Interview: John Christian - President/CEO of CAPA International Education

Nov 27, 2012 3:44:28 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

Welcome to CAPA World, a CAPA International Education blog that will focus on exploring the field of international education and taking a look inside the global cities where our program sites are located: Beijing, Buenos Aires, Florence, Istanbul, London, Shanghai and Sydney. Follow along as we get to know some of the locals, share tips and study abroad stories and fill this space with plenty of photography to trigger your wanderlust.

We'll kick it off with an interview so you can get to know our dedicated and enthusiastic President/CEO, John Christian.

John ChristianJohn Christian in Boston, CAPA International Education's headquarters

CAPA World: How do you define the term “international education”?
John Christian:
It’s a large word. International Education encompasses all the different types of learning that happen both in the United States and abroad. That’s students coming into the United States. It’s the internationalization of curriculum on home campuses, which includes sending students abroad. For us, we really define the work we do by calling it learning abroad. That’s part of the greater agenda which is international education.

CW: What sets CAPA apart from other international education programs?
That’s a tough one. Everyone says they make meaningful connections to the location from where they deliver their programs. Not everyone puts a strategy and methodology behind that that actually looks at who individuals are, how they learn as people and then makes connections between experiential and academic learning. The fact that we weave everything together after we understand your personal choices is what makes it personal and powerful. The whole approach of analyzing - the academic, exploring the global city - the experiential, and using these cities in the labyrinth of educational opportunities through your personal lens remains something unique that students are going to take away.

CW: How does CAPA help students balance the educational aspects of a study abroad experience with the cultural?
By making sure they’re not separate. It’s really important that we take an approach that the academic journey and the cultural journey are one. Curriculum is one way we do this. All the courses are related to our locations and the faculty bring in experiences that take you through the city. CAPA staff understand that their job – whether they’re a study abroad advisor, a front desk person, me, a teacher – are in the business of education. So it’s making sure that we, CAPA colleagues, understand that every time we engage with a student it’s a teachable moment. Even if we’re handling a terrible problem, there are lessons to be learned. And if we’re hearing a really cool story about a trip somewhere, there are lessons to be learned.

CW: As President/CEO of CAPA International Education, what has been your most rewarding moment so far?
There have been so many, it’s hard for me to nail one specific one down. Right now, the most rewarding thing I can see is that we've gone through a major re-organizational change management process and the pride I have in the fact that everybody in this organization is comfortable talking about the direction that the organization needs to take. I’m grateful for their ideas about how I’m leading it and suggestions to lead it better. It’s really helped me become a better leader of the organization and understand how to make sure everybody’s on board. So I guess what I’m most proud of right now is that we’re all rowing in the same direction. It feels good because everybody has their thumb on our blueprint for change and is a part of something great.

CW: Tell us about your own experiences as a student abroad. Which memories stand out most vividly for you?
My first study abroad experience was in Spring 1986 when I studied in London. I was a very naive young person. When I got to London, I had obviously heard about the world and read about the world and was exposed to it through books and films and people, but I had never been out in it. My overall London experience to me was precious. If I can say so myself, I was really good at making sure I maximized every single moment, looked at every single one as unique and precious. I just cherished it. London really gave me the flavor of what international learning was all about. Once you’re bitten by the travel bug or you taste something as exotic as international learning, it’s like good food; you want more.

The second was when I studied in Beijing. That, again, was a very, very powerful experience. I was studying Chinese. Almost every day I realized my vocabulary was expanding. I could communicate better in another language. Obviously coming from an upstate New York life, living in China in the 1980s (which is a very different China than it is now) was a challenge. There were good times and really tough times and food poisoning. Every single time I said I don’t care. I’m in China and I don’t want this feeling to go away.

