Elizabeth James is the Director of the Office of International Services, a unit within the Office of Global Engagement. The director provides oversight and leadership to the Office of International Services, which provides immigration support to international students and scholars in addition to providing orientation services and cultural programming that benefits both our domestic and international communities at NC State.
What made you choose this field of work as a career?
I first studied abroad in England, and when I came back I was really looking for a way to connect with international people. I started working more closely with the international student and study abroad advisor at my college. During my junior and senior years, I was doing international student life programming within residence halls and attended my first NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference as a junior in college. It was unusual to see students at NAFSA conferences during that time, especially regional conferences. It was eye-opening to know that I could get paid to do something that I really loved doing and to talk to people from all different cultures and countries. So, I got a master’s in higher education and student affairs from Indiana University at Bloomington.
After graduate school, I got my first job as an international student advisor at the University of South Carolina. While there I was also responsible for international orientation and programming. After briefly studying intensive spanish in Spain where I also volunteered in the Fulbright Commission, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With the international advising field taking a turn towards increased compliance with greater legal consequences for schools, advisors, and students, I decided to pursue a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I had my third study abroad experience at the University of Glasgow. While I learned a lot in four years of practicing business and academic immigration law, I always intended to become a director at an international office. When this position opened up at NC State, I applied and have been here since late 2012.
What does a typical day look like for you?
One of the best parts of my job is that there are not a whole lot of typical days because you never know what is going to happen that day. In a typical day aside from receiving and responding to lots of emails and attending meetings, I meet with staff and direct reports. During the week we have our regular staff meetings and policy and procedure meetings.
As a director, I still carry an advising load, so I also meet with students and scholars on a daily basis. I find that especially right now in a rapidly changing immigration landscape, it is really important for me to stay close to the regulations and the operational functionality of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. It can be difficult to advise staff on how to respond to different challenges if you are not close to and fluent in the regulations. Also, I got into this field because I wanted to help students and scholars, so I would miss it if I gave up that direct contact. There are always those things that I can’t always prepare for that might occupy most of my day, such as a student in crisis, a particular challenge with the port-of-entry, or last-minute questions and concerns when preparing for the arrival of new students and scholars.
How would you describe your job to someone who is interested in your field of work?
When working with international students and scholars, there is an element where you have to understand how to read regulations, what they say and don’t say, how you can wrap university policy around those regulations, especially in today’s environment. What is happening around the world could in a very real way affect what I do that day. Whether it is an embassy closing because of unrest in a country, difficulties that students are having renewing their passports, a natural disaster that might impact a student’s ability to pay for their education because it wiped out their family’s business or their home – these are all of the things that I have to stay aware of. Staying abreast of current events or the news is an important part of what we do.
However, I think that very few of us got into this field because we really love the compliance aspect of our work. I would say that most of us got into it for a love of learning about other cultures and people and trying to replicate the benefits of our own international experiences for the students and scholars that we work with. I still believe that there is a portion of my job that is diplomacy at a personal level. We are in a somewhat challenging time with regard to being open to international endeavors. If I can make sure that international students and scholars come to a welcoming place where their contributions are valued, whether they decide to stay here or go back home to their country, they will take those positive feelings about the United States back as future leaders in their own countries. I feel that that is still a really important, maybe even the most important, aspect of what we do now.
Learn more about the Office of International Services.