GoAbroad Interview

John Christian - President & CEO

John Christian - CAPAPresident & CEO

John J. Christian is the President and CEO of CAPA International Education. John has been in the field of international education for over 20 years, having begun his career as a foreign student advisor at The State University of New York, College at Oswego, and later becoming resident director of SUNY Oswego’s London and Beijing programs. John joined CAPA in 1990 and has played an instrumental role in the development of the organization over the last two decades. He has a Master’s degree in Chinese areas studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies from the University of London and has presented on many panels and workshops on issues facing the field of international education.

What was your main motivation for studying abroad in China for a year during your university studies?

While at SUNY Oswego, I was a foreign student advisor. During this time, part of my work there was to support various visiting faculty from China. As an International Relations minor with a focus on China, I was especially interested in working closely with these visiting scholars and began learning Chinese from them. 

As a result of my relationships with these visiting scholars, they took it upon themselves to campaign with their home university, Capital Normal University, to offer me a scholarship to study in Beijing for two years. All of this happened without my knowledge! When I was presented with the scholarship, I didn’t even think twice about it. I said yes in an instant, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I just knew that I couldn’t pass up such an incredible opportunity. Three months later, a kid from a small town in upstate New York was on his way to Beijing!

Beginning as a study abroad student, you are now the president of a top international education provider. What inspired you to make a career in the industry?

When I returned from my first experience in London and started to reflect on that and interpret its influence on me, I realized that what I had just experienced would influence me greatly in the future I wanted to work to make sure that other students realized that they could also study abroad.

Because I returned to SUNY Oswego for my senior year, I was desperate to be involved with any campus life that was international, hoping to retain the global learning curve I think I achieved in London. I became an intern and peer advisor in the study abroad office and there discovered the possibility of a professional path that would allow me to build a future career in education abroad. Thank goodness for these discoveries as they truly charted my life then and continue to do so today.

CAPA International Education President and CEO talking with Study abroad students

John talking with students. Photo courtesy of CAPA International Education

What do you see as your biggest career achievement thus far?

One of the achievements I’m most proud of is the $200,000 gift CAPA made to SUNY Oswego, my undergraduate alma mater, to aid financially-challenged students from there to learn abroad. I was one of these guys who did whatever it took to raise money to study abroad, including having garage sales, so I am especially happy thinking that CAPA is making it a bit easier for some student to have an experience that might influence or even change the course of his or her life! Of course, a close second to my happiness with the SUNY scholarship is my knowledge that CAPA has helped more than 60,000 students reach their learning abroad goals. 

CAPA’s mission states that the organization strives to “challenge and inspire students to analyze and explore complex political, cultural and social landscapes.” How do you achieve this mission? What program do you think challenges students the most? 

I think all of our programs challenge students in unique ways, in part because CAPA programs are embedded in global cities, which are complex and exciting places to be. Our global city focus is a very conscious decision on the part of CAPA; we believe that these cities present a labyrinth of diverse social, political, and economic issues that inform the curriculum which we use for all locations. 

We have recently integrated student learning outcomes, centered on globalization, urbanization, social dynamics, and diversity into all CAPA curricula, so the exploration and analysis we require of our students now finds expression both through their academic and personal experiences.

What do you think sets CAPA apart from other study abroad providers?

That’s a very difficult question to answer because there are so many excellent learning abroad organizations out there. 

Thinking about CAPA, I believe our point of distinction is our very personalized approach to getting students involved in the design and outcomes of their own unique experiences, made possible through the connections we help them create between their coursework, internships, and personal experiences. These connections allow them to maximize their time abroad, digest and interpret their own unique experiences, and then describe all of this later in meaningful ways when they return home to graduate school and job applications. I believe we are getting our students prepared to engage in a globally-connected world stage.

What do you think is the most unique program CAPA offers its students?

Each of the cities in which CAPA is located is unique in its own way. 

As a past study abroad student in China, how does CAPA’s newest program in Shanghai benefit students in their future careers?

This is a really great question because I believe that we in higher education and learning abroad are all asking ourselves how these experiences – with the costs that they’re amounting to these days – may benefit students who already have high student loan debt and are entering a really tough economic environment. 

It seems to me that the real question is what will help them get a return on their investment. I would suggest that it’s fundamentally important that all of CAPA’s programs continually consider the personal and professional development components that a learning abroad program should offer to students so that they can compete on the world stage.

Now, I am not suggesting that study abroad become strictly vocation in its purpose, but I do believe we need to get better at drawing the connection between what students learn and experience abroad and their later educational and vocational goals.