I also had one of the most dramatic things happen to me in my entire life. I was there for 1989. I was supposed to be in China for another year but was there for the Tiananmen massacre. As a postgraduate Political Science student, when I was told there was martial law, that meant Good. Go out. And I did. I was very involved with the students in the square, bringing them food, cigarettes and listening to their stories. I was also there when many of them got killed. So I witnessed death and destruction on a level I would have probably only seen on the news. Its impact on me was two-fold. First, it was just a very scary, shocking, angry realization that people could actually do that to each other just because they were speaking up for democracy. Second, I got back to my room after the main massacre happened. Somebody left a note on my door. It said, “I don’t know what democracy is, but I think you do.” They wrote “Help” with exclamation marks underneath it. I was evacuated the next day. Very tough memory, but again, a very valuable lesson in how difficult the world is and maybe even how special democracy is. That’s just the top part of the story.

CW: How has the field of international education changed since you were a student?
It’s changed so much that it’s hard to put this into a capsulated statement. I will say it has professionalized itself. Students are expecting more. Institutions are going to more places. Risks are increasing. Standards are needed. I think the one largest change that I have seen is the development of and expectations of standards for good practice. International education organizations like us and institutions in the US and worldwide need to meet the challenges of this high expectation and level of delivery for learning abroad. Back in the 80s, people rented rooms with chairs and desks and ran programs out of church basements. Some of the programs were probably very powerful but some of the infrastructure, the advising styles, didn't have to take into account the millennial student, liability and, frankly, education. Some of these programs, while they were powerful and exposed students to things, weren't as strategic in terms of the curriculum and how programs actually identified with their location. It’s been a big change.

CW: How does a study abroad experience help differentiate a student from his or her peers in a job interview?
It depends on how serious and reflective the student is. Unfortunately, we still have students who come on programs and just go through the process. They’ll have anecdotal stories to tell and experiences that will impact them. But, it’s students who raise their own bar, get more involved in their program, break out of groups, do individual things, engage with local people, read newspapers, intellectualize their experience through books and their courses, and really reflect on what’s happening both internationally and with themselves that will benefit most. Those are the students who are really going to be able to talk about it intelligently, and when asked certain questions, whether it’s a global perspective or marketing question in the United States, be able to offer a unique insight. They understand their experience and will be able to use it to enrich their responses and how they approach other people. If they really do engage, they will run into difference of opinion, attitude and values. If they really try to understand the background of these things – even if they don’t identify or appreciate them, they’re setting themselves up with people and life skills that will be separate to somebody who hasn't studied abroad.

CW: Why have Beijing, Buenos Aires, Florence, Istanbul, London, Shanghai and Sydney been chosen as CAPA’s program sites?
London is our flagship, or at the very least, the original location. That’s because I was the original director of the SUNY Oswego London program. Even some of the courses on our curriculum today are from that program that we've maintained. It was really the birthplace of CAPA’s overseas educational activity. After that, we wanted to diversify. Florence was a natural choice for us because of the interest in the language. Then Sydney which was a reaction to an increased demand in the field of international education. We tried to satisfy that need. From there, we really decided that we needed to be more diverse and intercontinental. We went to Beijing and set up a program at the institution where I studied in 1988-9. Then Buenos Aires, Istanbul and Shanghai to make sure that the menu of opportunities to learn abroad with us was diverse.

CW: Give us your best words of wisdom for students currently studying abroad or considering a program.
If you’re considering a program, I’d really try to think about what kinds of outcomes you would like to achieve. If you’re an intern in your field, there might be sites that are better for interning. If you’re a language person, that’s obviously going to dictate where you’re going. But for any student, it’s really important to look at a program and try to understand what the educational philosophy and strategy is. I would try to avoid programs that don’t actually talk about their programmatic methodology or plan. Why? The reality is, whether you’re on a 6-week summer program or a 14-16 week semester program, this is a very short period to learn abroad. Unless you’re doing a full-year immersion, and even then without some plan to help you engage with the location and people, it’s really too short of a period of time without support. So I’d say look at the program and see how they've identified ways for you to make contact with people and make connections between your coursework and the location where you’re learning.

The second part, for those who are studying abroad already, I always say the same thing. It’s a precious, precious time. It’s a very large investment and the worst thing you could possibly do is just go there and think “this is cool” and have a good time. The best thing you could do is reflect on your experience, meet as many people as possible and do what I did, which is treat every moment as an opportunity to learn about somebody else, something else and yourself.

Thanks John!

Topics: International Education, Interviews