Interview with an Expert
International Exchange Specialist at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
1. What is your current title and where do you work?
As an International Exchange Specialist at the Smithsonian, I work in the Office of International Relations, which is a central unit serving all 19 Smithsonian museums, 9 Research Centers and the National Zoo. We support Smithsonian-wide international activity, and in my role I facilitate international exchanges, acting as a point of contact for D.C.-based embassies, the State Department and other international organizations.
2. What was your dream job as a kid and why? If it changed, what led to that decision?
I kind of loved being a student when I was a kid. Right out of college, I spent two years searching for the right professional fit, but more than anything, I felt like I wanted to be back in school or traveling! I eventually obtained a TEFL certificate and went back into a classroom to teach English abroad in Chile and Spain, followed by graduate school. I’ve worked in an educational/international setting ever since, on a career path that I didn’t realize existed when I was a kid!
3. Tell us about your first international experience and how that influenced your current career choice.
The first time I left the U.S. was to participate in a two-week high school exchange program when I was 16. I lived with a Spanish family in Alicante, Spain—and the following semester my family hosted the Spanish exchange student who I had lived with. Spanish was one of my favorite subjects in school, and having the opportunity to immerse myself in the language was transformative. Language study had always been fun—and the immersion experience allowed me to apply what I had learned in a practical way. Although I didn’t realize it then, my love for languages and culture, and my appreciation for international exchanges would eventually lead me down my career path.
4. What was your first job in international education?
The first step I took toward a career in international education was to become an English teacher in Chile. At the time, I saw it as a step away from the “real world” for some adventurous travel, but it ultimately led me to my current career. On returning to the U.S., I pursued a graduate degree in International Education at the University of Maryland and obtained a graduate assistantship in the International Student and Scholars office to support my studies. I’ve been working in the field ever since!
5. Describe a typical day/week at the office at your current job.
The Smithsonian is a place of constant activity and excitement- and working in a central office, we are at a crossroads for all kinds of activity. Typically, I am either supporting international scholars, or coordinating/attending visits for international delegations. As an example, I work with the Department of State, International Visitor Leadership program (IVLP), and just yesterday they sent a group of Russian language preservation specialists to meet with representatives from the Smithsonian’s “Recovering Voices” program to explore efforts to preserve and document disappearing languages. I act as something of a matchmaker for 50-100 groups of international visitors annually, connecting them with Smithsonian colleagues and resources. Later that afternoon, I supported a colleague with a panel discussion on Cultural Heritage Preservation, which included various U.S. ambassadors discussing their experiences with facilitating preservation efforts in other countries. All to say that every week offers something new and exciting!
6. What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Who doesn’t love the Smithsonian?! I love that I get to work at such a unique organization that wears so many different hats- and in my role I have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and learn so much about the sciences, humanities and more.
7. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Working for a large and diverse organization with many moving parts, it can sometimes be difficult to navigate through various bureaucracies, especially since part of my role involves working with immigration policy. After all the red tape, it is always worthwhile to see successful international initiatives happen!
8. What has working in international education taught you about yourself and your own culture?
Some helpful attributes for working in the field of international education include patience and empathy. Every time I work with international visitors coming to the U.S., I remind myself how it can be both exhilarating and exhausting to navigate through a new environment. Kindness from strangers can go a long way in a foreign country, and I try to recognize and integrate this into my work.
International travel and dialogue with foreign visitors to the U.S. also enables me to reflect on American culture and values. There are many things we share in common with other cultures, and many ways that we are different. I find that an attitude of openness and willingness to learn can only make us better global citizens.
9. Is there a value or principal from another culture that you have embraced and applied to your own life?
Somewhere along the line, I went from being obsessively punctual to always running a few minutes behind schedule. It may have been the years I spent in the Spanish-speaking world, where sense of time is different than in the U.S. But I like to believe that it’s accompanied by a more relaxed attitude about life in general. In some areas of the world, relationships and work-life balance are more important than deadlines. I’ve tried to integrate this mindset in a way that works with my current lifestyle.
10. Do you have a career mentor or someone that you consult with about career growth? How has that person influenced your career growth?
I have been lucky to meet a few great friends, who are also career women who I look up to! One friend who is a few years ahead on her career path always seems to have the right guidance to give when I reach any hurdles. It’s also been extremely helpful to have professional networks like the Global Leadership League to create communities of like-minded professionals, and mentoring circles with action-oriented activities. Career growth is made easier by having a framework, resources and a community to guide the process.
11. Describe and experience that you consider your greatest failure. How did you bounce back from that?
My most difficult career experience was when I changed from one employer to another to do the exact same job. After a few years of developing my professional expertise under one employer, I was very confident in my ability to do the job. I did not anticipate the difficulty of doing the same job for a new supervisor, in a very different office culture. I stayed less than a year at the new job, and struggled the whole time. The important takeaway from that experience is that the people you work with are just as important as the job you have, and it’s helpful to ask about this during the interview process.
12. What’s one piece of advice that you would give your younger self in high school or college as it relates to your career?
Stop worrying so much, and start enjoying the ride more! Each academic and career step will eventually flow into the next opportunity—It is so worthwhile to take time to live in the present.
13. What type of hobbies or activities help you balance your work/life experience?
While I love my job, I also spend the majority of my week in an office and interacting over phone or email. Some things that help me balance that include regular travel (day trips, major international vacations and anything in between)- I am fueled by adventure. I also love the outdoors, and make sure to get outside regularly- exploring the many wonderful hiking trails around the DC area, jogging, or just enjoying a sunny day.