Humans of International Education #2: University of California Irvine’s Bill Clabby
Bradley’s second Humans of International Ed interview takes place with Bill Clabby, Deputy Chief Global Affairs Officer for the University of California, Irvine. Bill has over 29 years of leadership experience in the realm of international education, on top of a slew of impressive international work and journeys.
For the transcription of this conversation, Bradley’s dialog is in blue and Bill’s dialog is in black. Enjoy the read!
Want to listen to the whole interview? Check out the recording below to hear Bill and Bradley chat on the floor of Forum 2019.
Bill Clabby's HoIE Interview
What is your first travel memory?
So my first international experience – other than Tijuana in Mexico (I grew up in San Diego) – was to France. I spent a year at the University of Bordeaux in Southwest France. I landed in Paris and I had my orientation there for 3 days and I remember many details of that experience… I remember buying a plastic elephant from a guy who was Senegalese. He wanted 65 francs but I only paid five. I love to bargain and remember the moment clearly because it was right next to the Eiffel Tower. I was starstruck. Here I was at the Eiffel Tower – and throughout junior high and high school I always drew the Eiffel Tower, but I never knew I’d go to France. My sister had gone to France and I decided that would be a great experience also. So my first experience was studying in France, where I spent 12 months.
So that was a study abroad program that you did through your university?
Yes, a University of California education abroad program.
Wow – so you’re not only an active contributor to that program, but you’re also an alumni! Even before that experience, growing up – did you have any type of travel experience?
Yes, I grew up 15 minutes away from the border of Mexico and I would go down to Tijuana occasionally with my family When we had relatives in town. Tijuana was a radically different culture and environment, and I was intrigued by it as a kid.
In 6th grade, our teacher taught us Spanish. He did not speak Spanish, and he was not a particularly good language teacher, I learned that I loved foreign languages, and they came easily to me. In junior high we could choose either Spanish or French – and I studied French because I wanted to study something different from what most other students took.
I took French for 3 years in Junior High and I took German for 3 years in high school. When I went to college, I decided that I wanted to go to France, so I studied French again. Language was one of the magnets that attracted me to study abroad. Because all my classes in Bordeaux were in French, this encouraged me to become as fluent as possible, and that’s what I really focused on.
One other activity that changed my life that year in Bordeaux were the letters I wrote to my girlfriend. This was before the internet, and we used aerograms to send the letters – I bet you don’t even know what that is! It’s one-page that folds into an envelope and seals! We wrote letters to each other, which took 2 weeks to get there and another 2 weeks to receive the response. I had only one phone call home in 12 months because they were so expensive – $2.50 per minute, so it really was a different world than it is today. She is now my wife, by the way, and we just celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary!
Then, after I came back from France I started an internship at the International Center at UCSD, where I lived upstairs with three other interns. We supported international lectures, student orgs, and other activities at the International Center on campus.
And was this internship before you had a chance to go to France or after?
The internship was after the program in France, and it was offered by the Dean of International Education. Another thing that happened during the year in France was that I met a lot of students from African countries. They told me about Peace Corps volunteers that they had met in their home countries, most of whom had been high school teachers. They all had a lot of good things to say about the Peace Corps volunteers. At the time, I didn’t know if the Peace Corps still existed. A couple of months after I got home my girlfriend and I were sitting on the lawn at UCSD, memorizing the map of Africa for a class, and I stopped and asked her, “What do you want to do in life?”
She said, “Well, while you were gone, I took a class on world hunger and we were studying the causes and some solutions. I found the best solutions were grass-roots organizations that help people to gain skills themselves, like the Peace Corps so I am thinking about joining the Peace Corps.” And then I said, “Well, I never said this to you, but I met many African students while I studied abroad and they said a lot of good things about Peace Corps volunteers they knew. I’ve been thinking about doing the Peace Corps, as well.” Our destinies crossed, and then a year-and-a-half later we were married. Then a year-and-a-half that after that we are in Senegal, West Africa with the Peace Corps. While bargaining with the Senegalese merchant in Paris I had no idea I would spent two years living in Senegal, but God has a way of weaving the threads of our lives in beautiful ways that we can’t always see in the moment.
