Stacy McKay Benander - President & Founder
Stacy McKay Benander founded Athena Study Abroad in 2005 and currently serves as the organization’s President. Stacy earned her bachelor’s degree at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she double majored in Spanish and Communications and Public Relations. She then went on to earn an M.A. in Social and Cultural Foundations at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Prior to founding Athena Study Abroad, Stacy worked as an International Student Advisor at The Ohio State University and as Director of the International Office at Ohio Dominican University. She also studied abroad in Spain and participated in intensive language programs in both Colombia and Spain. Stacy was recently awarded the NAFSA Region VI Leo Dowling Award of Excellence in International Education, which is awarded to individuals based on compassion, integrity, and leadership.
Athena Study Abroad was founded on the goal of providing students with a personalized experiences in small schools abroad. Why is studying abroad at small schools so great?
When it comes to study abroad, smaller programs and organizations provide a large benefit to both the students and advisors that utilize them. Smaller schools abroad provide a lower student-to-teacher ratio, thus increasing the quality of the academic experience, and mentoring potential. Smaller student-to-advisor ratios provide students with an increased quality of personalized service and deeper relationships, resulting in better study abroad preparedness both prior to heading overseas and once abroad. Smaller organizations like Athena and schools like our partners abroad allow us to work creatively and nimbly to develop creative customized options for our partners and students, to offer the best programming to serve the unique needs of our partner schools without bureaucracy bogging us down.
Aside from all of this, the main reason that I focused Athena’s mission on remaining an intentionally smaller organization, working with smaller universities abroad, is to serve students who are looking for a small school experience abroad. When students select a college or university in the U.S., size is an important component of their decision. Size determines the culture of the campus and the type of experience (both academically and socially) that a student will have. Larger does not inherently make something better.
When I worked in international offices, first at The Ohio State University (OSU) and later when I was a Director of the International Office at Ohio Dominican University (ODU), I found that the study abroad programs being offered by other organizations and providers most commonly sent students to large schools abroad in mass numbers. For many of my students at the time, especially those at ODU but also with students at OSU, the idea of leaving the city or state was daunting enough, and the idea of heading abroad to a large school was overwhelming, often to the point that the student would elect not go at all. They wanted smaller programs, with a community they would know, easier access to their teachers and fellow students, through an attentive and personalized organization that would know their name.
We want to provide programs that make study abroad attainable and desirable to students who are looking for a smaller school experience abroad with a focus on immersion.
We also want to assist those students who, if not for our personalized programs, may not otherwise go abroad, as well as serve those students and offices that are not best served by large groups of U.S. students going abroad to be served by an island provider office stationed at or near large schools abroad.
Partnership is of paramount importance to us, and this is why we put such a focus on nurturing the partnerships we have, both in the U.S. and abroad. It would be easy to add programs abroad at a rapid rate, partnering with any school that would have us. However, we decided at our inception that we would be deliberate and slower in our selection of overseas partners, so that we are able to take the time to select ones that we felt would serve our students in the same way that we as an organization do. It is also a vital component of our overseas vetting process that the school be very academically sound and reputable, and that they are willing and able to cater to unique programming ideas and developments that we bring to them to serve our partners and students best.
The name for Athena Study Abroad is a pretty unique name. What led you to name your program after a Greek goddess? (After all you studied in Spain and not Greece!)
We are named Athena after the Greek goddess of Wisdom. I believe study abroad imparts not just knowledge on students, but wisdom. Why do so many cultures revere the elderly? This is not just because the elderly know things, but because they are wise. They have lived through so many things. The elderly base their wisdom not just on what they’ve read or been told, but on their experience of living through things. The value of experience cannot be overstated, particularly when it comes to study abroad.
You can know a lot about the world through reading about it, but only when you have gone out and experienced it - seen another culture first-hand, seen what it is to be ‘the other’ in another person’s land – only then do you begin to develop the life experience to be wise.
You’ve studied in both Spain and Colombia. What are some tips you can give to students looking to learn Spanish who can’t decide between study abroad in Spain and Latin America?
Let me first say that both Spain and Latin America are amazing locations and provide a wealth of opportunity for deep quality immersion and cultural exploration. I studied in Spain first (in the town of Toledo) in my undergraduate program, so in many ways for that reason, Spain will always be my first love. I have also had the opportunity to study in Seville and that is one amazing city! Seville is such a wonderful mix of large and small city elements, and full of classic Spanish vivaciousness and culture.
