Q&A With Dr. Alisa Eland, Associate Director in the International Student Services Office at University of Minnesota

Dr. Alisa Eland is the Associate Director for Counseling and Advising in the International Student Services office at the University of Minnesota where she supervises crises management and career services for international students, and oversees the cross-cultural discussion group program and the international education internship program. Dr. Eland is a published researcher, with writing credits that include“U.S. Culture Series: U.S. Classroom Culture” and “Succeeding Abroad: International Students in the United States,” which appears in the book “International Students and Scholars in the United States: Coming from Abroad.”

Dr. Eland’s combined background in International Relations and Counseling Psychology opened the door for a unique career offering guidance to the more than 6,000 international students at UMN.

What sparked your initial interest in working cross-culturally?

Well, I have been interested in the world probably my whole life…When I was a kid I traveled with my family…we did multiple trips to Mexico, Europe and then spent a summer in Honduras when I was nine.

I think my first trip out of the country was when I was five. I was being exposed to all different kinds of places and people who were, in some ways very similar to me [and] in some ways, very different. I’m tasting different foods, hearing different languages…my parents were taking us, when they could, but as I was finishing high school from then on I was doing what I could on my own to increase my international experience.

Also, my father was a college professor in education and…one of the things he always did was host international students, so we often had international students coming to our house and that was another way for me to learn about people and their own experiences.

How did you find your niche in International Relations and International Education? Did you always know you wanted to take this path?

When I came to the University of Minnesota, I at first was not necessarily planning to study International Relations. I didn’t even know that field existed…I wanted to be an attorney and I was thinking eventually I would get into maybe politics or government. And so I took political science and history and all these different social sciences classes and whenever I could; because of my interest in anything international, I took classes that had an international focus.

When I was maybe in my junior year, my academic advisor was looking at my classes and said, “oh, well, you’re really close to having an International Relations degree.” I was surprised and relieved to find a degree that matched so well with my interests.

So I had this idea in my head about what I would do (with International Relations) but I had no idea about the field that I’m currently in, which is International Education.

I had started studying German in college, and…my German classes were really great, but it became clear that I wasn’t going to become fluent sitting in college German classes. Also, after traveling many places and always talking to people only in English, I really wanted to be able to get to know people in their own language.  So I applied for a scholarship to go Berlin for a year and the scholarship was run by the office that I currently work in, the International Student office. And so I won the scholarship and I went to Berlin for a year and before I even left, we had a year of preparation and that included cross-cultural training and interacting with the international students who were here from the exchange countries…I was learning about cross cultural adjustment and some of the content knowledge for being in another country and then interacting with people from other countries and I just found it so fun and so interesting.

And then when I was in Berlin…I was living with three Germans and going to a German university, which was one of the most challenging academic experiences I’ve ever done. It was really hard. And living with my German roommates—who by the way, more than 30 years later, I’m still really good friends with all three of them—so, you know, that was just a very important experience for me in many ways. And I just thought to myself, wow, I really want to keep doing this kind of work! I still didn’t have a career in mind, but I wrote to the program head [at the International Student office at University of Minnesota] and…I got hired, when I was still in Berlin to work as a student coordinator of that exchange program when I returned to UMN.

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That was my first job in this office, which is now called International Student and Scholar Services. And I never left.

How did the counseling piece get added to your international relations degree?

I started that position as a student and then in talking to my boss about what were my possibilities for continuing, she said, “well, I have funding for graduate assistantships. So if you get into graduate school then we could have you continue on as a counselor advisor”.

So I applied to both counseling…and to intercultural communication also at the U, and I got into both programs. But I decided to go with counseling because I just loved that one to one interaction with people and really having that personal development focus…part of my work is helping people who are highly functioning, just, you know… have an even better experience. And then part of it is working with people who were having difficulty and really supporting them. And so counseling turned out to be a better fit.

How did you continue working on cross-cultural and International Education related issues while in your counseling program?

There were some related classes: there was a multicultural counseling class which was really helpful in learning various approaches to counseling and how clients of different backgrounds might feel about different counseling methods that you use. But…the program itself wasn’t very cross-cultural.

…If we could choose our topic for a paper, I would write it on international students or cross-cultural adjustment…I chose for one of my theory papers [to focus on] family therapy because…knowing more about a student’s family and how to have that kind of conversation can be really helpful.

So, I did that and there was lots of flexibility in my program to do that. And then for my masters I had two required practicums: I did one in my current office, the International Student office and the other one I did at the Student Counseling Center…it was all student focused and I had a great experience with learning about a student development approach to counseling and student learning…

And then when I went to my PhD in the same program…I did my doctoral internship…at the International Student office. So all of my clients were international. And I continued my international student focus with papers, presentations, and even my dissertation.

Did you have any mentors experienced in counseling international students or was it on your shoulders to go out and find information on that on your own?

