Kate Sanders (MA ’14) on her work with Professional Exchange Programs

Kate graduated from the Anthropology and Education program in 2014 with her master’s. She has devoted her career to international and intercultural education and exchanges. She currently works for Meridian International Center in Washington, DC as a Program Officer for their Professional Exchanges Division.

Before we get into the interesting stuff you’re doing now, I was wondering how you got into anthropology?

So I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist. I lived in Guatemala as a kid and spent a lot of time scrambling over Mayan ruins, and I loved Indiana Jones and all of that, and thought it was exactly what I wanted to do. My first semester of college at Kenyon College, I went in thinking that I was going to be an anthropology major. They have this cool program in Honduras where you get to work on an active dig site, and I did that my sophomore year. I realized a few weeks into it, while sitting in mud digging 10 centimeter lots that maybe this wasn’t for me and that maybe I prefer to talk to living people. So I switched over to an ethnographic research project in this rural community in Honduras, and started interviewing grandmothers in the community. I was really interested in the inherited knowledge of breastfeeding and weaning practices. Like, how do you learn how to be a mom? How do you learn how to feed your kids, and what’s healthy for them? There were a lot of big forces at play too, like in the 1970’s Nestle was down there trying to encourage everyone to use formula and I was interested in how that impacted motherhood. I really enjoyed my project, sitting in living rooms chatting with grandmothers. And so that was when I decided cultural anthropology was my thing. You can also see my later research has a lot to do with education, in a more informal sense.

Throughout undergrad, though, I studied abroad a number of times and later on I lived in Asia teaching English. At some point I realized that exchange programs were a whole industry that I could work in and make a career out of. As I was looking for my master’s program, I didn’t want to rule out a PhD, so I didn’t want to do a program that was too technical. You know, some are great, like SIT, but I wanted to give myself that option of a PhD in the future so I continued with anthropology. And really, I had someone tell me that they considered an anthropology degree almost like a law degree is that it gives you a framework, a language, for understanding the world – it’s so much more than just a technical skill set.

So you did you do a lot of exchange programs in undergrad, and that’s what ultimately led you to this career?

I mean, I lived in Guatemala when I was a kid. I was like three years old when we moved down there. So really early on, I had experiences with immersive cultural exchanges. Then when I was in high school, I actually did my first exchange program to Adelaide, Australia. And then in college, I did two more exchanges – the Honduras program, which is very anthropology focused, and then a program in Spain which was more of a fun semester.

When you graduated from undergrad, did you go straight to Teachers College?

I didn’t, I took about five years off. I lived in Vietnam for a year teaching English and traveling. Then I came back and had a series of odd jobs. But you know, this is around 2008/2009. There were no jobs to be had when you’re 22 years old and have no specialized skills. So I was jumping between a few things. But I got to figure out what I wanted to do by process of elimination. You know, I worked in a lot of different spaces, I did a little bit of teaching, I did some work on a State Department grant for youth exchanges, which was helpful to really understand more about what I thought I wanted to do, and then confirming that that was what I wanted to do.

So you worked to build up those skills and from there, how did you decide to go back to school to get your master’s?

 I feel like this is not the right answer, but there’s degree inflation and you kind of need it now. To do what I wanted to do, to do substantive work that wasn’t just administrative, it was necessary – all the jobs I wanted required a master’s. It really was tough because it’s hard to know that you’re making the right decision around going back for the masters. But you know,  even having those letters after your name gets you through the door for a lot of the jobs that I wanted.

Is there anything in particular that led you to TC?

I was really looking at anthropology and education together. I won’t say I wasn’t a little bit romantic, you know, about the idea of studying where Margaret Mead and Franz Boas taught, the geek in me was all about it. And, and to be honest with the funding, it ended up being my cheapest option, which is insane when you think about moving to New York as your cheapest option. I also considered that, if I wanted to transition to a PhD – which I realized pretty quickly that I was ready to get back into the workforce – but if I wanted to, it was not a closed door at TC. For me. There are some master’s that feel more terminal, and this one felt like I would build some academic chops in anthropology that could help me continue on the path to academia if I wanted. So I didn’t close any doors by choosing TC’s Anthropology program.

So when you got to TC, are there any classes or professors that stick with you as being particularly impactful to your formation as a trained anthropologist?