As for Colombia, I must say that that was one of the loveliest countries I have had the pleasure to visit. I spent much of my time in Bogota, but especially when going out to the countryside, to Villa de Leyva for example, the drive felt like being in Switzerland. Rolling hills, little houses dotting the hillsides…so beautiful.
My tips to Spanish language learners are not so much about where to go, but how to go.
- Do go somewhere that will force your immersion. Smaller cities often do that better than larger ones where more people speak English. Believe me, when you are new to a country and need help with the most basic things, you will take shortcuts and speak English if that option is given to you. Immerse yourself in a place where that isn’t an option, as that is the best way to learn.
- Do select a school that puts a large focus on language immersion and is diverse in its student body. By having Spanish as the common language with the other students, it forces you to use it daily to make friends and communicate with classmates.
- Do live with a host family. I did not do that and I have always wished that I did. My Spanish language proficiency would have come much more quickly if I had, and I’m sure I missed out on special relationships with a local family. What better way to truly immerse yourself into a culture and language than to live with a family from the country?
Athena Study Abroad was recently recognized at the GoAbroad Innovation Awards for Innovation in Marketing. What project garnered that recognition?
We were named a Finalist for the GoAbroad Innovation Award for Innovation in Marketing for a recent new innovative redesign of our website and catalog. We have always been an industry leader in creating artistically creative and cutting- edge publications and marketing materials. That is fully attributable to the work of our VP of Development and Creative Director (who is also my husband!) John Benander. He developed his design and technological craft through years of working at the Cleveland Indians, then Major League Baseball, and the Columbus Dispatch newspaper prior to his work at Athena. His experiences at these organizations set the foundation for his technological and design talents, but he has really come into his own and honed his craft since coming to Athena full-time in 2007.
I am proud of the quality and innovative nature of the design of our publications and technological elements as an organization. We were honored to be acknowledged by the GoAbroad Innovation Awards twice for our design and technological projects (both in being a Finalist for the Award for Innovation in Marketing as discussed above, as well as a Finalist for the Award for Innovative Use of Technology for our student program selection quiz, “Ask Athena Wizard”).
You were recently acknowledged as one of Columbus’ top 40 business professionals under 40. What is your advice to a recent graduate wanting to work in international education?
Be open to considering working in many areas of the field. The field offers a wide variety of wonderful facets in which to serve, and you may not know which area is the best fit for you until you try a few. My first job in the field after I entered international ed from immigration law, was as an International Student Advisor at The Ohio State University. I then went on to be the Director of the International Office at Ohio Dominican University where I oversaw the international student services, study abroad programs, and multicultural student services. It was through my work with study abroad students at that small school (the same type of smaller school at which I had studied as an undergrad), and seeing how the large study abroad programs that are out there often do not serve the unique needs of students wanting a smaller school experience abroad that inspired me to start Athena.
I did not set out in this field planning to run a study abroad company, but my experiences through the industry inspired me to develop an organization that would serve students in a way that I found, both as a university office director and a former small school undergrad, students were not being served. I would never have gotten here if I hadn’t kept my mind and options open as I grew in the field.
What really sets Athena Study Abroad apart from its competitors?
In some ways, I don’t really view Athena to have any competitors. For the other study abroad organizations that are trying to make good, intentional, quality programs to serve their students, I see those as fellow friends who are aligned with us...
...in the ongoing mission to prove the educational value and social obligation we have as educators to infuse in our students a cultured world view and to prepare them to be good global citizens upon graduation.
For those organizations that are trying to take masses of students abroad primarily for the financial benefit of it…well I don’t view them as competitors either because we simply are not playing the same sport.
With all that said, I know the spirit of your question is to ask what makes us different from other similar organizations. First of all, the fact that we were founded by someone who came from the university side of the field, and I developed the organization to serve the needs that I saw firsthand that many offices need, certainly sets us apart. We are not trying to tell universities what they want or sell to them; we are trying to fill a void and meet their needs through creative program development and partnerships. I know firsthand the needs and struggles of staff, advisors, and directors in universities, both large and small, and we are always aiming to create programs that serve them best and to serve a unique niche in the field. We are not only developing a catalog of off the rack programs to serve partners, but we are also putting a great deal of effort into customizing our programs for semesters, summers, J-terms, and more to meet the needs of partners.
