GoAbroad Interview

Gretchen Cook-Anderson - Director of Diversity Recruiting & Advising

Gretchen Cook-Anderson - Director of Diversity Recruiting & Advising

As the Director of Diversity Recruiting & Advising at IES Abroad, Gretchen oversees efforts to increase enrollment and enhance the study abroad experience of diverse students. Gretchen is a marketing and PR professional with over 10 years of experience in international education. An IES Abroad alum (Japan) herself, she holds a Bachelor's degree from Spelman College and a Master's degree in International Economics from Johns Hopkins University. An award-winning professional, her efforts led to 11.3 percent growth in participation among ethnically diverse students in IES Abroad programs in 2013 and 2014.

Visiting a traditional building in China

Gretchen Abroad in China 1989.

You studied abroad with IES Abroad in Nagoya, Japan for an academic year in the late 80s, what led you back to the organization almost 20 years later?

Serendipity led me back to IES Abroad more than 20 years later. I’d moved to Chicago with my family (where IES Abroad has its headquarters) around the same time IES Abroad had made a decision to elevate student diversity as a strategic priority. Through a twist of fate and my attendance at IES Abroad’s 60th Anniversary Alumni Dinner in Chicago, one thing led to another and I found myself with an offer to lead student diversity efforts for the organization. I leapt at the opportunity to once again enjoy the rich rewards of connecting with and aiding undergraduate students as I’d done years before as a higher education administrator. I felt it was fate that I’d have the privilege of assisting students who were in many respects a reflection of myself at the same age. I would have been considered a non-traditional student when I studied abroad; I am African American, was not affluent, and had a sight impairment at the time I studied abroad.

How did your experience studying abroad in Japan affect your decision to work in the field of International Education?

My study abroad experience in Japan was, in hindsight, an essential stepping stone into my career in international marketing/PR that I’ve enjoyed for more than 20 years. I truly understand how impactful the experience abroad can be relative to acquiring language, intercultural communications, independent-thinking, and problem-solving skills that enhance a young person’s marketability and capacity to compete well in an increasingly interconnected world and workplace. My study abroad in Japan as a college junior has influenced every career opportunity I’ve had over the years. Employers have always been intrigued by my Japanese language skills, my interest in Asia, my travels in 26 countries, and my adaptability that naturally evolved from those international experiences.

I want to use my own example and those of others to inspire other non-traditional or underrepresented students to explore the world and reap the rewards from doing so. It’s also important for underrepresented students to see themselves reflected in the faces of those of us who are advising and reaching out to them. It helps reinforce that study abroad is an experience that students of every background can enjoy and benefit from.

Beach in Nice, France

Gretchen in Nice, France 1990.

How does IES Abroad differ from other study and intern abroad program providers when it comes to diversity?

IES Abroad truly is intentional in our student diversity efforts, and have devoted full-time resources toward the goal of broadening access to our programs. We are doing all we can to ensure that all students know they are welcomed and supported for being who they are, with all their uniqueness embraced. We are proud to offer a study abroad experience that is as diverse as our students—filled with different perspectives, cultures, and ideas.

What does a typical day look like as IES Abroad’s Director of Diversity Recruiting & Advising?

My role entails overseeing our student diversity and advising efforts. With that said, my day is filled with a multitude of tasks that can vary daily. For example, I may advise a transgender student about what we know of openness to persons who identify LGBTQ in a country where he/she would like to study or perhaps discuss his/her housing options. I may then move on to meet with colleagues representing several universities about a joint upcoming conference presentation on study abroad diversity. I may participate in a couple of internal Marketing meetings. I may spend some time analyzing new data regarding our semester student diversity so that we’ll know how we are faring.

At day’s end, I may head off to the airport to catch a plane for one of many school visits across the country that I do each year at our member school’s invitation, to meet directly with underrepresented students or to host diversity staff training workshops. Or, I may be off to a dinner meeting to discuss a strategic partnership that may aid our student diversity efforts.

Hiking in the mountains in Switzerland

Gretchen Abroad in Switzerland 1990.

Your work to increase the presence of underrepresented students (low-income students, first generation students, LGBTQ students, etc.) in IES Abroad’s programming is a hefty task. What strides have you made in the last few years?

Since I joined IES Abroad in Spring 2011, we’ve been delighted to have increased the student diversity in our programs from about 18 percent to a little more than 23 percent. It’s important to note that this data is specific to racial/ethnic diversity, our most reliable means of measuring student diversity at this time, though our efforts also aim to attract and advise students with disabilities, financially-needy students, and others.

You work to secure funding and scholarships for students as a part of IES Abroad’s Initiative to Diversify Education Abroad (IDEA). Other than finances, what are some of the biggest roadblocks underrepresented students face when thinking about studying or interning abroad? What does IES Abroad do to overcome these barriers?

Many underrepresented students face real or perceived barriers associated with lack of family and peer support, fear of the unknown or how they’ll be perceived abroad, and, on occasion, faculty who may discourage their interest in study abroad due to concerns or misinformation about whether studying abroad may impact on-time graduation or academic standing. IES Abroad tries to reduce these various barriers in every way we can. We work hard to provide students with as much exposure to accurate study abroad information as we canaccess to programs, benefits, peer experiences, funding options, talking points for conversations with parents, a parents’ guide to study abroad in multiple languagesthrough live campus visits, scholarship aid, peer matching and mentoring, web content, print materials, videos, webinars, and one-on-one advising.

Fountain at a Plaza in Madrid, Spain

Gretchen in Madrid 1990.

You previously served as a Japanese language interpreter, what role does language learning have in increasing diversity in education abroad in your opinion?

We emphasize the increasing importance of having proficiency in multiple languages as an avenue to improved marketability for workplace and graduate school opportunities. Living bilingual or multilingual has benefit for professionals across almost every field, so we share examples and discuss tangible ways improving proficiency in additional languages can give a young person a competitive advantage in their careers. Underrepresented students are often more focused on the practicalities associated with activities like study abroad, with a desire to understand how it will boost their ability to obtain a great paying job or improve likelihood of acceptance to a top grad school. We show them how language learning can be a strong skill that can help them get a leg up.

You won Diversity Abroad’s Excellence in Diversifying International Education (EDIE) Award this year based on your visits over the last three years to 61 colleges and universities to promote diversity in international education and to provide staff diversity trainings. Additionally, you’ve presented over 20 times at international education conferences. What has been your biggest accomplishment during your time with IES Abroad?

This is a great question. I’m most proud of being awarded the EDIE Award from Diversity Abroad. It came as a pleasant surprise for work that doesn’t feel like work. My work is a calling rather than a chore. It’s beautiful to be recognized by your peers for dedication to something you love. I was also very pleased to have been asked to present before IES Abroad’s Board of Directors last summer on the accomplishments of our diversity initiative.

IES Abroad Staff Member and Alum

Gretchen with IES Abroad alum Malcolm Temple.

Your role as Director of Diversity Recruiting & Advising involves a lot of special projects and partnerships, what is the most fulfilling part of your work with IES Abroad?

The most fulfilling part of my work is keeping my eyes on the prize of fulfilling our mission of advancing our student diversity so that students on IES Abroad programs reflect to the degree possible the rich diversity of the United States. I undertake every task or project solely with this in mind. With that said, the most fulfilling reward is hearing stories from students who have returned from studying on our programs who I’ve helped in tangible ways, and receiving their emails and calls of thanks. There’s nothing more meaningful than knowing you’ve helped change the trajectory of someone’s story.

The power of study abroad is in its ability to change a young person’s story...in ways that may enable them to one day change the world.