ISA at 25 Interviews: Developing a Study Abroad Program is like “Constructing a Building”

Each week we will be featuring interviews with ISA staff members as part of our 25th Anniversary. This week we’re talking to Jimmy Brazelton, Associate Vice President of Research & Strategic Alliances. Jimmy has been with ISA since 2009.

What do you do here at ISA?

I am the Associate Vice President of Research & Strategic Alliances. That means that I am involved in every aspect of the development of new study abroad programs at ISA, oversee the affiliate companies of the Association of Global Universities (AGU) and Veritas Christian Study Abroad, seek out new initiatives and partnerships for ISA to undertake, and conduct research and statistical analysis for ISA. Additionally, I oversee our Asian region, which is a treat for me since developing the new programs in China and Korea was one of my first tasks when I came to ISA. As you can tell, there is a lot of variety in my work, which I love!

What’s your study abroad story? Tell us a little about your background and the path that led you into international education and, more specifically, to work for ISA.

I come from a very small town in Illinois and never had any intention or expectation that I would ever have the opportunity to travel abroad. Since I was putting myself through school, I was always looking for jobs, and the study abroad office needed someone to help with their databases. They hired me as a student worker and soon after trained me to be a study abroad advisor (though I had never left the Midwest!). When I graduated a couple of years later, they offered me an assistantship and the opportunity to study abroad in Paris. So I continued working for them, started traveling for the office, and after completing my Master’s, applied for the Study Abroad Coordinator position from which my boss had just retired. I then ran the study abroad division for three years before coming to ISA. The only reason I am in the field today is because a couple of extraordinary people believed in a kid who had never even seen the ocean.

Prior to joining ISA in 2009, you worked in the Office of International Studies and Programs at Illinois State University for seven years. How has this experience shaped your perspective here at ISA?

Working in a small study abroad office means that you are involved in every aspect of the student experience. I advised students, handled admissions, set up new programs, managed agreements, created budgets, assisted faculty with custom programs, provided orientation, and administered crisis management. Having a generalized experience with study abroad has really helped me in my work with ISA since you have to consider how every aspect of the program’s development will impact those who will be working on it, as well as the students’ overall experience. Having access to literally hundreds of ISA employees with their own expertise and experiences to help inform the process is like a dream come true. When I was at ISU, we (like so many public universities today) had a limited budget and only our small team on which to rely. When I came to ISA, it was as though every system and every best practice that you could want was already in place. Having the ability to do things exactly the way you know they need to be done with no compromises is truly remarkable to me.

Give us a little insight about the program development process. How does a new study abroad program come into being?

Oh boy, how much time do we have? Well, in short, it starts with a conversation with the other members of the Executive Management team. When we decide that it is time to develop a program in a new location, then we start our program proposal process, which documents and houses all of the information that we need to know before a new program is approved. That way everyone is well informed and has their specific concerns (academic, safety, admissions, etc) addressed before committing to fully develop the program. Once everyone is on board, we have a site visit (or several), develop our relationship with the university, hire and train on-site staff, and then send students. Of course, development of a program is always ongoing, so even after you send students, there is lots of work to do to evaluate and improve the program as well.

What is the single most important factor to take into consideration during the new program development process?

I think of developing a new study abroad program like constructing a building. If you sacrifice one thing, the whole building could collapse on you. You could have the most prestigious host university in an amazing location with hundreds of students who want to go, but if you don’t have top-notch on-site staff, that program won’t be around very long. On the other hand, you could have the best Resident Director in the world, but if it’s in a location that students don’t want to go, the program won’t be sustainable. To me, you have to have the right combination of all of the elements for the program to work.

What’s the next “hot” study abroad destination for U.S. students? Is the next Barcelona or Florence on the horizon?

It depends who you ask. If you just look at the data from “Open Doors,” India and Israel have seen a huge increase in the last year. However, the year before that both India and Israel dropped about 15%. Of course there are trends, but what I’m seeing is that students are becoming less interested in the where, and much more interested in the credit they will receive and the long-term benefits to them. The next Barcelona is going to be wherever someone can develop a program that meets a wide-range of academic needs, has high academic quality, and is in a location that is directly related to a wide-range of careers. I’m not sure one location can do all of this and still be accessible cost-wise to large numbers of students, which is why I think we are seeing a very gradual evening-out of study abroad destinations.

Let’s say tomorrow you wake up as an undergraduate making his study abroad decision. Which ISA program (either new or not-so-new) would you choose and why?

The Shanghai Chinese Language & Business program, no question. The opportunity to live in the biggest city in the world while studying the most commonly spoken language in the world, and learning about how to do business in one of the world’s fastest growing economies – it’s such an easy decision for me. And on top of all of this, you have an incredible Resident Director in Amy Zhang, who really helps the students to delve deeper into the often contradictory culture that exists in Shanghai. Add to that my love of Chinese history and culture, and I’d take that deal in a minute.

What are you most proud of?

The people I work with. Seeing such an incredible group of people work so hard every day for the sole purpose of helping students to have a transformative experience in another country is truly inspiring. Nearly everyone here has had a similar experience some time in their life, so their passion for the field is genuine and energizing.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I’m a huge theatre nerd. I love to go see new plays, which makes Austin a great place for me! There’s a lot of new, experimental theatre going on here, and it’s great to have the opportunity to see it.

Finally, what do you like about working for ISA?

I know I’ve already said this, but I think it bear repeating – the people. Every day I come to work and there are 100 other people here who are all working in international education. We have all had some international experience that has helped shape who we are, and that gives us a common bond. From where I’m sitting right now, I can see a Peruvian Peace Corps volunteer, someone who taught in Mexico for several years, and a Chinese citizen who has been in the US for 3 years – just to name a few. We all have stories to tell and experiences to share that inform our work and the work of those around us. Who wouldn’t love that?

One thought on “ISA at 25 Interviews: Developing a Study Abroad Program is like “Constructing a Building”

  1. Cool to get to know another ISA rockstar – love that you would choose Shanghai (though I prefer Beijing!) and you’re a theater geek (never enough of us in the world). 🙂

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