The whole time I was in my PhD program, I was working first as a graduate assistant and then as a full-time staff here. My supervisor, who was the director of our office, she had her PhD in the same program. She mentored me. She gave me lots of leeway…to just kind of jump in and try counseling, even when I was just a first year master’s student, which was really kind of a scary thing. But she was also there for me to come back and consult with and figure out what next steps were and she just had a really great balance of support and challenge… that worked really well for me.

Also, we have always had a diverse counseling team, so I continue to learn from my colleagues throughout my education and career.

Looking back at your educational experience, is there anything you would change or that you wish you had done differently?

My year in Berlin was, it was really an amazing life experience, but, you know, I already said for, you know, as I mentioned for the education, you know, being able to just learn in another country was so challenging…[It was] one of the best things I’ve done in my career: to put education and career together.

I think if I could go back, I would have also studied abroad in a non-European country. I would not change or exchange my Berlin experience for anything. But, you know, I had such an impactful experience when I lived in Honduras as a child and just really I was learning firsthand about privilege, and social justice and having kids my own age come up to me and try and sell me something or beg for money…it’s a really different experience to be in that environment… And the team that worked at the orphanage included Honduran and U.S. staff, and they were so caring, wise, and determined, and worked well together.  I just learned so much and I think, I wish that I would have also done a study abroad or some kind of experience in a developing country. Maybe I still will.

The population you work with is constantly changing…how do you navigate this flow of relating across so many different cultural backgrounds?

That’s a great question…You know, our largest population by far is Chinese students right now and it’s over 40 percent, I think, of the international population. But back when I was first getting started in the 80’s the doors were just opening up in China. So we, we had very few Chinese students…

When I first started, we had a lot of Iranian students and Nigerian students and we don’t have very many of either of those [now]…because of political and financial reasons, you know, shifts in the oil market and that sort of thing. So the population continues to shift…you just have to keep learning.

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…We have a Chinese staff member; we hired her specifically as the population started to change because we needed her expertise in our office and then as a resource to the campus. And so that’s been wonderful to have her involved in everything we do…So when we’re working with Chinese students, she can give a cultural perspective on what might be going on, and, you know, and some advice about how to approach situations in a way that will be helpful to Chinese students.

…I’ve been to presentations at conferences…I don’t ever assume that I have the expertise. Even with Germans where I spent the most time.

…I keep learning, and not just in these kind of outside ways, formal ways, but also from individual students, being sure to ask a lot of questions about their situation, their perspective.

What advice would you give to a student in International Relations who isn’t sure how to find their specific niche?

Yeah, it’s tricky.

You know, I think different people have different ways of learning. So I’ll just say that one of my favorite learning styles is to talk to people. So, you know, go and talk to my professors, instructors tell them what I’m interested in…get their ideas, you know, and then [ask myself] “how does that sound to me? What specific areas or tracks really fit with who I am?”

Take classes in a variety of areas to see…what really resonates for you. And, just thinking back on how I got into International Relations and how I got into my current field, it was really following my interests. [Although] that doesn’t always work for everybody.

Some people want to have a certain field and a certain job…for a variety of reasons, maybe, maybe it’s what their parents always wanted for them or they saw themselves in this way and even if it doesn’t fit completely, they don’t want to deviate. Maybe it’s because it would bring good salary. I mean, those are all okay…I just would encourage people to…keep in mind your interests and see if there’s a way to, bring it together…

A lot of times you do have the option to pursue…specific interests of yours…the United States education system and often even the work system…[provides] flexibility to change, to add, and I just feel like…my interest and my passion has really driven me to do what I’ve done. [Otherwise] I don’t think I could have finished a PhD, for one thing, because that was really hard if I wouldn’t have just loved what I was doing. It was hard enough with that!

What common mistakes have you observed students make during their search for the right career niche?

It’s important to recognize [when] you’re not in the right place. There really is flexibility to change, generally.

…I think the mistakes might be feeling like you’re stuck in a major or a track that somebody else picked for you or that you thought was going to be the right thing and it’s not. And now you’re, you know, a semester away from graduating.

I think just to, not to not take that as your only answer and maybe it means extending your program longer or maybe it’s other things, like I said, getting into your job or even before you get into your job pursuing some things that you’re interested in, to either an add in or at least do it on the side.

Sometimes the things that you think are your…hobbies, sometimes those things eventually turn into expertise and then you can do something else [connected to those interests]… my advice is try, try a lot of things, e.g., study, interning, and/or volunteering in another country …don’t feel stuck.

You’ve mentioned the importance of always being a learner. How have you done that practically over the years?

So I go to conferences—not every year, but as often as I can. I go to both sessions and workshops that are focused on international students and then others that are broaderfor the field of International Education. So that’s a constant source of learning.

