GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Author Archive

Read Me

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/12/07 at 04:22

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

For several years during my early 20’s, I kept a journal that I called the “Read Me Journal.” There are three volumes, all written in floral hardbound notebooks, with the words “Read Me” scrawled across the front in black nail polish. They are all fat and include various newspaper and magazine clippings, drawings and a few dashes of perfume to supplement the handwritten account of my life. Each has a detailed table of contents, written in A.A. Milne style, beginning with the words “In which…” They also include handwritten comments from my friends on whatever I had written.

I wrote in the journal daily, capturing snippets of my life. I left the journal out on the coffee table, in a house where I lived with four roommates, and invited them to read my journal and comment on what I had written, or to even write their own journal entries there for others to read. I brought it with me when I visited other friends, and left it on their coffee tables. Surprisingly, my friends did read the journal, and even wrote their own entries in the journal for me and others to read.

Although I no longer keep a Read Me Journal, the three volumes on my shelf hold the record of a funny, strange time in my life and in the lives of my friends. At the time that I was writing it, I wondered if it would ever become a public memoir.

I tried to be as honest and open as I could in my Read Me Journal. However, as an open diary, there are many things I did not write about: deep insecurities, negative thoughts about my peers, or anything too controversial. I tried to write things that would entertain my friends, teach them more about me, or to get some kind of feedback from them on things I was thinking.

I remember when I first heard the term “blog,” I asked a fried what it meant. She replied, “It’s like your Read Me Journal, but it is online.” There is an entry in my last Read Me Journal titled, “In which Meg considers putting the Read Me Journal online.” I nixed the idea, preferring the physical journal that I could carry with me everywhere and leave on coffee tables. Besides, I reasoned, I couldn’t include scents in an online journal.

The Read Me Journal never made it online, but when I am writing blog posts, I often think about the Read Me Journals. I sometimes struggle to find things to write about that are related to my work in academia, but that won’t get me into difficult situations with my colleagues or institution.

What do you censor when your diary is open?


Academic Hoarding

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/09/24 at 20:44

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

During a recent cleaning spree, I came to a slightly upsetting conclusion about myself: I am a hoarder. I hoard three things: trial sized beauty products, plastic shopping bags, and lip balm. The trial sizes are in case I need to take a vacation, I am ready. The plastic bags are for walking my dog; I never want to need one and not have one when he needs to go. The lip balm… well, I like lip balm.

Discovering my hoarding tendency at home made me take a look at my office to see what types of things I hoard there. I have a lot of pens and magic markers in various colors. I have a lot of paperclips; I especially prize the square or pointy paper clips that come from other countries, and I have a black and yellow striped paper clip that I like. I have a giant box full of outdated business cards that I can never possibly use before there is another change to my title, the name of my department, the name of the college or the logo of the University. I also have a lot of books. I have multiple copies of some books, in case students or faculty need to borrow them. Finally, I have a stash of university-branded swag – backpacks, mugs, magnets and key chains. Those are tools of my trade.

I also have gifts from students from all over the world: a small garden gnome from Germany, a brown porcelain Chinese dragon statue that sits next to my stapler, a sandalwood letter opener from Thailand, a wooden bowl from Mexico, a statue of the Eiffel Tower, and a blue flowered scarf from Turkey. These are the rewards of my trade.

I dug deeper and took a look at my computer, which contains the contents of my work world. Again, there were many practical files: meeting notes, faculty guides, syllabi and book lists. I hoard emails that make me feel good, and emails that make me feel bad. I hoard links to websites, articles and online resources. I have a collection of no less than 23 rubrics for assessing writing.

As a manager, I also hoard things outside of my office, in other areas of the department, and guide others on what to keep and what to throw away. In the kitchen, I always want a full stock of coffees and teas, many flavors. I never want to run out of spoons, plates, cups or dish soap. I never want to throw away the leftover condiments from lunches. The supply closet has a stash of outdated brochures.

I am by no means a compulsive hoarder, but I do want to be ready for anything, within reason. I don’t want to be caught unprepared whether walking the dog, on vacation, just for fun, or helping students progress in writing.

As a part of the DIY generation, I am always thinking of ways of re-purposing things. Those outdated brochures could become someone’s art project and I also think that my hoarding tendencies have increased as I try to be environmentally conscious.

Although I don’t think I would qualify for a spot on Hoarders, I do think that I have a hard time de-cluttering. Any recommendations?

