Humans of International Education #1: Brandeis University’s Michelle Ranieri


Bradley’s FIRST EVER Humans of International Ed interview takes place with Michelle Ranieri, Assistant Director of Study Abroad for Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Michelle started at Brandeis in August of 2018. As an undergraduate, Michelle studied abroad for a semester in Havana, where her most unique experience was watching Fidel Castro give his final public speech to a crowd of university students. In graduate school, Michelle studied abroad in Merida, Mexico and did archival research in Seville, Spain.


For the transcription of this conversation, Bradley’s dialog is in blue and Michelle’s dialog is in black. Enjoy the read!


I want to start with what was your first travel memory.


My first independent travel memory outside of the US was a “People to People” Student Ambassador Program that I participated in when I was 13 for the Mediterranean coast with a bunch of area middle school students. I had to fundraise a lot to do it. As a 13 year old, I sold BBQ chicken through a local BBQ joint in the cold and snow to have money to go on the trip. It taught me a lot about independence and what I could handle without my parents.


Where did you travel to through this program?


I went to Spain, France, Italy and Monaco.


What excited you about the trip? I mean, as a 13 year old, for you to go out in the snow, sell BBQ chicken… There must’ve been something special that attracted you to this experience.


What excited me most was that the program included Italy and I have family there that I had never met. I also took Spanish in middle school, so I wanted to see if I could use the elementary level Spanish while I was there. To be able to see the places, museums, and artwork that was in my textbooks, like the Sistine Chapel and artwork in the Prado, excited me more than I anticipated


What stood out to you about that trip? Did you have a chance to meet your family?


Oh no, that didn’t happen until I was in grad school when my dad and I sought out family members there. The middle school trip did teach me a lot about putting myself out there and getting to know new people because I was the only student from my school on that trip. We had a few orientation meetings leading up to the trip, so I had to really put myself out there to get to know people and make friends. I am still in contact with one of the students from the program when we were 13.


Besides that familial connection to Italy, when you got to that envelope, what made you so excited to see the Mediterranean?


I think it was mainly because I felt special. They called us “student ambassadors” and I wanted to know what that would mean and what that would feel like. I never thought that I would be interested in politics or anything like that, but the international ambassador aspect, to be able to connect with people across cultures, intrigued me even though I had no idea what I was doing at that point as a 13 year old from rural upstate New York.


How did you continue to seek out those same international experiences you had at age 13? Were there any new places you wanted to travel to?


Yes, I knew when I was a senior in high school. I actually discovered it during one of my college tours. So I stepped on this campus for a visit and hated it immediately. I knew I didn’t want to go there but my mom drove 4 hours for us to be there so she made me stay through the school’s study abroad presentation. They opened their presentation with, “We are the only public state school in America that has a license to send students to Cuba.” I turned to my mom and I was like, “I will suffer for four years at this school if I can study abroad in Cuba.” I eventually learned in this particular state system that I could go to any campus to study and use any other abroad program. So I went to a different campus, but used the first campus’ study abroad program to go to Cuba.


What was it about Cuba that struck you specifically?


The only two things I remember hearing about Cuba in high school was the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those were two negative things about Cuba, but I was actually dating a guy from the Caribbean at the time. He was Haitian and Jamaican and I loved his family and their different traditions. I always thought they were so fun, musical, and vibrant. Now my dad’s side of the family is also loud, but without the music and the dominoes, which I thought were the fun parts of the family. Also, the fact that few Americans had been to Cuba in the past 60 years and I was going to be one of the very select few.


It is the Ambassador mentality all over again.


Exactly. I had a kind of defiance and rebellion.


Did your family have any objections with you going to Cuba?


During that study abroad presentation, I turned to my mom and said, “I’ll go here if I can go to Cuba.” She then said, “of course you choose the most difficult location.” And my grandmother said, “I can’t believe you are going to send her there. She’s going to be kidnapped and never come back!” She definitely had some antiquated views on Cuba. But I still went and when I came back she was so thrilled for me and excited to see my pictures and hear my stories.


