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Crossing Borders

by Tom Hanlon / Aug 12, 2022

Joy Phaphouvaninh

Joy Phaphouvaninh knows firsthand the power of studying abroad. Now, she is focusing her Ph.D. research on cross-cultural learning in international contexts for both students and employees as she continues her role as director of Illinois Abroad and Global Exchange.

In a way, you might say that the idea of working with people who cross international borders for educational or work reasons is in Joy Phaphouvaninh’s blood.

After all, Phaphouvaninh’s parents emigrated to America from Laos shortly after the Vietnam War.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of crossing borders,” says Phaphouvaninh, director of Illinois Abroad and Global Exchange and a Ph.D. student in the College of Education. “In my parents’ case, it was forced migration, but I was raised with the concept of being different, of the understanding that people can move across language and national borders.”

Phaphouvaninh first went abroad herself when she was a junior at Kenyon College in Ohio. Her year in Hyderabad in southern India expanded her understanding of different cultures and peoples and helped to clarify a career path in international mobility.

“I worked in refugee immigrant services after college, and my master’s program was about the refugee resettlement process in the U.S. and in particular in Massachusetts,” she says. “I came into higher education similarly attracted to the work that involves the mobility of people.”

Phaphouvaninh is most curious about what transforms people when they have an international experience. “In my emerging research, I’m interested in understanding what international education means in the context of work,” she says.

Research Exploration

To that end, Phaphouvaninh is studying human resources development (HRD) and global studies as she pursues her Ph.D. “People are coming to the University of Illinois to gain knowledge and skills for work,” she says. “My interest is in how global competencies are valued by the organizations that send their staff here.”

Phaphouvaninh wants to explore the strategies that organizations and companies employ to expand their global reach. “Certainly, they want to give their employees exposure to the U.S. markets, but they could be wanting them to pick up other skills as well, global and cultural competence skills in the context of diversity, however that looks in their home country,” she notes.

Allison Witt, director of the Office of International Programs, helped steer Phaphouvaninh toward HRD. “She already has leadership roles in both national and international organizations related to Global Studies in Education,” Witt says. “I thought focusing on HRD would expose her to scholars that she might not work with currently, but that she would certainly have much to contribute to in terms of international scholarship.”

Phaphouvaninh says she has experienced a steep learning curve with HRD. “It’s outside of my wheelhouse,” she explains. “I’ve been working with traditional college students. So, it’s been really great to use this program as an opportunity to expand my knowledge base and to apply the things I know on the individual student level to organizational, corporate, or work-based situations.”

Illinois Journey

Phaphouvaninh first came to the university in 2013, hired as assistant director for curriculum integration in Illinois Abroad and Global Exchange (IAGE). She was promoted to associate director for global engagement in 2016 and to director of IAGE in 2018, the same year she began her Ph.D. program.

Work responsibilities have shifted as the university has gone to a different model for study abroad. “We used to manage about 800 students studying abroad on a good year,” she says. “Now, the academic colleges are the primary program advisors for that work, and we’ve become more of a clearinghouse of best practices, procedures, and policies for study abroad programs."

Those topics are in Phaphouvaninh’s wheelhouse; she is currently chair of the Council of the Forum on Education Abroad. The Forum sets the standards for the field of education abroad and provides training and resources to education abroad professionals. Its standards of good practice are recognized as the definitive means by which education abroad programs are judged.

The Power of lnternational Experience

Those study abroad programs are powerful, she adds. “There’s something that transforms you when you have that experience, and hopefully as you reflect on those experiences, you iterate them in some other situations in your life,” she says. “It expands your life and worldview and opens up opportunities for you beyond what you may have imagined.

“A constant thread in my career has been the notion of crossing borders. I have a passion for providing opportunities for cross-cultural learning and personal development.”