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.


To PhD or Not to PhD

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/09/10 at 23:23

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA.

Aliens, pumpkin pie, birds, solar energy, language, coffee, football, traveling, new shoes, Kon-Tiki, walking my dog, weather, doing P90X , cooking lasagna…there are so many things I like to think about. Mary Churchill’s recent post made me wonder if I’m cut out for research and academia. She writes of not wanting to “unplug” from looking at life through her academic lens (and loving it), even while on vacation. I, on the other hand, am far too fickle to look at any thing in any way for too long a time. I know that a dissertation means just that and I have my doubts.

When I think about where I want to be in five years, I can imagine a few different scenarios, and one of them involves getting my PhD. It seems like there are many more reasons why this wouldn’t be my best choice. I have no interest in fighting for tenure, I am worried that I might not be able to sustain the focus necessary for a dissertation, and I don’t see myself as a college president in the future.

So, why should I go on for a PhD? What are the benefits? In what circumstances does it make sense? Officially, a PhD would demonstrate my competence in research. It is also a valued credential that would offer prestige, and possible financial gains. Unofficially, it would feed my ego and boost my credibility in certain circles. Getting a PhD would offer me the opportunity to have a mentor, learn from peers, and even take a few classes that are genuinely exciting. Most compellingly, a PhD would allow me to become intellectually engaged in the study of a particular field.

Perhaps I’ve watched too much TV. Maybe I am shallow, or it’s because I am a Pisces. I need to unplug from my work. If I don’t, there is no way that I could go back to work the next day. I begin to feel battered by the constant email and the blinking of my phone, showing me that there are new voice mail messages from faculty, students, and other administrators waiting to be heard.

I wonder if I belong in academia. I love my career, but I also love the moments that I don’t have to think about it, whatever unidentified lens it is through which I look at life. When I go to a new place, I look at the lampposts, the blades of grass, and inhale the new scents in the air and let them carry me away. Perhaps if I had the research, training and background of a PhD, I will be able to see some of the more frustrating aspects of my work in a more nuanced way and think about the larger picture. I would have more perspective to step back and analyze the situation.

Another scenario I envision is becoming an entrepreneur. I wonder if I am cut out to build my own business. I could sell a college education to aliens, pumpkin pie for dogs, and lasagna to football players. Or maybe it is just time to take a vacation.

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

Students Arrive in One Week

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/08/28 at 01:40

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA.

600 international ESL students. 3 levels of English. 3 academic tracks in 2 divisions: undergraduate and graduate. 4 or 5 classes per student. Classes cap at 20, 30, or 40. Classroom capacity ranges from 14 to 47. We have 27 classrooms and 65 (and counting) teachers. It sounds like one big multi-part GRE question with endless permutations. It is the reality of international education administration.

Students arrive in one week. Classes are getting cancelled, moved and added. Teachers are still being interviewed and assigned classes, while others are changing their plans and backing out of classes. We have run out of classrooms and I have wild visions of instructors teaching in hallways and lobbies, or even in tents.

As Heather Alderfer points out in her post, it is important to be friendly with the Registrar. For academic administrators, it is crucial to maintain open channels of communication with key staff members in offices on campus.

International education has a lot of ambiguity and it is very different from traditional undergraduate education. In addition to language and cultural issues, there are a lot of variables that go into predicting whether or not a student will be able to arrive on time to begin their program. Will they get a visa? Can they get a flight? Does our program start date fall in the middle of a major holiday? At the last moment, will they decide not to get on that airplane?

The ambiguity makes traditional academic planning next to impossible. The one thing that remains consistent is ambiguity. We don’t know how many sections of various courses that we will need. We seem to always be on the tipping point between raising course caps and adding new sections. And if we decide to add a new section, will we be able to get a room? And will the room be available at a time that won’t conflict with other classes? If it does, we will need to rearrange all of the classes. And now can the teachers teach at these new times?

These are the questions that we spend the last few weeks wrestling with before an academic term begins. It is unending. As I write this post, I am checking my email to see what instructors have accepted their teaching loads, and as I get confirmation from them, I am getting messages from my administrative staff that their classes have been rescheduled.

I think it’s time to take a break to go out and buy my Registrar a box of chocolates.

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

I Have Some Bad News

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/08/13 at 20:28

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston in the USA.