NAFSA is a national association with huge conferences and then there’s the regional NAFSA conferences and workshops and that kind of thing. So that’s another possibility. It’s a less expensive option to get involved at the regional level. But then there’s also local groups, like for people who work with international students, there’s the Minnesota International Educators. People from all over the state come together every other month to talk about immigration issues, but other types of issues related to international students. So it’s a great place to meet people. It’s a smaller group so it’s just easier to get to know people and do networking. You might find even as you get involved more that other job possibilities come up.

Then even within our own office, we have professional development. Some of it is more logistical…just things that we as an office would need to know, but like today we had an office-wide training on personal leadership and how to use that and the concepts of personal leadership in your work and so it’s very applicable to working in a cross-cultural setting or with a cross-cultural population.

I haven’t done this as much lately, but definitely as a young professional I went to conferences in other fields that were related like the Career Development Association because I do some career work here, the College Personnel Association, the National Association of Academic Advisors (because we work closely with academic advisers)…So going to those conferences or workshops or networking to build my expertise in those areas. And then sometimes I’ve given presentations at those conferences so I’ve been able to share about international students with those different focuses.

Are there any significant cross-cultural friendships or work relationships that have impacted your work?

Yeah, definitely….For example, I was supervising someone from another country and in one case our HR person told me that this employee had used more vacation than she had earned and, and so I was thinking, “oh, how could she do that? She should be following that,she should know what to do”.

So I went to talk to her and she said to me, “Well, Alisa, you approved my vacation. So I assumed it was okay”. And so myassumption was that shewas keeping track of how many days she had available and only requesting vacation for that many days. Herassumption was that if her supervisor approved it then it was fine, no matter how many days it was. And so…[it was] something that I thought was so obvious and that I was feeling kind of judgy about.

In the end it taught me to be much more explicit about what the rules are and not just with international employees, with everybody because that can happen with employees that are from the same country as well. And I also learned to ask questions before deciding that she was at fault.

I also learn a lot from my friends. One of my friends—I was in Germany, in Berlin—I was mad at him kind of over a long period of time because of a number of things that he had done that I just thought were not okay. And I kind of felt like he should know that, but of course he didn’t because I didn’t tell him. And then I finally got so mad that I talked to him about it and he was just like, Alisa, why didn’t you tell me when those things happened?

And I’m like, well, I don’t know. I thought you’d be mad. And he’s like, no…talk to me about it when it happens so that we have a chance to talk it through.

And we did talk it through and…I was able to get it from his context and understand it. Even if there was something that happened that made me feel uncomfortable, it actually wasn’t his intention at all. His intention was really positive and I have to say that talking…with him about that really made a difference in my communication style. I can’t say that I’m direct about everything…but I have gotten, I’m much more comfortable with dealing conflict…in a direct way and as much as possible as it’s happening.

Can you share a bit about your journey of juggling a family and managing your graduate studies and career?

I made my decisions about school and work based on trying to get into this office and stay here and be doing the kind of work that I wanted to do… I always knew I wanted to have kids and you can’t put it off forever. There is no perfect timing—we ended up having our kids right in the middle of my PhD program. I took some time off from the program and eventually my department told me that if I wanted to finish I needed to get back to it.

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So I had a deadline by when I had to make some progress and that got me back on track. And even though my kids were little, I, you know, with that external pressure I was able to finish….it’s really hard to do it all, I can say, but I don’t have regrets. It was the right thing for me. I definitely couldn’t work on it when they were really little. But as I got older…I had that pressure and I had support from my office, you know, they really wanted to see me finish. My dissertation topic was directly related to my work, so that worked out really well..

I mean I think it’s really important to talk to your—well I don’t know, I was going to say talk to your boss, but actually that can be a little tricky—…start with your HR and find out what your options are and of course hear from friends…about different options.

And then at a certain point…you just don’t always have control over these things either…and then you just make it work. I mean that’s, I guess that’s what I feel…I don’t know that there’s any perfect time…you do your best with…the circumstances that you’ve decided on and that you have and then you just make it work.

I would like to add that I picked a research focus that interested me and that I cared about so much, that I would be motivated to work on for over 2 years, even when it  sometimes meant sacrificing time with family. I interviewed international graduate students about their academic and cultural experiences, and was so touched by what they shared with me. The data analysis was fascinating and I kept learning throughout the whole process. So I had internal motivation, not just the external pressure.

Can you share any final thoughts on finding the right career path?

I think it’s just important to recognize that you may not see your exact career path from where you’re standing…just to be open to…for things to change and to keep looking for opportunities and where you find your passion and then follow those things to a point and see if that’s the right choice and then if it’s not, be open to new possibilities. Also, just know that any career will take a lot of dedication and hard work, so hang in there and keep learning and building your expertise.

Professional Organizations Dr. Eland Recommends

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