Jeff Palm - Founder & Executive Director
Jeff earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at The College of St. Scholastica and a master’s degree in management at Hawaii Pacific University. After graduation, he spent over six years working for his alma mater as associate director of international admission, before he decided to take his knowledge and experience and venture into the world of international education. Jeff started CISabroad over 15 years ago, on a mission to provide more affordable, reputable international education programs. Since the organization was established, Jeff has remained entirely hands on and is most definitely the key to CISabroad’s success over the years.
What was your goal for CISabroad when you started?
When I started CISabroad in 1999 there weren’t as many providers, and those that did exist tended to work only with “big name” universities and charged fees that were quite high. I thought that there was an opportunity to work with other institutions that were more in line, academically, with a majority of U.S. universities and also to offer these programs at a more reasonable cost. I took this famous saying to heart: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door!”
How has CISabroad changed over the years?
I think we’ve changed quite a bit within the field. When we started, study abroad wasn’t so much a “field” as it was a set of programs that were loosely governed by NAFSA and other large providers. Over the years, the field and CISabroad have changed for the better and began to consider all aspects of the students experience, including less obvious dimensions like cultural immersion, student learning, and risk management.
What makes CISabroad unique?
I think our company culture makes us unique, and that pervades all that we do. We are in the midst of an exercise to evaluate our culture, internally, and then make sure that we are hiring and retain staff that “fit”. Why is this important? If you hire passionate, fun, smart people, then they will ensure that our programs are the same.
We are often told by study abroad advisors that they love our staff. First, the feeling is mutual! But more importantly, I think that says a lot about our company. Our customers like working with us because we care about them and about their students. We’re responsive. We’re open to new ideas.
We genuinely want to make sure that our participants have the same life-changing experiences that we did when we went abroad. That’s what makes us unique.
What sort of things does CISabroad do to help students immerse in the local culture?
A few years ago we developed a cultural curriculum called “La Vida Local”, loosely interpreted as “the local life”. What we want our participants to experience is not just what the face of the host culture has to offer, but what’s it’s like to be a local. We do this through different activities: city wide scavenger hunts, tours of immigrant neighborhoods, cooking classes, etc. During these activities we make sure and engage the students in discussions about why certain foods are important or what made a certain population immigrate to this or that section of the city. We find that these types of informal, yet somewhat structured, conversations are as meaningful and impactful as lectures for understanding the host culture.
Who is the perfect CISabroad participant?
Someone who is open to new experiences, who wants to be immersed in another culture, and who wants to get the most value for their money.
CISabroad now offers internships in countries around the globe. How is interning abroad different from studying abroad?
When you study abroad you are still in a comfort zone of sorts. You generally go into a classroom setting, listen to a lecture, and take exams. It’s something you’re used to as a college student, whereas interning can be quite different. Many of our students have not interned before and some haven’t even worked in a formal setting either, so they come in to a foreign country needing to both understand the general culture as well as the work culture. I think interning abroad is probably even more challenging than studying abroad. However, the potential for even more significant cultural learning is there, and that’s what’s exciting.
You started off as a student at the College of St. Scholastica and were a student athlete. Are their international study opportunities that student athletes should take advantage of?
Yes! As I found out, semester abroad experiences for athletes can be difficult as many seasons cross over from one semester to the next. However, summer programs and faculty-led programs can be a perfect fit for the student athlete.
You also worked at Hawaii Pacific University and CISabroad coincidentally offers programs in Hawaii too. Why do you think Hawaii is a great place to study away?
You used “study away” instead of “study abroad”. Good for you! When we first began offering Hawaii in our portfolio of programs, some people scoffed. However, my reply was simply that studying or interning abroad is really about getting out of one’s comfort zone and immersing in a culture different from the one you are used to. Hawaii easily fits that requirement.
Apart from not needing a passport and the ability to use the U.S. dollar, living, studying, and working in Hawaii can feel like you’re living in another country. At first, you only see Waikiki and the tourist stuff. However, if you’re open to it (and take advantage of our amazing site director, Lisa) you will begin to feel the aloha spirit that pervades everything in Hawaii. And, yes, you can even learn another language!
If you were a student again back at St. Scholastica and looking to study abroad, which CISabroad program would you choose and why?
Tough one. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I’d say somewhere in Asia, maybe China or Thailand. I’d want that very different experience and to be completely out of my comfort zone. Of course, I think I really would have enjoyed Ghana for that reason, or Ireland (for different reasons). Maybe Australia, and I wouldn’t rule out Oman either. Heck, I don’t think I could go wrong with any of them!
What is new at CISabroad this year?
What isn’t! We have a beautiful new office in a historic building in downtown Northampton. We have new staff, some in new positions and some replacing those who have moved on. We have new programs in Oman and Germany that we are launching.
You asked me earlier what makes CISabroad unique, I forgot to mention that we are constantly changing, but changing for all the right reasons. We want to be better tomorrow than what we are today.
If you could give one piece of advice to a student thinking about studying abroad, what would it be?
Do it! Seriously, most of the people that I meet and tell what I do say one of two things. Either, “I really wished I would have studied abroad” or “I studied abroad and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.” These are people who have had full lives, already traveled, had children, and worked for years, and they are saying that it was still one of the most impressive experiences of their lives! How can you argue with that?