GoAbroad Interview

Mary Anne Grant - President and CEO

Mary Anne Grant - President and CEO

Mary Anne Grant is the President and CEO of the International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP). She has been with the company since 1981 and held several positions within the organization. Grant helped establish ISEP as an independent non-profit organization in 1997 and since then has helped the organization expand greatly. She has developed programs not only for her company but has contributed to providing opportunities for students from her alma mater as well. This helped earn her the 2012 Distinguished Alumna of the Year award from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

What inspired you to study French as an undergraduate? Did you always know your career would be connected with international education?

I studied French because I wanted to learn a foreign language and thought French the most beautiful. When I was in college, international education was not really a career track. But, I knew I wanted to do something ‘international’ and came to Washington after earning my BA and then spending two years in France.  In looking for job opportunities, I learned about higher education associations and landed a position with the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars which administers the senior Fulbright program; thus my career in international education was launched. 

Congratulations on being named Distinguished Alumna of the Year 2012 by the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Was it surreal to go from a student to accepting a distinguished award on the same campus?

I am very honored to have been named the Distinguished Alumna of the Year by UTC. My university education at UTC provided the foundation for further growth and development and I am fortunate to be engaged in endeavors that bring something back to today’s students. The award is not only a recognition of my work but of the value that UTC places on international education today and how much they encourage students to study abroad. 

A student riding a camel

US students can study abroad worldwide on ISEP Exchange or ISEP Direct. Photo courtesy of ISEP

ISEP has grown to include exchange programs at 300 institutions in 50 countries. What characteristics do you look for when considering a partnership with a new university or college?

ISEP member institutions must make a commitment to collaboration with the Network for student mobility. We look for institutions that will utilize a broad range of study options through ISEP and will set up the systems necessary to support both outgoing and incoming students. Increasingly, we want our members to develop an articulated vision for how ISEP fits with their institutional mission for international education and engage the institution as a whole. 

ISEP members recognize that they gain a great deal by working collaboratively and can do more together than they can accomplish alone. Of course, all our member institutions are recognized by regional accrediting associations in the United States or appropriate higher education entities in the home country.

What was the most difficult part of ISEP’s transition in 1997 from an organization funded by a government grant program to an independent organization? 

There were two key aspects:  1) ISEP was a program of Georgetown University for 17 years; thus creating an independent non-profit meant creating a new governance and leadership structure, setting up independent management systems such as banking and personnel benefits, and shifting the focus to that of a diverse membership organization; and 2) Funding the organization without a government grant meant raising fees and developing new revenue streams to sustain ISEP over time.  We have been successful on both fronts.

Students on a hiking adventure

Photo courtesy of ISEP

Access, affordability, and diversity are the foundation of ISEP. How do you reach students who have disregard study abroad as an option because of financial reasons or believing it is too difficult?

I believe that we have to reach out to students to let them know that study abroad is within reach. We serve a lot of first-generation students who may not even think about going abroad and many of our students are on financial aid.  We work collaboratively with our member institutions to promote study abroad opportunities and encourage students to participate in the reciprocal exchange model where costs are based on what they pay at home.  This model is especially effective for public institutions because their students pay in-state tuition and fees to study abroad.  Also, providing information about how financial aid can apply to study abroad is key.  We keep costs as low as possible so that finances are not the barrier that many students fear.  In sum, empowering students to be independent, open and creative will ensure realization of their dreams.

Since ISEP is an exchange organization, students from both locations must switch places. Has this been a hindrance in terms of providing opportunities for students in less popular areas?

Every institution and every location has something to offer.  ISEP exchanges are on a multi-lateral basis, so institution-to-institution matching is not necessary.  Many US students still think primarily about going to the UK or Australia, especially because English is the language of instruction, and International students think mainly about the East and West Coasts as destinations.  We encourage US students to broaden their thinking, for example, by noting the many possibilities to study in English around the world, and to encourage them to go where they will be immersed in the local culture rather than staying too close to others from home.  Some students have very specific reasons for selecting a location, but others are quite open and it is a matter of pointing them in new directions.  For International students, ISEP provides access to 170 institutions in 46 of the 50 states, everything from Alaska to Florida and Maine to Louisiana.  Tapping into the sense of adventure most students have helps them to discover and learn.  Once we have a few students who have gone to less traditional places, we ask them to speak to their peers on campus and through ISEP’s social media to encourage others to learn as they did.  

People in a football stadium

Photo courtesy of ISEP

ISEP is very focused on the quality of education students receive while at their host school. How do you balance such an emphasis on education with providing a true culturally immersive experience to your participants?

In most ISEP programs, students enroll directly in the host institution and live and study with their peers.  We have a strong support network through campus coordinators who develop orientations for students and serve as a primary point of contact throughout their experience.  Students receive both academic and logistical support from ISEP coordinators and others at the host institution and provide a wide range of activities for student engagement.  In addition, ISEP is currently developing on-line tools to guide students in making the most of cultural learning opportunities while abroad.  

What is the next location you would like to add to the opportunities offered by ISEP?

With 170 institutions in 51 countries, we are selective and strategic about where we go next.  We would like to add programs in Ecuador, Peru, and Russia and expand offerings in South Africa and China as well as in high-demand countries such as Australia. These countries would round-out our offerings.  In addition, we expect to develop more short-term study programs and internships in the next couple of years.