Elizabeth James, director of the Office of International Services (OIS) within the Office of Global Engagement, was one of six staff members recently awarded the Provost’s Unit Award for Excellence. The University Awards for Excellence represent NC State’s highest honor for non-faculty members. James won in the area of safety and heroism for her work in supporting international students and scholars through campus emergencies.
OIS supports nearly 4,000 international students and 300 scholars on campus. James said it’s important to understand that emergency preparedness may look different for that population. Resources provided by the university, such as family reunification services after a hurricane or other natural disaster, may not always be available for international students whose families reside abroad. James wants to make sure the question is always being asked: “What is going to be the impact of this decision on our international population?”
In her nomination letter, James’s staff credited her outstanding judgment, communication skills, and preventative actions in assisting OIS to support international students and scholars through challenging times. For James, winning the award was even more impactful because of who submitted the nomination.
“Of course, it’s nice to get recognition from peers or your supervisor, but when your staff recommends you for something that’s validating. It means that they see and recognize your contributions and want to celebrate you,” she said. James also credited her staff with their success.
“This says as much about the strength of my staff as it is a reflection of my leadership,” she added.
Looking back at the beginning of her journey at NC State University, James knows that the office’s work was heavily impacted by their staffing size.
“We were extremely understaffed compared to the size of our population,” James recalled. “When you’re understaffed, you don’t have a chance to do outreach. Being appropriately staffed has allowed us to be more present. It has allowed us to strengthen relationships throughout the university so that people don’t forget to include us in important decision making, and think of us as partners.”
James is no stranger to the unexpected having started her professional career in international student and scholar advising just prior to 9/11. Throughout her seven-year tenure serving as the director of OIS, she has had to quickly respond to emergencies such as a fire that destroyed an off-campus apartment with many international student residents, the arrival of Hurricane Florence, and more recently the impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Responding to the Global Pandemic
The global pandemic of COVID-19 began to impact NC State campus operations in mid-March. The COVID-19 Campus Operations Group, an emergency management team that focuses on campus operations during the pandemic, began to meet daily to address the growing needs of the campus. These meetings gave opportunities for all of the units that make up NC State University to communicate regularly. James credits the virtual sessions for enhancing communication between departments.
“The meetings allow us to be at the table to ensure that international student needs get met, and it gives me a who’s who list of people to contact who can resolve problems that arise,” she said.
James has been focusing on communicating the ongoing changes to international students and scholars. With the abundance of information given by the campus, the federal government, local government and numerous agencies, it has become important for OIS to translate what all the information means to its population. Without her staff, James knows it would be challenging to keep up.
James’ passion for her work was sparked after her first study abroad experience when she returned to her alma mater and found an outlet to continue engaging with the world as a program coordinator for her international living-learning center and a member of the International Student Club. Those cultural interactions and learning about the interconnectedness of the world continue to motivate her today.
“I find the interactions with students and scholars really rewarding,” James said. “Even just knowing that there is a future student like me out there, an American student, who could make their best friend with an international student on campus, fostering an environment where those relationships can flourish, I see that as a critical part of my work.”
James said the future is cloudy for her unit as well as international education in general.
“Many challenges are facing international education and higher education as a whole,” she said. “Even after 9/11 or the Great Recession, it was easier to view the recovery period. It’s tough to say how this is going to impact us over the next few years as there are many variables at play.”
Despite an unclear future, the Office of International Services continues to support international students and scholars in their educational endeavors in the U.S. and will continue to assist the campus in finding a path forward where international education is valued.
“While international students and scholars represent a population with unique needs, they also have limitless potential, and their contributions to NC State’s scholarship, research, and the rich multicultural environment they create on campus make us a truly outstanding university,” James added.