The first student looked at me with tears in his eyes, silent for a moment, and then said, “I have to call my parents.” The next tried to argue with me, then begged, pleaded, and finally resigned himself to the news. A third student meekly accepted my words, and the fourth didn’t come to the meeting at all, perhaps predicting that it would be about something she did not want to hear.

Often when we think about the end of an academic term, we have images of students getting diplomas, achieving their dreams, and joyfully celebrating their success. We rarely talk about the students who are not successful. These students start down an academic path with the same hopes and dreams as the other students, and for various reasons, they do not complete their programs successfully. Perhaps they are homesick, unprepared, having too much fun with their friends or have a family emergency. Maybe they are not ready or the program is a not a good fit.

Meeting with students who are unsuccessful draws on a skill set that may not be immediately associated with an administrative role. Administrators are thought of as bureaucratic, political, and as manager types. I have found that compassion is equally important. Too often, administrators become caught up in the fine art of box-checking and in making sure the correct forms are filed with SEVIS or the department of employment. They forget that students are human, have hopes and dreams, and have often made great sacrifices of time and money.

Compassion is required when you need to tell a 19- year-old student from China that he has been denied admission to the university that he has worked for a year to enter. Compassion is necessary when a student cannot get funding for a program that she has her heart set on attending.

In managing the end of the term processes, I always make sure to work with advisors to develop alternatives for students. Some students are very close to their goals and for others, goals are often unrealistic and perhaps unachievable. It is important for advisors to be equipped to deal with these different scenarios and to work with students to manage their expectations and disappointment.

On the evenings before I know that I have to meet with students to give them bad news, I go to bed with a feeling of dread, but always attend the meetings with a positive yet firm attitude. I know that I am telling students news that will change their lives and I know that I need to be prepared to help them to deal with the bad news and to offer them alternative paths.

I am taking a stand for compassion, a necessary but often unacknowledged quality of a higher ed administrator. Include it in your interview questions; make it a part of evaluation and promotion decisions. Let’s be more open about talking about dealing with failure, an unfortunate but inevitable part of the higher education enterprise.

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

Outside the Box

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/07/30 at 22:41

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA.

I never finished high school.

After my sophomore year of high school, I left and went to college at age 16. Some people thought I was crazy; they were worried that I would miss my senior prom.  I thought they were crazy. The prom was the last thing on my mind.  I was bored and lonely, even though I was surrounded by childhood friends.

I asked my parents to send me to a private high school, and they refused.  They thought that it was a waste of money.  They suggested that I go to college instead. The opportunity to go to college early was a decision that has impacted the rest of my life.

At sixteen, I didn’t have the maturity to understand a lot of the material that was presented to me in my first college classes. I didn’t have the study skills to manage my work load. I didn’t have the life experience to know how to work with faculty or ask for help. I did, however, find a group of peers who were also going through similar culture shock and who understood me. I felt like I fit in for the first time in my life. We all had the chance to redefine ourselves.

After getting my bachelor’s degree, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had just turned twenty. I took a year off and worked. I also took two graduate courses. I found that my graduate school peers were in a different place in life that I was. I was assigned to a study group that liked to meet in a local bar. When I tried to meet them, I was not allowed inside, because I was underage. It was embarrassing.

However, I did go on to get my graduate degree, and enter the world of teaching and higher ed administration. My non-traditional background has helped me relate to students of all types, and think outside the box of traditional education.

Standardized education and standardized tests are made for averages – not real human beings. In real life, none of us are really standard. Some of us finish high school at 16 and some need to stay until we’re 20. Some of us are ready for undergraduate programs and eager to attend, others need a gap year or two – some “real world” experience. We need more options – more entry points. Some students succeed on fast-track programs and others need additional time for reflection and practice.

Just as the end of the bachelor’s degree and the beginning of the masters should overlap and have continuity, the end of high school and the beginning of college should speak to one another. The focus should be on proficiencies and outcomes rather than on the number of years spent sitting in hard wooden chairs. It is not always about time. Who is to say that a three-year degree in the UK is not equivalent to a four-year degree in the US?

I was lucky to have a mother who was a high school teacher and a father who was a guidance counselor – lucky to have parents who knew about alternative paths to college. This prevented me from becoming a high school dropout. Having an option to attend college early forced me to come to terms with myself, grow up, and make my own decisions. I had small classes with excellent faculty. I studied abroad. It was an inspiring, broad education.

