Joe Debiec - Director of Programs
Joe is the director of programs at CISabroad. Joe has a master’s degree in international education from the School for International Training (SIT), and has traveled, studied, and worked throughout Africa and Asia.
Your first study abroad experience was a trip to East Africa during your junior year at Vassar. Why did you choose that destination?
I studied anthropology at Vassar, and I spent a lot of time reading about cultures far and wide, yet I hadn’t been outside the U.S. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of fellow Vassar grad and anthropologist, Margaret Mead, and “go to the source”. While studying abroad I wanted to meet people whose lives were different than anything I had experienced, and I wanted to challenge myself.
I met an amazing SIT Study Abroad alum who got me excited about the experiential approach that they employ on SIT Study Abroad programs. I was so excited about the idea of a classroom without walls and learning through living with a host family; it was so different than any educational experience that I had ever had.
How did this experience change your direction in life?
Through my study abroad experience I learned a tremendous amount about Swahili culture, about Kenya and Africa, and I also learned a lot about U.S. culture and the effect that the United States was having on other parts of the world. My eyes were opened to how interconnected the world is, and how important it is for all of us to be aware of both the positive and negative aspects of globalization (there were many examples of both in and around Mombasa).
After studying abroad, I became a better student because I realized what a great privilege it was to have access to higher education. I returned home with a sense of responsibility, empowered to do something positive with the knowledge that I had acquired while in Kenya. I had felt like somewhat of an outsider at Vassar prior to studying abroad, as I was a first generation college student from a poor family in a rural area. I returned realizing that none of that mattered, what mattered was that I was prepared to create positive change in the world.
Students often have a strong lifelong connection with their first international destination. Do you have that connection with East Africa?
I still get butterflies in my stomach when I think of some of the experiences I had in Kenya! It was a transformative experience for me, and so much of my life would be different if I had not studied abroad. I have a deep love for East Africa.
You also have spent a lot of time in Asia, in both Japan and Thailand. What did you do in those countries?
My journeys in Asia began for two simple reasons: I yearned for adventure and I needed to pay back student loans! I had no idea when I started out shortly after graduation that I would live in Asia for more than five years!
My Asian experience began with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). I’m so lucky to have been selected to participate in the JET program, and to receive the placement that I had. I lived in a very rural part of Japan, on the southernmost of the four main islands, Kyushu. I loved teaching in the public school system; the kids there were very curious and we had a lot of fun together in the classroom and around the school. I enjoyed being a cultural ambassador in a place where many people had never had much contact with the world outside their prefecture. My host family had farmed on the same land for over 400 years, and they were intensely proud of their culture. I learned so much from them, and from all of my students!
While living in Japan I began to explore all over Asia, and Thailand quickly became a favorite place to visit. After wrapping up my teaching job in Japan I decided to live and work as a SCUBA guide on the islands of southern Thailand. It was a very free and fun time in my life.
What is it like working in Asia?
In Japan there was an intensity and seriousness that accompanied my role as teacher. Teachers, doctors, and police are the most esteemed members of community; they are placed on the highest pillar of social respect. As a young professional, fresh out of Vassar, it took me a while to adjust to the responsibility that was required for me to do my job well, and to serve my Japanese community as a Sensei (teacher). I made some mistakes along the way, but I gave 100 percent of myself to the job, and I’m proud of what I accomplished throughout my time in Japan.
In addition to working in the classroom with pre-schoolers, elementary school students, and junior high students, I worked with the English club, I played tennis with the tennis club, wrote for the village paper, and I hosted many events showcasing “American culture”. Even after five years I still felt like I was learning and growing (as a professional and as an individual) every day.
How did you immerse yourself in Japanese culture?
I dove right in! Before requesting a placement location I consulted with a few friends who had studied in Japan. I told them that I wanted to live in a part of the country where I would learn the language, where I would get a feel for Japanese culture, and where the people would be warm and welcoming. They suggested Kyushu Island, and after a quick Google search I decided that Kumamoto Prefecture, on Kyushu, with its bathhouses, miles of coastline, active volcanoes, castles, and connection to bushido (Samurai ways), sounded like a nice place to land. I was right!
When I started on the JET program I was the only Westerner living in Kyokushi Village. There were only a couple of people who spoke English, so from the very start the majority of my days were spent in the presence of my Japanese colleagues who spoke to me in Japanese. I had a host family that cared for me throughout my time in Japan, and they spoke to me entirely in Japanese. We communicated with each other with a lot of non-verbal communication until my vocabulary improved!
You completed a masters degree at the School for International Training (SIT), one of the most prestigious international education graduate programs in the country. What was your thesis about?
For my capstone project I designed a program that was based on reciprocal exchange. I was very moved by the social justice coursework at SIT, so I wanted to put energy into creating ways for international study programs to benefit home and host communities. The program I designed sent young U.S. students to Senegal (where I lived after completing the on-campus phase at SIT) and students from Senegal then traveled to the U.S. The program was designed to have equal representation with participants from the U.S. and from Senegal.
I loved the idea of creating a program where a major part of the learning would come from student’s interactions with each other, while every program participant at one time or another plays the role of “host” and “visitor”. I feel very strongly that reciprocity is something that should be brought into more international education/education abroad conversations!
CISabroad prides itself in affordable study abroad programs, how do you maintain quality programs and strong support services while offering more affordable programs?
One of my greatest challenges as director of programs for CISabroad is ensuring that our programs provide incredible value and remain among the lowest cost, if not the lowest cost program in each location where we operate! We have a great staff around the world who work hard to ensure that our students and interns have genuine experiences that are different than what they would have if they were to travel abroad through any other organization.
We’re able to keep our costs down by thinking outside the box, and by being flexible. Another thing that helps us is that our headquarters is in a small (and incredibly unique) town, so we’re not paying the overhead costs that we’d be paying in a major metropolitan area to run our business.
If you were back at Vassar and had a CISabroad catalog, which program would you want to go on?
Without a doubt I’d be headed to Thailand! Our program just outside of Bangkok offers a great academic experience, tons of excursions and cultural activities, and provides access to all of Southeast Asia (it is so cheap to travel from Bangkok to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar). Also, it is our least expensive semester program. I’m still paying back loans for my expensive study abroad experience, so I can really appreciate the value of the CISabroad Thailand program!