I was drawn to the Peace Corps because I wanted to do something more challenging than my experience in France, and I wanted to see what I could do that would help the world. I wanted to see what I was capable of.
We lived in a mud hut, in a small village on an island, in a remote part of Senegal. We cooked our food over a three stone fire. We ate rice and fish by hand with our village family, out of a common bowl. Chickens would run in to try to get at whatever dropped. We would have to grab them and throw them out constantly.
After Peace Corps we went back to San Diego. I got a job at UCSD and then a job opened up at the UCSD International Center.
International Education was a field that I hadn’t ever thought about as a career, but I got the job. And this was the start of my career in international education: as an advisor at the Programs Abroad office at UCSD. I began to realize the full impact my year of studying abroad had on my life, and began to think that everyone would benefit from the experience of study or experiential learning abroad.
I love what I do! Everyone in this field is passionate about it and now I’m surrounded by like-minded people who all spent time abroad in some capacity, and we all loved it and learned and grew as a result. Now we’re changing people’s lives by helping them have similar experiences. How can you not be passionate about that?
Absolutely. What’s so interesting to me is that, when I’m doing these interviews, I see certain commonalities. The one thing that’s really consistent is that no one actively thinks of International Education as their career path.
It’s kind of interesting because, for a lot of people, it’s like, “okay – I’ve got this idea that something’s interesting.” There was a curiosity about the culture and I think language is a great example because people get infatuated with the idea of another story from a different lens. Like, “I want to be able to talk through that and understand that and see the world in a person’s perspective.”
That shapes so much of our drive that you are even willing to push your physical boundaries. I could imagine at times in the Peace Corps, you’re like, “I’m living in a mud hut, I’m getting bit by mosquitoes left and right – what the heck did I sign up for?” But at the same time, there’s never a lack of enthusiasm. You summarized it well: what am I capable of and what is my potential?
This is one things I love about International Education: it really has people embrace the notion that there is something more out there than me. That’s really what it comes down to: how can I impact the world around me and how can I do that internationally? It’s interesting because now you are an International Educator and your job is to empower people to go and do this.
Question for you: do you share your story often with students or others about creating your own path within International Education?
I wouldn’t say I share it often with students, but I share it more like a brief resume when we do an orientation. For example, I’ll introduce myself and talk about the things that I did abroad. So it’s not as much as what we’re talking about now. But with some people, I do. Especially if they’re applying for Peace Corps or if they’re applying to work in this field. I love spending time with anyone with these interests and helping them find their niche. In fact, international experiences will often open doors to a wide range of careers well beyond international education – by broadening your perspectives on the world, teaching language and cultural skills, increasing independence, and strengthening an individual’s understanding of themselves.
I also taught in Japan for a year on the JET Program, with my wife and two young sons. So I’ve had a chance to do different kinds of things – studying, volunteering, and teaching, which makes me want to help other people figure out the best thing for them.
After UCSD, I also worked for an international program provider called ISA and helped develop programs for university students, reshaped the customized programs division, and modernized our program research. Then, I worked for 6 years as Senior International Officer at a private university, St. Edward’s University in Austin. I learned how a small liberal arts university builds programs versus a large research university like the University of California. So all of that has given me different viewpoints and has made me that much more excited about international education and the diversity of options.
So have you found that your enthusiasm is almost built up because of what you’ve experienced? And, knowing that you have two children that have been alongside it all, how do you feel your passion has affected raising children in that environment?
So even before we went to Japan, we rented rooms to international students. We went to English language schools in San Diego that had homestay programs, and hosted international students to live with us for a few weeks up to eight months. So over a 25 year period, we probably had about 250 students live with us.