Early college is not for everyone, but I have no regrets about leaving high school after only two years.

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.

Engaging International Families: Re-Drawing the International Student Picture

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/07/02 at 09:00

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston in the USA.

The thing that impresses me the most about America is the way parents obey their children.

–          King Edward VIII (1894 – 1972)

It’s summertime in Boston and just about this time of the year, I become  envious of my friends who teach in the public schools.  One friend is off to Corsica for the summer; another is spending two months in Spain. I seriously consider the idea of getting certified to teach in the Boston Public Schools.  And then I remember the parents.

One of the luxuries of working with international students in higher education is that I hardly ever  encounter parents. Not only are the parents of my students several thousand miles away, but very few feel comfortable communicating with me in English.   In the past, I have always taken  pride in teaching these young adults, free for the first time in a new environment. I like to help them find themselves and become independent. Sometimes I even encourage them to  rebel.

Now that I have more experience creating and managing programs, my attitude is changing.  I am troubled by the alienation of parents and I am interested in finding ways to engage them.  I realize that they are making a  big leap of faith in sending their  child to college in another country. Most families are also making considerable sacrifices  to afford the staggering costs of a US education.  Over the years, I’ve fought to make sure more information is translated into multiple languages and available to parents.

I have noticed more and more  American parents on campus tours and participating in parent and family weekends.  They are invited to  brunches, dinners, and meetings with University leaders.  Institutions are increasingly creating orientation programs and special tours just for parents.  Information for parents is published in brochures and FAQ’s and parents receive a list of emergency phone numbers to call. I can see how inaccessible this information is for the parents of international students.  As higher education has become a hefty financial investment for the whole family, universities have responded by  catering to parents and families as well as to their enrolled students.

When I was 18 years old, I studied in Paris during my junior year of college (yes, I was young).  I had to find my own place to live. After three days in France, I remember calling my parents in tears because I didn’t know how to find an apartment.  I had never even done it in the US.  I don’t think my parents had ever felt so powerless to help me.  I had to solve the problem by myself.

American universities gain many benefits from having international students enrolled in their institutions:  diversity of the student body, enriched cultural experiences for American students, the caché of being a world-class institution that is able to attract students from all over the globe,  and the revenue from the real tuition dollars that most international students must pay. As universities reach out to a global audience, the parents of international students must be drawn into the conversation.  After all, this is also their investment and they are often the ones paying for that investment.

Meg Palladino

Atari Academy

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/06/18 at 09:00

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston, MA, USA

Video games are an excellent teaching tool.  When I think back on my childhood, there are several lessons I learned from playing my neighbors’ Atari games.  For example:

Pac Man: Pac Man taught me how I should go about life every day.  I must move forward, checking things off of my ‘to do’ list.  The path is often unclear and uncharted; my goal is to get it all done. Sometimes life feels like a maze. Along my path, there are things that I need to avoid: mistakes, difficult people, and unsavory tasks.  Encountering these things will ruin my day. 

Frogger: When I am having a bad day, I feel like the little frog, trying to make it across the road.  I want to hide in safe spaces, but I need to continue toward my goals.  Hiding in one space will only hurt me in the end.  I could be hit by one of those trucks!  Frogger showed me that it is better to keep going, even when the going gets rough.

Pong: Pong demonstrated that teamwork is sometimes more fun than working alone.  Teamwork is crucial to success.  Teachers need students, students need administrators, and administrators need a team of people to complete tasks effectively.  Ideally, if the task can be done efficiently and with some fun, everyone wins.

Night Driver: Night Driver taught me that I can’t be good at everything.  I tried and tried to stay on the road in that game, but I am truly awful at it.  I learned that sometimes, you need to hand off projects to people who have that particular skill set. I can take joy from their successes, and the project gets done right.

Pitfall: Pitfall confirmed for me that there is more than one way to solve a problem.  I could get across a pit of quicksand by swinging on a vine, or by leaping across on the heads of alligators.  Each decision has pros and cons and unique dangers.

Some games even gave me more complicated cultural lessons.

Space Invaders: I learned about boundaries from Space Invaders. Spatial boundaries and concepts of privacy vary from culture to culture.  While working at my desk, I have had several international students come in and stand directly behind my chair, peering closely at my computer screen as they ask me an unrelated question.  These students also carefully examine every document on my desk, craning their necks to see what I have there while they discuss their problems.  There are other students who stand too close while they are talking to me.  I take a step back, and they take a step closer.  These types of students are like space invaders.