We like to use a bistro analogy to explain the difference. When you are looking to go to a place that has great quality food, that has a friendly atmosphere, that’s family owned and run, you are going to go to your neighborhood bistro restaurant where you know everyone and everyone knows you and you trust in the quality of the product. If these values are important to you, you aren’t going to go to a chain restaurant or a fast-food joint. We are the “bistro of study abroad,” small, quality, and personal.
Your partner, John Benander, is Athena Study Abroad’s Vice President of Marketing and Creative Director. Are there any pros and cons to working closely with your significant other?
We do a surprisingly excellent job of keeping work and home separate. We have worked together at Athena for so long and are completely aligned on its mission and values, which means we have the hard part down. We have kind of a yin and yang thing; I have a very pragmatic, instinct, and mission-driven way of operating and leading, while he balances that with a more fact and data driven way of executing his tasks. Together we cover all of the bases.
It is hard at times to leave work behind at the end of the day when our experiences are similar, there is no “how was your day honey?” in our house! However, working together affords us the opportunity to align our personal and professional goals easily, and having the chance to travel abroad together (often with our son) provides a nice chance to experience those things together.
Athena Study Abroad seems to have a pretty strong foothold in the Mediterranean with over six programs in the Italy and Greece. Why are many of your programs focused in this region?
This is a common misconception about Athena, that we are only located in Greece because of our name, or we are a strictly Mediterranean-focused organization. We currently have programs in France, Germany, Spain, Thailand, Japan, Italy, Greece, England, and Ireland. Be sure to stay tuned this year to see which countries we will add to that list!
The design innovations just keep coming. The artist, Linda Strawberry, who worked for Smashing Pumpkins recently did your Athena Study Abroad poster. How did she come to paint for you?
Anyone who knows me at all, likely knows my unmatched love of the Smashing Pumpkins. I had always appreciated their album art and how it was very artistically beautiful, deep with meaning and symbolism, and a bit quirky all at the same time. When we were looking to create a new poster, I wanted to do something other than the same old “student jumping in the air next to a landmark” kind of poster. I thought “what if we made it look like a tour poster?”
I then contacted Linda who is a very talented artist in LA who did the SP album art, and I approached her to do this. She had asked if I wanted her to work with any directives and I told her that I didn’t want to muddle her artistic brilliance with my ideas so to just go forth and create! She then came to me with some rough paintings and indicated she wanted to depict Athena as a person, not just a concept. At first she was struggling to decide what she (Athena) would look like. I don’t know how she got her inspiration (some claim it is my face but as far as I know it is not!) With her sketches and drafts we collaborated to result in the final piece you see today in both our poster and logo.
One of the coolest aspects of Athena Abroad is the Students Offering Support (S.O.S.) initiative where students can decide which charity Athena Abroad will give a portion of its proceeds to. Can you tell us how you came up with this amazing idea?
Developing global citizens through education abroad experiences is a core component of Athena’s mission. Athena developed Students Offering Support (S.O.S.) to ensure that charity is incorporated at the heart of our programs, students, and organization.
S.O.S. has three important components: scholarship funds reserved for charity-minded students, frequent Athena staff community service outings to allow us to lead by example, and student-selected donations to various world charities.
We have always aimed to ensure that students are reflecting on the idea of using study abroad to become better global citizens, even before departing for abroad. We don’t want that to just be theoretical, but instead we want each student to have a true plan to apply the knowledge they gain through study abroad to ensure this.
What’s next for Athena Abroad?
2015 marks our 10 year anniversary as an organization, and what a year it is shaping up to be! We have just opened up a new U.S. accredited program in Paris that we created and developed with faculty and administrators on-site in France. Also, we have a number of other new programs rolling out this year, we are adding new staff, and….we’re moving! We are in the process of moving our headquarters from Columbus, Ohio to Pittsburgh, PA this summer. With this move will come a larger office and an expanded Athena staff.
As it is with most steps forward, there are things in the past that will be missed. Columbus is an amazingly warm and welcoming city, one that continues to grow and thrive more and more every year, and one that has treated us well for our first 10 years. We made many great memories and milestones there, but we are very excited to move to Pittsburgh (which is also right near where I grew up). It is very good to go home.