So our kids grew up with students from all over the world living under our roof and having breakfast and dinner with us. I was motivated by what I did for a living and this was one way to express that, since we couldn’t go traveling all the time. It changed what we did as a family.
We also went on a 10-week summer voyage with Semester at Sea as a family. I went as a staff member managing the computer lab and brought my family. At that point we had three kids. It was a great experience for us, learning on the ship in the classes they taught, and experiencing the Pacific Rim countries. We visited Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.
What would you, if you can, identify as one travel experience that made you say, “wow, I’ll never forget this”?
I have so many of those moments; I’ll talk about a couple short ones here.
So we were Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal, which is about the size of South Dakota, and we decided to go visit some other Peace Corps Volunteers in North-East Senegal, which is in the Sahara Desert. Our village was in the savanna, very green with rice paddies, coconuts palms, and a very verdant landscape. Coming back from the desert area, we were waiting for a Bush Taxi to get back. A Bush Taxi is just a pickup truck with a metal shell over it, and it holds 20 people… 20 people in a small pickup truck! You sit in the back on wood benches, and there are goats, pigs, and chickens on the roof or by your feet. Anyway, there were no Bush Taxis, so we got a ride part way, by hitchhiking. The place they dropped us off was just a small shack by a dirt road. The people there offered us a burlap sack filled with hay. So we slept there. The next day someone from a government agency had a minivan with air conditioning, and they were driving to Dakar – a 14 hour drive away – so we happily paid for two seats in their vehicle.
Another experience was when we brought my wife’s brother Don to Senegal. He said, “I want to travel like you do.” And we asked him, “are you sure?” So we took him to the most rural area of Senegal, the South-East, to see some missionaries we had met. They lived in an extremely remote village. They gave pretty vague travel instructions saying, “take whatever vehicle you can get for 9 hours. You’re going to go pass a large river 25 km before Kédougou. There will be a Baobab tree and a bridge. Take the third path trail to the right after the bridge and walk about 3 miles to our village.”
The bus driver nodded when we gave him these instructions and he dropped us off an a dirt path. We started walking down a very small trail into the forest. There was fire and smoke all around us and we were thinking we could end up in a forest fire – but realized it was because they were burning fields in preparation for planting.
We came to a clearing and there are four older women – wearing only clothes tied around their waists – pounding millet with large mortars and pestles.
We tried greeting them in the Senegalese languages that we knew – Wolof, Diola, Mandinka, and Pulaar but they didn’t speak any of them. One of them left and came back with a young man who spoke Wolof from working in Dakar.
We told him the name of the village we were trying to reach, and he said he would walk there with us.
We started walking, and as we were walking he said, “our village and the village you are going to are at war so I can’t take you past the Baobab tree, but once we get there, I can point you to where they are and you can go the rest of the way.”
After 2 days of buses and about 12 miles of walking, we finally got to the village where our friends lived. We spent a few hours there and then had to walk another 10 miles. At night, we were offered a hut that had holes in the walls, about 8 inches wide from rats, as that room had been used to store grain. So I was on one side of my wife and her brother on the other protecting her from the rats.
The next day we are walking down the road and about 200 baboons come out into the open. We just froze and stood there. The leaders were checking us out and they didn’t get super close, but probably within 15 feet. After they checked us out, they kept going and let the remaining group check us out. We were just standing there not moving because a baboon could kill you. Then they went on and we continued walking to Kédougou, which is on a river. We saw hippos there too! From there we got a bush taxi back to Dakar.
Wow. Usually when I’m talking to people, they have some type of European experience, but you really had a full-on survival type of experience. Did you ever have times when you were just like, “I guess we’re going to sleep here tonight and pitch a tent?”
We didn’t even have tents; we just slept under the stars. Senegal was a great experience.
Remind me to come your way if there is ever a zombie apocalypse.
Yeah, I guess I would be a good person to know in that situation!
So another question: was there ever a moment where you thought that International Education would be your career?
