The Big IDEA - Alum of the Month

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In 2010, IES Abroad alumna, Gretchen Cook-Anderson (Nagoya 1988-89), joined IES Abroad as Director of Diversity Recruiting & Advising. In this role, she develops and undertakes projects, partnerships, and outreach to further increase enrollment and enhance the study abroad experience of underrepresented students. She also pursues additional funding for scholarships and programming for IES Abroad’s Initiative to Diversify Education Abroad (IDEA). Learn how her year in Japan served as a stepping stone in Gretchen's impressive career trajectory, and why she believes study abroad is accessible to all. 

IES Abroad: What led you to Nagoya for your study abroad experience?
Gretchen Cook-Anderson: No one in my family had ever studied abroad before I embarked on my journey to Japan. The very idea of living a year in Japan was an unfamiliar one to my friends and family. I wanted to learn Japanese, desperately, and knew that the best and only way for me to do so would be to take the plunge and study abroad during my junior year to immerse myself in the language and culture. My college didn’t yet offer Japanese language study, and there were no Japanese students attending my school who I could learn from. So, I went out on a long limb and left the comforts of home to study in Nagoya on my very first trip outside the United States.

I also wanted to help dismiss, in my own small way, negative and stereotypical remarks about African Americans voiced by the Japanese prime minister at that time. I knew that I had to spend time living in Japan to build friendships, learn the language, and set an example, in order to do my part. As an African American woman in Japan, a rare sight indeed, I adapted to stares, pointing, picture-taking and other human curiosity toward me to thrive in my adopted cultural surroundings.

In the time leading up to my study abroad experience, there were few options available for study in Japan. IES Abroad offered a great destination in Nagoya, a city that offered wonderful sites and things to do but in a less densely populated city than Tokyo. By way of the Nagoya program’s rigorous curriculum and the warm-hearted support of my Japanese host family, I surpassed my own expectations of how proficient I could become in Japanese during my academic year in Japan.

IES Abroad: When you first arrived in Nagoya, did you have any career goals in mind for after college?
GCA: When I first arrived, my goal was to learn as much Japanese as possible during my stay, for the purpose of using my language skills in a career in international business. Japan was as much in the world’s lens during the 1980s as China is today. I felt that not only would I enjoy the personal fulfillment of becoming fluent in Japanese, but that I would be poised with a competitive advantage in growing my career with Japanese language proficiency and an understanding of the culture.

IES Abroad: How did studying abroad influence you in your career path?
GCA: My study abroad experience in Japan was truly a stepping stone to every career opportunity I’ve ever had. Employers have always been impressed with my language abilities and the traits they glean about me by merely seeing on my resume that I have studied and traveled abroad extensively. My decision to attend Spelman College and my choice to study in Japan with IES Abroad are the two most significant factors that have influenced the path of my career to date. I can say that unequivocally.

IES Abroad: How has your study abroad experience influenced you on a personal level?
GCA: The time I spent as a college student in Japan transformed me immensely. It changed my way of looking at the world as well how I viewed myself. I developed a stronger sense of independence, self-esteem, and empathy for others. Studying abroad deepened my own humanity.

Because of study abroad with IES, I walked along the Great Wall of China; stood in Tiananmen Square mere weeks before the spring 1989 uprising; swam in Japanese mountain hot springs; stood atop Mount Fuji; posed in the full regalia of kimono and face make-up; taught English to grade school children; and strolled through the quiet streets of small villages and the throngs of huge cities across Japan’s main island. The dichotomies that abound in Japan and China’s cultures changed me, and broadened who I am.

IES Abroad: What does your job at IES Abroad involve? What would you consider to be the highlights of your career?
GCA: I adore the work I do with IES Abroad. I have the great pleasure of reaching out to the very same students who are in so many ways a reflection of who I was at their age. I work to inspire other students of color to study abroad, who are underrepresented in study abroad participation. But, even beyond this, my work brings me in contact with all students of diverse and underrepresented backgrounds – first-generation college students; gay, lesbian and transgender students; students with disabilities; students from lower income backgrounds; and students of diverse religious backgrounds, in particular – to expose them to the short- and long-term value of study abroad. I encourage them and the faculty and staff who serve them to see study abroad an experience that can impact them in priceless and numerous ways.

IES Abroad: Walk us through a typical day in your job.
GCA: My time is spent multi-tasking on the various aspects of our diversity outreach. There’s lots of meetings, writing, project brainstorming, problem-solving, collaborating, and public speaking involved in my work.

I spend time talking and emailing with individual students who are considering study abroad, or who are accepted into our programs but have diversity-related questions. I also interact a great deal with study abroad and multicultural affairs staff at our member schools especially, scheduling or hosting diversity outreach workshops, planning campus visits, offering tips and editorial suggestions for the diversity content on their Web sites, and collaborating on conference proposals.

I also meet frequently with our IES Abroad Marketing team to discuss current projects and future materials, Web content, and other projects. I also do a great deal of engagement with potential partnering organizations, with whom we hope to work to connect with more students. On any given day, I’m actively involved in any combination of these activities.

IES Abroad: What advice would you give students who are thinking of going abroad?
GCA: Dream of big adventures abroad, and then work hard and persistently to make sure those dreams come true. Plan and execute that dream, then take full advantage of the value that the experience can bring to your life, and share it with others around you. Study abroad is for everyone! No matter your background, you will be shaped by this experience in ways immeasurable. Bon voyage!

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