GoAbroad Interview

Desiree Williamson - International Exchange Officer

Desiree Williamson - International Exchange Officer

Desiree began working at Ameson as the International Exchange Officer in October 2015. In this role, she is responsible for creating new exchange programs and managing all aspects of existing programs, such as the Ameson Year in China (AYC) and the Sino-American Youth Ambassador Program (SAYA). Desiree’s past program experience includes nearly seven years of international exchange program management on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, specifically managing the Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program (TEA) and the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). Prior to working on exchange programs, Desiree was also a high school history teacher and head tennis coach, and before that, Desiree completed a postgraduate certificate at Stanford University, a master’s degree at the George Washington University, and a bachelor’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado.

From teaching history and coaching tennis to working for the U.S. Department of State, how has your career evolved into what it is today?

Amazingly, working on exchange programs (whether on behalf of the U.S. Department of State or for the private sector) or being a classroom teacher requires a lot of the same skills. Long term and daily I plan and assess goals, I am often creating content and implementing trainings for participants, and my work evolves very much like a class does throughout the program cycle.

I left the classroom after nearly a decade of teaching and knew that I was not done in education, but was ready for a change and found that change in international education and exchange. My first stop was working on the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP), where each program is customized for the participants. That experience really allowed me to utilize my lesson planning and evaluation skills to their fullest. I next transitioned to working with the Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program (TEA), also a Department of State program, that works exclusively with secondary teachers. The TEA Program allowed me to explore content and curriculum development while working exclusively with secondary teachers from 57 different countries.

While working on the Department of State programs was an excellent experience, both programs were well established programs that required little creative thought from me. I ultimately found working on exchanges in the private sector to be more rewarding as it allowed me more flexibility and the chance to be more adaptable to changes.

You joined the Ameson team rather recently. What attracted you to the organization?

Ameson has a growing portfolio of programs that range from high school students to career professionals. I like that Ameson is constantly looking for what their next challenge will be, how to better serve the international education and exchange community, and the fact that they are a thought leader on U.S.-China relations.

You have degrees from Stanford, George Washington University, and the University of Northern Colorado. Based on your own academic experience, what makes Ameson’s approach to education unique?

We are not a university or a school, instead we are here to support educational institutions and to assist educational opportunities through exchange and culture. The Ameson Foundation has a unique team of employees, both in Washington, D.C. and in China, that are able to write curriculum (and have), lead trainings, create programs, publish books, develop international lecture series, and so on. That is what sets Ameson apart; the team of individuals working at Ameson is so unique that their talents know no limits, so each educational challenge is met with a different solution.

Why do you think cultural exchange is important in the world today?

Educational and cultural exchange offers everyone the opportunity to breakdown the barriers that divide us as people, be they geographic, political, religious, what not, and just get to know another person where they are, really without the noise of the media and governments. It allows each person to serve as a citizen diplomat.

Studies show that those who participate in educational and cultural exchange are more likely to seek out multiple forms of news media sources and generally search for peaceful solutions in global conflicts. For me exchange programs, offer all of us a chance to personally break down those stereotypes that exist (the ones about us and the ones we hold about others).

What is the most unique aspect of Ameson’s programs?

AYC does not require any costs from those who participate, which is unique among teaching abroad programs. Additionally, two of Ameson’s offices support the program, so EA’s receive support literally 24/7.

Why is China a great place for cultural exchange?

China is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and has one of the most interesting political landscapes as it is in flux. As China moves from a closed society to open, changes have started to happen all over. In the larger cities, you often feel as if you are in a developed Western country, but you can travel an hour by train and be transported to a developing nation without leaving China.

For those interesting in a myriad of issues, from the environment to social justice, China is a global case study and well worth spending time in to observe, learn in, and use a jumping board for their career.

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

As I balance three exchange programs, my days never look the same at all and it is also dependent on the time of year. I supervise staff, I oversee programmatic timelines, review and approve recruitment advertisements, attend career fairs, plan exchange events, interact with exchange participants, and write/edit program reports. Additionally, we are working on creating a new exchange program, so I am developing that program and writing that application. To say my days are full is a bit of an understatement.

How do make sure each exchange program is culturally sensitive, sustainable, and valuable?

This is a question that we ask ourselves everyday and why we have two teams in two offices working on the program. We have implemented various reporting procedures for alumni and current EA’s on AYC, as well as wellness surveys to ensure that our participants are getting everything from the program they need.

It is my team’s job to be there to represent at all times, as we too are Westerners and understand their perspectives a bit easier. We work with our colleagues in Shanghai to ensure that our EA’s are safe and that we are respectful of Chinese culture and laws at all times, and that is really their expertise.

On our other programs, we work hard with our partners (especially if they are new to our programs) to assist them with the participants and the program. We have a variety of documents, pre-departure materials, etc. that we use to ensure the program is valuable for all.

What is the most rewarding part about your job?

I often find my job rewarding when participants (Chinese or Westerner) has a transformative moment about the other culture. That moment when they realize something they thought for a long time about the culture was true, was really another way (good or bad) because it means the participant is allowing learning to happen, there has been some self-reflection on their own beliefs, and the participant is ready to recognize other beliefs that could be incorrect, which means that program is reaching its objectives.

Are there any new programs or developments from Ameson we should look out for in 2016?

There is a new program we are working on, but I will keep that under my hat for now. AYC will have some new developments as we work to firmly establish a strong alumni network.