Although my generation embraces technology, I am nostalgic for these games and their simple lessons.

Meg Palladino

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Creating Solutions: The Impact of an Administrator

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/06/04 at 09:00

Meg Palladino, writing from Boston, USA.

As the daughter of a public high school English teacher, I saw my mother spend entire weekends with stacks of papers and a stash of red pens, grading for hours.  I thought that teaching was an awful job.  Hoping to avoid that fate, I got my bachelor’s degree in Intercultural Studies, but after I graduated, I found that I had no idea what to do with my degree.  I spent a year working at Starbucks and  I realized right away that I needed to make a change.  I needed a graduate degree, and I needed one that I could put to use immediately after I got  the degree.  I found my way into Education.  I discovered that I have a passion for, and maybe even a talent for teaching. (I must get that from my mother.)

My interest in teaching came as a surprise to me, but not nearly as much as a surprise as my discovered passion for administration. It had never occurred to me that I could find a passion for management, meetings and spreadsheets.  The leadership, people skills, and time management I developed through teaching have helped me become a better manager.  My classroom management skills are the same skills that I use to run meetings effectively, with an agenda, an outcome, and participation from all participants.  The spreadsheets are similar to my grade book – they help me keep track of my information, so that I can report on it effectively.  Most importantly, I grew a thick skin in the classroom, which has helped me deal with office politics and take criticism without losing my cool.

As a teacher, I know that I can make a direct impact on the lives of my students.  As an administrator, I can lead change that will ultimately help larger numbers of students.  I can set policies that break down barriers for students.  I can think of curriculum from a wide angle lens, thinking about how a set of classes fit together to make a program, and I can think about the student life cycle from the moment they hear about our programs, though the application process, experience as enrolled students, and life after their academic program.

The macro view of creating and implementing a program is something that excites me. Instead of going home with a stack of papers to grade, I go home with my iPhone and countless unread emails to respond to, meetings to schedule, and spreadsheets to either fill out or analyze.  I realize now that if I like my work, it isn’t so terrible  to take it home and tackle it there, as long as I make time for an idle coffee at Starbucks with my friends, or to spend a weekend visiting my mother.  My impact as an administrator creates solutions for large numbers of students, and paves the way for future students.

Meg Palladino

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Carthage Ruins by Cernavoda.

Carthage Ruins from Amy Keus via flickr. Creative Commons license.

(Dis) Orientation: From Airport Pick-Up to University-Branded Lanyards

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/05/26 at 09:00

I am yawning as I sit down at my computer to write this post.  Yesterday, I worked a long day, from 8:00 AM until 1:45 AM.  We welcomed a large group of international students from China to our campus.  The students arrived on five different flights coming from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Suzhou and Hangzhou. They were welcomed by a university team at the airport, and then shuttled to their campus dormitory, where another group waited to help them with their bags, give them gift bags with university t-shirts and thumb drives attached to university-branded lanyards. They also helped them to their rooms which were spread out over five different floors of the dorm.

It was amazing to see how the University community worked together to welcome the group.  Directors and Deans and student ambassadors met them at the airport. Cheerful student employees welcomed them with signs saying ”Welcome!”.  In the dormitory, a team of international student volunteers from Nigeria, India, China and the US carried their bags and pillows.  Other students operated the elevators, and explained that the dorm keys worked on a key card system.  My role was to size up each student and present them with a small, medium, or large university t-shirt and give them a formal welcome from the University.

The night went fairly smoothly, but we had a few mishaps.  Several students locked themselves out of their apartments within 15 minutes of arrival.  Others wanted to return their t-shirts for different sizes.  One mother called frantically, because her daughter had not called her the second her plane landed.

The excitement about this new group from all parties was really genuine.  We cheered when the new students arrived, and happily worked into the wee hours of the night to make sure that everyone was comfortable.  It was rewarding when the exhausted students got off their bus, in the US for the first time, and told us how nice everything was. They liked their rooms, the campus, and the staff who greeted them.

Despite my exhaustion, I can’t wait to attend the Welcome Reception later this week.  It will bring students, faculty and administrators together. It reminds me that the work really is about the students, and that the other, more complicated things about working in an institution of Higher Education are worth it.

Meg Palladino

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