Taking education, and students, around the world

Deborah Wilson-Assam

A Q&A with Executive Director of International Education Deborah Wilson-Allam.

Executive Director of International Education Deborah Wilson-Allam discusses all the opportunities that UC's Study Abroad program has to offer as well as what life on campus at Utica College has to offer incoming international students.


Q: Tell us a little about yourself.

A: I graduated from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania with a bachelor's degree in international relations and a master’s degree in teaching English as a foreign language. I’ve spent most of my career as a teacher, administrator, or teacher trainer in the area of TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages). Prior to my position at UC, I was working in K-12 schools, both public and private. I’ve been working at Utica College since2014, which has obviously been a change in careers for me, but I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. I was originally hired to direct the intensive English language program, but my responsibilities have changed. Last year I became the executive director for international education. This is a very exciting position and a great fit for me because I studied abroad in college and also did my graduate work abroad. I really enjoy working with students to discuss their plans for studying abroad and seeing the excitement before they get ready to go. When I’m not at work, I enjoy spending time with my husband, who works for Little Falls schools, and my daughter who is currently studying art at Syracuse University. I also enjoy doing zumba, crocheting, crafting, and more recently I’ve enjoyed being active in politics.


Q. What does your job as an executive director of international education entail?

A: My job consists of four main responsibilities. I work with all the incoming international exchange students, the study-abroad students, the faculty-led study abroad programs, and incoming and outgoing exchange scholars.  For international exchange students, we are responsible primarily for their visa status paperwork and keeping them in status. We work with the Department of Homeland Security by putting the students data into an online database and keeping it updated. Beyond that, we also welcome them to Utica College with an international student orientation, as well as provide them with a number of cultural excursions and activities, information about American education, what to expect from their professors, how to get health care, and much more to get them acclimated. We also try to give international students an informal place to stop by and talk about how they’re doing. By doing that, we can keep in touch with them and ensure they are having a good experience at Utica College and in the U.S.. As for the study-abroad students, we’re really working on expanding our programs. In the last couple of years we’ve signed contracts with a number of new partners. We also meet with students to talk about their plans, goals, limitations, and where they dream of going, and we try to make that a reality. We work with students to complete paperwork and provide a pre-departure orientation. We keep in contact with them while they are away, asking for pictures and details about their experience thus far. When they come back, we talk with them about how their experience was overall to help them reflect on it, but also so that we can learn from their experience. I also work very closely with the professors planning a faculty led study abroad program, and we are currently working to expand some of these programs as well as develop new ones. We currently have programs in Ecuador, Albania, and the Dominican Republic, and are hoping to develop new programs in China and Egypt. My last major responsibility is working with the scholars. It's a lesser responsibility simply because there aren't as many exchange scholars as there are international or study-abroad students. With the scholars, we are responsible for welcoming them, picking them up at the airport, giving them an orientation, moving them into their university-owned property house, and helping to buy their groceries for the first couple of days, and overall just making sure everything is going really well for them.


Q. What opportunities does the study abroad program offer?

A: There are so many advantages of the study abroad program for students. Taking part in the program allows students to experience a tremendous amount of personal growth. We also notice a development of students’ soft skills for jobs, such as creativity, flexibility, and problem solving. I encourage professors and advisors to talk to their students early on to see if they’re interested in study abroad and how we can make that a possibility for them. There are a number of amazing study abroad courses all over the world that students could take for most of our majors here at UC.  


Q. What factors have affected students’ desire or ability to take study abroad courses?

A: Some students have a very strict sequence of courses they have to take for their major, which can make it tricky to figure out a good time to go abroad. We don't allow student to go abroad their freshman year because they’re generally not ready for it in aspects of emotion and maturity. Generally students tend to study abroad their junior year, but that doesn't work with some of our strict majors. At that point, they are starting to take very specific, high-level classes. To make study abroad a possibility, we ask students to save some of their lower level core classes and electives until junior year, which would be easier to find abroad. Students also often believe the myth that it is too expensive. Utica College actually has some very affordable programs. Students are also often intimidated and unsure if they can handle it. We try to combat this by encouraging students and sharing our own experiences and other students’ experiences to give them an idea of what to expect. We acknowledge that it's going to be rough at times, but remind them that anything that is a great learning experience will be and it would be rare to find someone who regrets the experience. Something that may be holding students back from even coming in and asking about the study abroad program is the fear of traveling to other countries, especially with what is in the news as of late. We always hear about the worst events happening, but the same is true about what people overseas hear about the United States. For example, when I was living in Egypt, when I would say that I was from New York, they would assume I meant New York City, and they would say how dangerous that is and ask how I could live there. Then, when I came back to the United States, my friends and family would say the same about living in Egypt. The funniest part was that neither place was particularly dangerous. These are perceptions that come from what we pay attention to in the news. In fact, we would never send students to a place that wasn’t safe. Another issue we face is that we have students who want to study abroad, but parents who are not on board. I am a parent and my daughter will be going abroad, so I understand, but also I have no problem with it. I welcome parents to call me or come into my office to ask questions, and we also provide information in a professional booklet for parents that is helpful and really answers a lot of questions they have.


Q. We know the College campus is quieter over the holiday break. What do international students do during this time?

A: Some of the students travel, especially the exchange students, because they want to visit as many places as they can and get the most out of their time here. A lot of our students however will stay on campus. This can sometimes be really tough on them because there isn’t really anybody else here during that time and also the dining hall isn’t open. Luckily, we’re working on a deal with the Sodexo in St. Luke's so that the students can have meals up to six or seven dollars which would be considered part of their meal plan. We’ve tried to plan activities for the international students to do over breaks, but this doesn’t always work because our office isn’t available. This is something to keep in mind for all faculty and staff, if they would like to reach out and invite the students on an excursion one day or invite them over for holiday dinner, there would likely be students who would take them up on that.

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