GoAbroad Interview

John Benander - Vice President of Development & Creative Director

John Benander - Vice President of Development & Creative Director

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, John completed his undergraduate studies at John Carroll University and went on to complete graduate coursework in theology at Ohio Dominican University. During his university studies, he spent time studying abroad in Seville, Spain. The husband of Athena Study Abroad’s founder, John has been part of the organization since it began in 2005.  Today, he is responsible for all marketing and technical aspects of Athena, but he also helps with developmental strategies.

You earned your undergraduate degree in computer science. Did you always imagine yourself building a global career?

In a word, no. Yet, I’m not very surprised, either! While I primarily studied computer science and math in college, my passion has always been to explore both intellectually and physically. I am a big fan of philosophy and religious studies and that often leads me into thinking about the world on a larger scale, and the actions I can take to make this world a better place. I’ve also always had a thirst for travel, so in finding a role that marries my practical skills gained from computer science with my passions, I’m not surprised to be in the field I am.

John and Stacy Benander in Germany
John with his wife and Athena founder, Stacy, in Germany.

You worked in web development in the sports industry for Major League Baseball prior to working for Athena Study Abroad. How did you get interested in the field of international education?

I married the right person! While that’s a bit of a joke, there’s truth that my wife is the one who steered me into the field.

The history of how I got here starts with baseball. I’ve always been a huge baseball fan, and baseball has played a large role in my life. I played throughout childhood and college, but once it became apparent I couldn’t hit a curveball as well as the freaks who do make it into professional baseball, I parlayed my interest in the game and my technical skillset into a job. I was very fortunate to be part of a unique venture for Major League Baseball (MLB), when the organization created a subsidiary technology-communications company. This new company essentially operated as a web-based startup company and I was able to be a part of it.

I learned many valuable skills, as the areas I was a part of were as varied as web development, interviewing players and writing articles, graphic design, and marketing. I really learned the effort and the skills that it took to create something great from scratch, valuable tools I would utilize later in life with Athena.

Man standing in Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Spain
John in Salamanca, Spain

In 2005, when my wife, Stacy, started Athena, I helped things get off the ground from the marketing and technical perspective, working part-time on nights and weekends. While working for MLB was an incredible situation for me, I’ve always been drawn to the altruistic nature of this field. The idea that when you wake up everyday and go to work, you are doing something to help the world become a better place really spoke to me. Not that the entertainment aspect of MLB isn’t helping the world, it’s just that international education has the opportunity to unite the entire globe more dramatically. When the opportunity arose for me to join Athena full-time a few years after its inception, I jumped at it.

Why do you think study abroad is valuable for all young people to experience?

I would be careful about saying that this is for “all” young people, because everyone’s situation is unique. There are efforts in the field focused on getting a larger quantity of students overseas, and while I certainly believe a greater population of young people would benefit from going abroad more than are currently going, I also believe we need to make sure we are focused on the quality of the experience abroad.

If we are looking to cattle 1,000 students over to London for 10 days so they can cross “seeing Big Ben” off their bucket list, I’m not sure that that’s the most valuable experience. I think it can be extremely valuable, however, for students to have a quality, authentic experience abroad. One where they can get immersed in the culture, start understanding the world from a different viewpoint, experience discomfort, and grow.

In our culture, where we try to shield ourselves from any and every discomfort, studying abroad is a way for students to face adversity and come out of the other side knowing that they are capable of great and amazing things. 
Athena Study Abroad staff members
With a few of the Athena Team members

How does the Athena of the early years compare to the Athena of today?

The main difference: the Athena founders have many more grey hairs than the did in the early years! In all seriousness, it’s a great question.

Stacy and I often say that our first child is Athena, because it really is like an organism that develops and evolves, and requires your constant attention. In the early years, it was very simple, much like a baby just needs the necessities like food and sleep. You’re just trying to create something healthy. But as time goes on, the company grows and learns to walk, talk, think, and run, and the possibilities really open up.

So, the main difference from the early times are the complexities that are involved in operating a larger business compared to one that is started on your couch with your cat.

The main similarity is that the mission has never changed. It’s very rewarding to look back over the last 11 years (since 2005) and see that we have not veered from our mission of providing study abroad on a smaller scale. In the era of Walmart, where quantity usurps quality, I’m very proud that our message of a boutique study abroad option has overcome that mindset and resonated in the field. As we summarize in our motto, it’s a “Big World. Made Smaller.”

How would you define a global citizen?

Every human on earth is a global citizen, whether they recognize themselves as that or not. To the point of the question, someone who designates themselves as a “global citizen” is one who who understands that our community does not end at the lines of our political borders. By an extension of this understanding, a global citizen therefore often acts in an altruistic manner, where the world is not an “us-and-them”, but rather just an “us.”

John Benander at the Athena Study Abroad office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
At the Athena offices in Pittsburgh

What characteristic of Athena sets it apart from other study abroad program providers?

To get Athena off the ground, Stacy and I both left stable jobs, which compensated us comfortably. Many of our family members thought we were crazy, stupid, or both when we jumped into this. But we both felt called to do something that could change the world. Study abroad really does do that, and we offer a unique opportunity for students to study abroad in a more personal way.

Our passion, not for money but for helping our global community, trickles down into our company. We really are doing study abroad differently than most of the field. We are not focusing on getting masses of students overseas; we are focusing on getting smaller groups of students to smaller host institutions overseas.

It’s the quality of the student’s time abroad that matters, not the quantity of the students going abroad.

We have our 7 guiding principles of the organization, which really emphasize our commitment to strong relationships with not only our students, but our U.S. partner universities as well as our overseas universities. Also, developing global citizens through education abroad experiences is a core component of Athena’s mission.

Athena developed a charitable arm, the S.O.S. program, to ensure that charity is incorporated at the heart of our programs, students, and organization. We get so much from this world; we feel obliged to give back to it!