just going to keep doing it. You really have to have a reason that you're putting those resources because it's also a choice when you're doing one thing you're choosing. It's about priorities and not doing something else. And so you want to maximize your impact and how you're moving your institution forward regarding comprehensive internationalization. It's so much easier said than done. When I say this, it sounds as though someone could be listening and saying, Oh, all I need to do is everything will fall in place. And, of course, it's more complicated than that. But to be successful in this enterprise, you must be making priorities that align with your institution so that you can easily show your success. And it is something that you are doing, like I said, in concert with the institution's needs. And it will help you secure resources. Because if you can show that relationship, you can show how you are moving the institution forward, for instance. An example of this might be if recruitment is important to your institution. Or it's stated in the strategic plan. And one thing I would say is to make sure as a leader in international education that you're familiar with your institution's strategic plan and then hope a lot of international there might not be an internationalization strategic plan. Of course, I encourage that. But should there not be two, ensure you can see where your office falls within that plan. Where are those mentions, where are those touch points where you can show student success? You can see growth in the number of international students studying abroad and participating in work. And this also enables you to collaborate intentionally with other academic units. Again, if it's a student, you have student success initiatives, work with your career services, and work with your advisors to help with retention rates. It really helps direct and collaborate when you think about this. It also focuses on you because your international office isn't a, although it is a microcosm of the institution, I often say that the international office touches everything in a way that very few things at the institution do. At the same time, you don't want to become, like, my goal is not to be a little VCU, within VCU, but to collaborate and use those resources so that the people in my office can focus on those things that are not replicated at the institution. We are the experts in some areas. That's what we need to be doing. I don't need somebody in my office who will be doing student housing because our residents like that housing. Is that so much better than we could? So I think the other mindfulness that strategic alignment gives you is that it really focuses you and your staff on what you all do best.

[00:21:52] Steve MacDonald: What's interesting because what you talked about there is being a champion for the mission of your higher education institution, right? Where is it really easy to think about how I gather my champions? For my cause and what I'm doing, when really the way to do that is to be the champion for the faculty and the mission, right? For the overall institution. How often do you need to do that? Is this the kind of thing where you've got a multi-year initiative, you've got to be a champion and garner those resources you can forget for a few years? Are you constantly doing this? You're constantly advocating.

[00:22:31] Jill Blondin: Yeah, that's a great question. So, it is definitely not a one-and-done. It's not that you made your case once, and then it's smooth sailing from there on out. That is absolutely not the case. My role at the institution as the senior international officer is as an advocate on so many different levels. I advocate for students. I advocate for staff, and I advocate for faculty. I advocate for campus-wide internationalization writ large. I often say that I come running whenever someone even breathes the word international or global on my campus. I'm joking, but that gets at the idea of that continuous advocacy that I have to do because that's my job and I am hired to be the senior international officer. So, I have to really set the tone for the critical importance of internationalization on my campus. And that means advocating for people to gain success from our initiatives, including international students, faculty, administrators, and staff. And so I wear many hats, but that's the hat I never take off. That's constant advocacy, too, because there are a lot of competing initiatives at an institution, too. But, like I said, what touches every aspect of the institution? In some way, everybody is going to take a journey around the world today, whether it's on your phone, your computer, on your television, at the movies, or by plane. But we're such an interconnected world that engaging globally has never been more important than ever. And to have someone talking about that and advocating for opportunities for students cannot be overestimated. Without question, the most important aspect of my job is that advocacy piece. And like I said, it extends not just, of course, to students, but it also extends to my staff and faculty, trying to make sure that we maximize the potential of everybody and the outcomes for the institution. And if you

[00:24:36] Steve MacDonald: could frame it in terms of a priority, in terms of guarding those resources, that strategic budgeting kind of theme that we're on here today, If you weren't that constant advocate, how much harder would it be to get the right resources and then ultimately end up with the budget that you want and you need?

[00:24:56] Jill Blondin: Yeah, it's interesting. I'm very fortunate at my institution because I work with administrators, such as our president and provost, who really value internationalization. So I'm lucky, but that doesn't mean I can give up because the institution's success depends on it. So, it's a really good question because you must be proactive. I think that being passionate about it doesn't hurt, which I am. Still, really making the case and telling the stories of students who've benefited faculty and staff, who've benefited from the type of programming opportunities we have, is a way to make that case. But that communication mechanism has two parts to me. The success of internationalization. If I had to boil it down, I'd boil it in two parts. One is that strategic alignment. And part of that is communication. I cannot emphasize enough that when I say communication, it's communication to a multitude of stakeholders, both internal and external.

[00:26:02] Steve MacDonald: That's, I think, the part that everybody really needed to hear is that's constant communication, that advocacy, that if you're going to accomplish what you want to accomplish, you need to be constantly the, the biggest champion for your cause. That's fantastic. So, over the years, you've made budgeting mistakes. That we can all learn from, tell us a story about that so we can learn going forward.

