ISA at 25 Interviews: London as ‘the Best City in the World’ – Maria’s Story

Each week we will be featuring interviews with ISA staff members as part of our 25th Anniversary. This week we’re talking to Maria Suvagu, Director of UK Programs. Maria has been with ISA since 2007.

Maria, far right, with students in 2008.

What do you do here at ISA?

I manage our London and Reading programs.

Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you came to work for ISA.

My study abroad experience encompasses more than 10 years working in higher education both in the U.S. and Europe.  I was born in Bulgaria but have traveled extensively around Europe and North America. I won a scholarship at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) and continued my studies there. My study abroad experience was one of the most difficult endeavors I undertook but also one of the most rewarding and changed my life and career path forever. After graduating from UMD, I wanted to work in the study abroad field and help students and their parents learn about the rest of the world and have a safe and fulfilling experience abroad. I was managing the Study in England program at UMD but always wanted to come back to London (the greatest city in the world in my opinion). When I found out that ISA wanted to expand their England programs, it was a dream come true for me.

Did you study abroad? If so, please elaborate.

I first went to the U.S. when I was 19 years old on a cultural work and travel experience. I landed in New York City with a desire to explore the country and learn what America is all about. The company that I contracted with promised that I would be living in a resort, have swimming pool and travel around the country. Instead , I spent 48 hours on the Greyhound bus to get from NYC to northern Minnesota, lived in a basement with rats and cockroaches, and worked for less than a minimum wage for more than 3 months. The only place I visited was the place I lived. I found myself in a terrible situation but I made the best of it.

You are originally from Bulgaria, but I understand that you moved to the U.S. to pursue an MBA at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. How has your experience in the International Education Office at UMD affected your perspective?

My experience at the study abroad office at UMD was very valuable because I worked both on the administration side with the faculty and department heads and on the student recruitment and marketing.  I was managing the Study in England and other customized programs there and worked with students on a daily basis.  I have a better understanding of the study abroad field since I have worked in the university environment and know what the administration is looking for in a study abroad program.  The MBA degree has helped me in this position to bring all the parts of managing a team and an office together.

England remains the most popular destination for U.S. study abroad students according to ‘Open Doors.’ Do you think this will always be the case? Tell us about some of the trends in international education in the UK.

The UK is the most popular destination for international students after the US and the most popular destination for US students abroad.  Even though there have been changes in the immigration regulations in the UK, the policymakers know the contributions that international students make to the economy as well as the cultural and political benefits that they bring.  The UK continues to excel in the education market despite the economic downturn and the market is growing 7 percent annually.

You’re fond of saying that London is the “best city in the world.” What are three things that make it so?

London is more than just a city—it captures the energy and knowledge of the world!  You can feel the vibrancy and dynamism when you walk through the city centre or you can easily step aside into one of the 147 London parks where you can relax and forget you are in a large metropolis. London is the greatest student city in the world because it offers superb knowledge, excitement, variety and contrary to popular belief it is not the most expensive city in the world.  There is a multitude of free activities that students can engage in and the city can be very wallet-friendly if you know where to go and with ISA we make this overwhelming endeavor a very manageable experience.

ISA’s first program in the UK was actually in Reading, which is celebrating its 10th year in 2012. Tell us a little bit about what makes ISA’s program there shine.

Our Reading program offers students quality education in a small campus environment. The Reading campus is one of the top 3 in the UK – it is beautifully set on a park land and one of the very few campuses with a lake.  The campus environment is similar to most of the US education institutions and the city is much smaller but yet very close to London so with our help students can experience both cities and have an unforgettable study abroad experience.

What are you most proud of?

Setting up our Study in England program in London and bringing it forward. Helping over 800 students view the world in a different light after their study abroad experience in London/Reading.

What is one thing about yourself that people might not know?

I was singer in the National Children’s Choir of Bulgaria for 10 years which was also an invaluable, character building experience.

Finally, what do you like about working for ISA?

ISA is a very dynamic company and an inspiring organization to be a part of.  At the core of every great company are the people so I most of all enjoy working with everyone at ISA and of course the students!