Nicole Granacki Receives Chicago Scholars' 35 Under 35 Award

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Congratulations to IES Abroad Customized Program Manager Nicole Granacki for being named to this year's Chicago Scholars’ 35 under 35 award, a prestigious recognition for young leaders in Chicago who are making an impact on their community—something Nicole has been doing since she started at IES Abroad in 2016.

In her role in Customized and Faculty-Led Programs, Nicole has successfully worked with HSIs, HBCUs, and diversity offices to develop study abroad programs designed to serve underrepresented students. She has also worked closely with the IES Abroad Diversity Team to further our Initiative to Diversify Education Abroad (IDEA), a comprehensive effort to make study abroad accessible to more underrepresented students.

Nicole and the rest of the 2019 class of the 35 Under 35 awardees were honored at Chicago Scholars’ 5th Annual UnTied Gala on April 26th at Moonlight Studios in Chicago, with ticket proceeds supporting Chicago’s under-resourced, first-generation students. Gala attendees enjoyed the VIP Awards Ceremony and Reception, as well as games and dancing.

We caught up with Nicole after the UnTied Gala to ask some questions about the event, her international education journey, and more:

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IES Abroad: First, how was the Gala? What was it like receiving this award at such an event?

Nicole Granacki (NG): The Chicago Scholars UnTied Gala was a ton of fun. This is the fifth year in a row that I have attended, and it’s honestly one of the best parties in Chicago. The dance floor is full by 8 p.m. and doesn’t stop until they kick us out.

The 35 Under 35 ceremony was extremely moving—I am beyond inspired by the other recipients, many of whom are first-generation college students who attended some of the best colleges in the country, and are now giving back to the young people in our community. My family attended, and my mom was in tears throughout most of the event. It was really special to be able to share the moment with my parents, husband, and aunt, who are my biggest supporters.

IES Abroad: Can you talk a little bit about your first international experiences? What did they spark in you?

NG: When people tell me about childhood trips they took abroad, I always joke that every family vacation I ever went on was to Wisconsin (and it’s pretty much true). I don’t think that’s such an uncommon experience for Chicagoans. However, I was always exposed to different cultures through my friends and their families, and I am grateful to have grown up surrounded by so many different languages, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. Before I went to college, I thought my hometown had everything and was the center of the universe, so I never really considered leaving the state, let alone going abroad. When I was in college, someone came to my classroom and pitched to us on going to Costa Rica to study sustainable tourism for five weeks over the summer. I could get credit that would count towards my degree, and it sounded like an adventure, so I signed up.

Going on the program was almost like an out of body experience. I felt like I was outside watching what was happening to me, but it was so far from my reality that it couldn’t have actually been me. I was speaking Spanish to strangers, eating fresh pineapple from my homestay family’s backyard, whitewater rafting, and journaling about sustainability. I learned so much in those short five weeks that I was hooked and craving more.

IES Abroad: Looking back, what experiences were most important in driving you to a career in international education?

NG: I never planned to work in international education, but I always believed in education as a powerful tool for social change. After spending time in various roles at Greenpeace and National Geographic—and on the Associate Board at Chicago Scholars—the building blocks of my experiences somehow led me down this path.

What keeps me in international education is that it’s the convergence of two of my passions. At National Geographic, I was able to introduce people to different cultures in hopes that they will return more compassionate and empathetic than when they left. As a volunteer at Chicago Scholars, I am able to fight social inequality by leveling the playing field in our education system. In my role at IES Abroad, I’m able to do both: Introduce students to different cultures, creating more compassionate young people, and fight inequality in the education system by making study abroad more accessible to underrepresented students.

IES Abroad: Where does your passion for social change come from?

NG: I attended Chicago Public School from kindergarten through high school, and as a child and teenager there were daily reminders of social injustice. Chicago is home to some of the best and worst high schools in the country, and often your zip code, in this notoriously segregated city, determines your future. From classroom size to computers to college counselors, not every school is created equal, and with a system where you and your friends might end up in different high schools spread across the city, you are able to witness firsthand the inequalities inherent in our education system.

While this passion is personal and started in Chicago, it was cultivated in college. It was in Madison, WI, where I learned to protest, lobby, and organize. Living in a city where presidential candidates would stop by for relatively small events, it was easy to get excited about politics and feel like you could change the world.

“Our students are the reason that I’m excited to come into the office every day, and working somewhere that is taking action to level the playing field when it comes to education inequality is why I’m here.”

IES Abroad: What does it mean, for you, to work for a mission-driven organization?

NG: I have always worked for mission-driven organizations with values that align with my own, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I guess I’m a typical millennial in that way. The thing that makes me most proud to work at IES Abroad is our dedication to providing access to study abroad for underrepresented students. Our students are the reason that I’m excited to come into the office every day, and working somewhere that is taking action to level the playing field when it comes to education inequality is why I’m here.

I could also not be more thrilled to work under a female CEO. I have always worked in female-dominated spaces with men at the top, and it’s a breath of fresh air and an inspiration to have an incredible female leader and role model at the top of IES Abroad.

IES Abroad: Do you have any advice for those who would like to impact their own communities?

NG: Get offline. Go meet your neighbors face-to-face at a community meeting, volunteer event, or campaign activity. Find out who the movers and shakers in your community are and see how you can tap into the great work that they’re already doing. Uplift the voices of those who are quietly doing the work to improve your community. Find the gaps and raise your hand to take on leadership roles.

IES Abroad: Chicago is obviously very special to you. Do you have any favorite areas to visit or spend time in?

NG: Our neighborhoods and our lakefront are what make Chicago a really special place. If you’ve never biked along the lake, I suggest you stop reading this right now and visit. It’s the best way to see the city. Other than that, I would simply recommend exploring a part of the city that you’ve never been to before. I am a big fan of local programs that take people to different parts of the city. Recently gardeners from Little Village and Englewood did an exchange to visit each other’s gardens and communities. The Folded Map Project has brought together people who live at the same address on the north and south sides of town. There are 77 neighborhoods in Chicago, and they each have something unique to offer, so there is a lot to explore.

To learn more about Nicole and the impact she’s made, both in and outside of the workplace, check out her full profile on the Chicago Scholars site. You can also learn more about IDEA and our commitment to diversity.

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