[00:26:26] Jill Blondin: Yeah. It's easy to listen to me on a podcast and think I haven't made major missteps. Of course, I'm human; we always make mistakes, and we learn from those. Some approaches to internationalization don't always lead to the intended outcomes and can waste resources. It's something that my colleague Paul Zagalo-Melo and I discussed, which is delusional budgeting strategies. Delusional revenue, uh, generating strategies, things that sound so good that might save time and resources but, in actuality, turn out to be nightmares. Examples are sometimes in the international office because you want to foster engagement. For instance, it would be easier for us to foster engagement through visiting faculty. We had an apartment on campus that we leased, not realizing that it was a long

[00:29:00] Steve MacDonald: That's a good segue into this balance, right? You can't be everything, right? So you've got to be intentional about what you want to do. And one of the things that I know is that many international offices have a problem balancing in terms of. Just their own time, like administrative work versus the things you want to do proactively in your day

[00:29:36] Jill Blondin: One of my biggest challenges is international education. It's so unique in many ways because I feel as though we're always keeping one eye as leaders. On the television on the news, because there's so much that can impact our world, that makes us suddenly very reactive because of world events. The global always becomes local in international education because it can impact a student's ability to travel. Consider the pandemic, for instance, and the halt on travel and mobility that had so much impact on world events—international education, like no other area, in many ways. So, trying to balance that reactive with trying to be really proactive to move comprehensive internationalization forward can be challenging. And then you lay over the fact that Senior international officers, we're also managers of people. We have, uh, direct reports. Oftentimes, we have a team of people. Most senior international officers, and our one, like, like where I work, like a research-intensive institution, have multiple direct reports. And we want, we're not just doing the institution's work. We're also developing people and helping people with their professional development. So we have so many; what we're doing is so multi-layered that we have to be intentional about those moments, and sometimes those moments present themselves when you might see an opportunity. Oh hey, that would be great for you to do, and it also moves the mission of our office forward. But you also want to be really intentional about helping people develop in their own careers as well. So it's always about others, in many ways.

[00:31:24] Steve MacDonald: I like that. And that's, and that's the thinking, that's what's going to make everybody the best performers is if you're thinking about them, right?

[00:31:32] Jill Blondin: It improves. And this is the thing, too, that helps the institution, and it helps your mission. And being a leader where you, I'm only as strong as my team, I'm just one person. So it's not something I just say, but I really believe it's that opportunity to help develop people. It's exciting for them, and it's also the right thing to do.

[00:32:01] Steve MacDonald: I still want to ask two really important questions. And that is, just over your career and what you've been able to accomplish, What is the one thing you're the most proud of that you've been able to accomplish?

[00:32:16] Jill Blondin: So it's interesting because there are a lot of things of which I am proud, and if I could only choose one, um, it's going to be global, um, which is that I, I feel as though the thing of which I'm most proud is that throughout my career, first as an art historian, a faculty member, and now in the role of senior international officer, I feel as though I've increased my impact over time. So, the thing that I'm most proud of. is the impact I've had on students' lives and faculty and staff. I've been able to create my impact over time. So, first, as a faculty member, I students in my classes, students who I took on my study abroad to Italy, and then later participated student participants in global education, living, and learning programs, and then ultimately, As Senior International Officer, the ability to impact the lives of all students at your institution through on-campus global programming or volunteering for events or participating in study abroad or inbound students coming, the impact is limitless. And so I'm the proudest of feeling I can help people. And that I keep increasing the number of people I can help through my roles.

[00:33:33] Steve MacDonald: And that leads me then to this last area because your background and what you've been able to accomplish in, that passion is infectious, by the way, is what is the, and everything we've talked about here. What's the advice or the one thing that you want people to take away

[00:33:50] Jill Blondin: today? I hope that this has been shared throughout our conversation. But the one thing that I say is that I lead with, and it's always been a part of who I am, is someone who's profoundly collaborative. And if I wanted anyone to take something away, it's that. If you take a kind of we can all win strategy. By that, our institution, me, staff, students, faculty, my department, people outside my institution, and our international partners, when you lead with that in student success, you will never go wrong and so approaching our jobs with. The generosity of making priorities, aligning with the institution, but while doing that, think about a way to do that where everybody can win. It's, it is possible. I'm not trying to sound like a Pollyanna or overly earnest about it because it's hard work, but I do. I believe that by collaborating by asking, the other thing I would say, the thing that would be a takeaway, is to ask for help and to say that I think that people in international education are generous and kind and want to help. Whenever I give a workshop, in a webinar or at a conference presentation, I'm always very, very intentional in saying to colleagues, this is the beginning. This isn't the end of our connection. Talk to me. Email me. Ask me questions because I'll probably reach out to you and ask you questions because that improves all of our work. So, even looking beyond your own institution for help, guidance, and solace sometimes, SIOs were often the only ones who do this at our institution. So, reaching out and also when I meet more junior people in the faculty, people who are new to the field of international education, I'll say, ask me a question, ask me anything. I'm happy to help you, or I'll even say, let me help you because that's how I want to be treated. So we can all win by treating people with a generosity of spirit and an approach. That is so critical to the success of international education. Fortunately, most people in this field share that. So that's the good news.

[00:36:09] Steve MacDonald: That's great because if people have questions after viewing or listening to this podcast, Would it be appropriate if we put in a link to, say, your profile on LinkedIn so they can ask other questions of you?

[00:36:20] Jill Blondin: Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, we're only as strong. It's all the people we're helping. And so people have questions, there are solutions. I think we can solve many of the issues that international education faces together. So I would welcome that.

[00:36:38] Steve MacDonald: Jill, thank you very much for coming on today and sharing your advice, and I hope people take you up on the opportunity to continue the conversation.

[00:36:46] Jill Blondin: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I really appreciate this. It's always fun to reflect and talk, and then I'm grateful you invited me to do this.