When you returned to campus after your Cuba semester, did you know international education would be something you pursued?


Yes. I decided that I was not going to pursue a PhD in anthropology, which had been my original plan through sophomore year. I was then thinking that I’d get my masters in something to do with international education or the Caribbean or in Latin American studies, because I loved my semester in Cuba so much. My program director, Lizette Alvarado, who is the Assistant Director of Study Abroad at SUNY Oswego, let me on the program even though I definitely didn’t deserve to go. My spoken Spanish was terrible and I begged my way into acceptance. She was my mentor and inspiration to get into international education. What better job is there than to work with students and inspire them to experience another culture, while also flying all over the world? Which isn’t necessarily what it is, but I thought that at the time.


So was there a moment during your trip in Cuba where you said, hey – I could do this for the rest of my life?


Yes; when I saw the energy that Lizette brought when guiding us around in the 100 degree Caribbean heat for orientation over 5 days, I was like, she is incredible. I was dying from the heat, but she was sweating her butt off in the best mood possible, basically dancing through the streets and telling us to pick up the pace since we were moving too slow for her. Seeing how excited she was for us really inspired me to look into international education as a career.


Did you find the process of fitting into international education difficult? What was that process like?


It was hard; at the time, the few people I knew in study abroad had PhDs. Even though it had been my original plan to get a PhD in Anthropology, I was on this new path where I just wanted a masters, and preferably a program that would allow me to study abroad again and confirm my goals. The master’s program I found was in Caribbean studies and you got to study abroad 2 out of our 4 semesters. When I came back from the second semester abroad in grad school, I signed up to work full time as a graduate assistant in my study abroad office. So that is how I transitioned into the career, but even then, it was really hard. I earned my masters, felt like I had all this experience, 6 months full time in a study abroad office, studied abroad 3 times, bi-lingual, master’s degree…


Seemingly, all the boxes checked.


Yeah. I applied to 45 positions and I heard back from 2 of them. That was a big bummer. Now, I tell everyone who wants to go into international education to apply everywhere, because it can be really hard to break into this career.


Why do you feel there is such a challenge to break into this market? It sounds like you were a well-qualified candidate for the field. What do you feel was the barrier to getting into these organizations? It surprises me that there weren’t even call backs for these applications.


I think this field demands a lot of experience. At the time, I thought 6 months working in a study abroad office was enough when you include my study abroad experience as a student. Now that I’ve seen and experienced everything through my various roles, which have grown in responsibility, I understand why it is so difficult. Sometimes you are dealing with life and death issues with students in countries all over the world. Different cultures, different languages, different systems, different beliefs, traditions, and now these days, dealing with parents. That is something I do not remember as much a part of my experience, but it presents a new challenge for international education. We just want to make sure that the people who are breaking into the field have as much experience as possible equivalent to the roles and responsibilities they expect to have. That is the biggest factor and it’s difficult. 


I will end on a relatively fun question. If you could go back and replicate your favorite travel experience, what would that be?


Mine would be seeing Fidel Castro speak when I was a student in 2010 on the staircase of the University of Havana. I choose that experience because on that day, I was not hydrated enough and I did not get any sleep the night before, so I almost passed out. I don’t think I got the full grandeur of the moment. By moment, I actually mean five hours, because he spoke for a very long time, as per usual. But yeah, I wish I could’ve absorbed more of that experience instead of being dehydrated and exhausted.


Wow, and what a time. To see him, one of the more prominent leaders of communism, speak as an American student, I mean… that’s wild.


Yeah, it was wild. I believe it was the last time he ever spoke in public.


Wow. Did he meet your expectations or was there anything that surprised you?


Yeah, how much he had aged. I think Cuba does a pretty good job of making sure their leaders look prepped and ready for the public at all times. It wasn’t really how he looked but how he spoke. I just remember being like, “I know my Spanish isn’t great right now, but his mumbling was tough.” I had to look up his speech a day later and just read through the whole thing so I could understand it. It was cool because he was speaking about Obama and how he had hope for US/Cuba relations to get better. It was interesting.


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