Well like I said earlier, I didn’t even think of it as a career possibility. I knew the staff members who advised me on my program to France, but I wasn’t really thinking I would work at a university in the future. In the Peace Corps, I had a lot of time to think about it but I still didn’t think of it as a career.
The reason I applied for the job at the International Center was that a friend named Lee Tablewski called me up who worked at the Institute of the Americas. He said there was a job that opened up and it sounded like I should apply there.
At the time, I wasn’t looking for a job. I was happy doing what I was doing, but it was because he called me that I applied. I had no particular formal training program, certificate or Master’s degree related to this field, only my experience abroad and some computer experience and a variety of other experiences. Today, you have masters programs and other paths that set a professional pathway for people to enter this field. When I was getting into it, little or no programs of this kind existed, so they were primarily looking for people who had the right attitude and the right experience.
Today, the field is a lot more diverse, and including the growth of independent program providers who fill an important role that most universities cannot fill. Within these organizations there are a wide range of jobs with different skill-sets needed, such as: traveling representatives to university campuses, matching students interests to programs, working with program staff overseas, building custom programs, admissions processing, budgeting and other business processes, risk managers, working overseas to host groups, etc. I think the roles are generally more clearly defined, and more specialized roles as well, so it may be easier to see what is needed and prepare for the work. This is quite different than when I started, but I’m very glad I did!
I’ll say. And you are still here.
Still here and loving it!
It’s interesting because the newer study-abroad professionals that I’ve interviewed who have come in the field in the past 5 years have mentioned how difficult it is to break into the field. I mean, no one else that I’ve talked to has been in the Peace Corps and slept under the stars for a couple of nights, but they’ve had study abroad experience, interned, and had these boxes checked – but in some cases, they’ve applied to 50 plus positions and only received responses from two.
They were a well-qualified candidate with a master’s degree and all the right qualifications, but they were having a hard time getting that first roll that would really let them practice and expand upon it. In the beginning, many of the more senior people who ended up in this field did so because they travelled, loved it, and they had the personality – but now it seems like, in our modern era, there are a couple more barriers to entry.
I would give two pieces of advice. One: look more broadly than university advisor and study abroad office positions. Program providers have all kinds of positions as I mentioned before. For example, working as a program representative on the road – you will learn all the parts of that organization and visit many universities, which will help you see different environments in preparation for finding your job later at a university, if that is your goal. But it is important to look at a diversity of options, and the skills that are needed for each.
Number two: especially at universities, volunteer to help an office. This could be a research project, flyers, setups for events, whatever they are willing to have you do. When they have a job position open, they will already know you and may be interested in working with you. I’ve seen it work in study abroad and I’ve seen it work in other university positions. For example, my mother-in-law was a marine biologist and she volunteered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. After some time, a job opened up and she got it, and worked in that lab for 25 years. With some things, that’s the best way to break into it.
One other piece of advice. Often people say, “I love travel, and I want to do something international, so will you hire me?” Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. It’s important to show what you have to offer, saying, “I have these skills, education and experience that will help your organization, and I will be a great employee following your lead. Now, will you hire me?”
Even though working in international education sounds exotic, most of what you do is about supporting the work, not traveling to exotic locales! You are helping someone else have that life-changing experience and that’s what you need to be passionate about.
You are absolutely right; you almost have to be willing to take a backseat to it. You make a good point about refocusing on the skills needed to accomplish the job, which you could argue is true of many positions. But it is especially true with International Education, because there are so many factors. In many cases, you are dealing with Travelers halfway around the world. If something were to happen and you did not have the skill sets needed to react to an emergency incident, then you could be putting people in danger.
Thank you, Bill, for taking the time to sit down with me and share your many stories. I believe that, through this interview, you’ve offered a unique insight and perspective on how younger generations of educators can create impact for other travelers by focusing on what is really important and creating the opportunity for everyone to find their own enthusiasm through the lens of travel.