Shanghai, as one of our cities, is certainly an excellent place to learn about the trend for world populations to move from rural to mega-urban locations and the complexities this migratory trend presents to future urban populations. Having recently come back from Shanghai, I can tell you that students enrolled on a CAPA program are going to leave the program understanding China’s relevance to the economic, political, and social world arena. Our students are going to have a hands-on internship experience in a myriad of fields and going to be living in a country that is starting to be – maybe already is -- one of the major players determining how the future world will be and is being shaped. So I think just having that experience is going to position them, in whatever field they’re in, to experience diversity, develop worldviews, understand conflict, and learn about the issues that come from rapid urban growth.

CAPA prides itself in personalized study abroad programs. How does CAPA integrate student preferences, learning styles, and program expectations to develop successful study abroad programs? How does CAPA’s teaching approach encourage students to directly contribute to their learning experiences?

It all begins with the advising process. Like many education abroad organizations, we treat every person on an individual basis. We support, pre-departure, students exploring who they are, discovering their comfort zones, articulating their primary field of interest and developing the best academic and personal game plan for themselves while they are abroad. As we guide students in this pre-departure self-reflection, we create program pathways that will guide them to meet these aspirations.

After this advising process, we land on courses that are relevant to their academic interests as well as internship opportunities that will guide them to build important professional and social-cultural skills that will truly serve them in their future endeavors. Finally, we help them plan for their personal life in terms of where they’ll live, what communities they’ll be involved in, and what activities or interests they want to continue while they are abroad.

Once they’re in country, our students soon realize that our faculty will continue to ask them to make choices about how they will engage with their new international city, giving them choices that will help them interpret their learning through a wide variety of field studies and social engagements. This choice comes through a variety of ways in their academic work, from writing papers to blogging, to community work, to group work, to interviews that take place in the city, to the multiple experiential options CAPA’s MyEducation strategy presents to them. MyEducation leads students to move outside the classroom and into their international location in meaningful, beyond-the-tourist-experience ways, so that students begin to take what is important to them and what they are learning in their classrooms, into their global city.

So a CAPA student is continuously mixing the academic with the experiential, moving ever closer to realizing the goals that they set for themselves many weeks ago during our pre-departure advising sessions with them.

With a holistic approach to learning in mind, how does CAPA ensure students gain relevant field experience along with classroom-based coursework?

The only way a genuine holistic experience can be developed is if students, faculty, and program staff are all involved in the overall design of the program. 

As you’ve already heard, CAPA involves its students in their experience right away, during the pre-departure advising we have with them. CAPA faculty write courses that teach and guide students to individually explore and analyze their city, through their in-class and guided out-of-class work. CAPA students are always choosing among opportunities to explore their cities. But CAPA students always return to their classrooms to analyze these experiences so nothing happens in a vacuum.

Finally, the CAPA program staff bridge the gap between our students experiential and academic experiences. If you employ this strategic triangulation among these three important groups – the students, the faculty, and the staff the program makes meaningful educational connections that translate to powerful and useful outcomes.

That’s what makes a holistic program and that is what we do.

If you were a potential CAPA program participant, what program would you choose to participate in and why? 

I can’t really answer that question as I’d want to study in all of our global cities! What I can tell you is that I would encourage every student to really examine how any program, whether CAPA’s or another one, will help satisfy their academic requirements, personal interests, and professional aspirations. Only by considering all three of these components can a student really choose the right program.

What is the next CAPA international program you hope to create for students? How do you think this will challenge and inspire students in a new way?

CAPA actually recently established two new programs. One is a collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration for a Global Business Institute that offers students a one-semester program that is focused and intensive from which they will receive a certificate from CAPA and the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration that will have great value for their future. Sometimes business students have difficulty studying abroad and receiving credit for the coursework, so I believe this jointly-credentialed program will be very popular.

Another exciting new program development for CAPA is the Global City Program in Science and Technology based at the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney. It’s long been an aspiration of ours to attract students from the STEM areas – science, technology, engineering and math. This new program with UTS, which is a world class institution in science, technology, and other areas of STEM, is going to be a very powerful opportunity for students with majors such as engineering to elect a study abroad program.  As you know, it is often very difficult for students in some majors, such as engineering, to study abroad, given strict course sequencing and faculty directives. Both the Global Business Institute and the Science and Technology Program allow students to study abroad who may not ordinarily think they can do so.

Finally, you will soon hear of some truly innovative ways in which CAPA will begin to use technology and global conversations to help students to explore cities across the globe, beyond the ones in which they are studying. Stay tuned!