Yes, my advisor was George Bond. He passed right after we finished editing my paper, he was in hospice care essentially still providing edits to my final paper. It’s funny, because at first I didn’t know how I felt about his class actually, the format of it was something really strange to me. I think it was the political anthropology course that we all took. Him being a political anthropologist, it’s funny how, when I look at the world, he’s there – everything is political. You know, just by virtue of having that lens, he changed the way that I perceived my own work in exchange programs, of dealing with issues of power and privilege and access. I love my work, but I’m also able to critique those sides of who gets to go abroad, what does it mean to have citizenship, etc. All of these big questions make me better at what I do, even if I can be a bit of a pain in the butt by continuing to ask these questions. So yeah, I think he really was my most outstanding professor.

What was your IP with Dr. Bond about?

I wrote around the idea of global citizenship education – what is this idea and is it something that can really be taught? If you’re going to build a curriculum to make “global citizens,” what does that even look like? The IP for me was less of a destination and much more of a process. I remember Dr. Bond pushing me, saying “Come on, put yourself in there, it’s not a lit review, make some choices, present your findings.” That continued to be challenging for me throughout the whole process. Like, how do I actually feel about this idea? Citizenship is already a very loaded idea as well that implies a strong dichotomy of insider/outsider, so how can you have a global citizen? So I looked at how UNESCO is using the term, whether it is associated with any kind of educative process, and examined how it gets used often in marketing to sell the ideal. So my conclusion focused on what globally-minded citizenship could look like, what people imagine it to be, and what kinds of knowledge and skills you need in order to be on that journey or already considered proficient. It’s been years since I’ve read my IP, but that’s a basic summary.

It seems you have a career in exchange programs where you’re perhaps even more equipped to explore those controversies and contradictions. And since you knew from the beginning that you wanted to return to the workforce and leave academia, it seems like a good lead-up to your current role.

For sure. Just to be able to have George Bond to sit down with and throw ideas around made me question and think more nuanced about these issues. I also got a preview into how disciplined you have to be to get a PhD because it’s so easy to just keep researching and researching, going down the rabbit hole. In order to narrow down the scope of what you want to do and come to a conclusion, it’s incredibly tough. And that’s what academics are doing constantly. That’s when I realized I really enjoyed this, but I was ready to go out into the world and apply it.

After you graduated from TC in 2014, what was the job search like? 

Well, I only was a full-time student my first semester. My second semester, I was a full-time student, but I was also working part time, and then I was a part-time student working full-time after that. So I was working with AFS Intercultural Programs in New York while getting my master’s, and then I continued to work for them after I graduated. I got very lucky because I was able to have a foot in the door somewhere, and then got hired full time immediately after. I do recommend, if people have the bandwidth, to at least do some part-time work while they’re in their master’s program, because I think it helps in terms of just the mindset of applying concepts, especially in anthropology, to a workplace. It’s helpful to continue to have practical workplace skills that you’re growing while you’re also sitting around thinking through theories and methodologies that are quite a bit more abstract.

Was it hard balancing working and studying at the same time?

 You kind of adjust to these things. I think it was hard, but I mean, just going back to school full time was hard for me after five years off. So you know, any kind of adjustment takes time and can be exhausting. I mean, moving to New York is a whole new thing if you’re not from New York. Of course I was tired a lot, but I was also energized by what I was doing. So I think that it just forces you to prioritize. It made my time much more purposeful and intentional.

Now, you’re working with the International Visitor Leadership Program, and you described it as a Fulbright for professionals, which is an interesting parallel. Can you give a little bit of information about the program and what you do?

Sure, so the program, IVLP, is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, so it’s been around a long time. It’s supposed to bring mid-career professionals to the U.S. for about three weeks. The format varies somewhat depending on who is visiting – right now we’re doing it all virtually, for example. They have meetings with U.S. counterparts to discuss topics of strategic importance to our embassies and to our foreign policy in general. We sometimes have big programs with people from all over the world coming together, we call those multi-regional projects. But we also do a lot of single country projects where the embassy has specific foreign policy goals. It’s something really interesting because, thinking back to George Bond, everything is political, and even these are exchanges that seem industry-related and professional have an overtly political component. They’re rooted in our strategic mission and are used as a tool of our public diplomacy. It’s a chance for people to see with their own eyes what’s going on here, they get to draw their own conclusions, and make networking connections in the process. So it can be very, very powerful in terms of just the ongoing collaborations and projects that come out of it, but the goal of the project itself is to bring people together for high level discussion, off the record, so that there is an open dialogue between these leaders from around the world and their U.S. counterparts. But we also include cultural components of the program, of course, we try to get them to have dinner with a host family and they have time to explore and sightsee, go places they find personally interesting, they get to engage with people on the street and the shift in mindset is really astonishing. They have the opportunity to challenge the stereotypes of Americans as seen from the outside, and can bring a more complex picture back to their communities.

What is an example of this applied to a professional in a particular field?

Well, you can’t apply, you have to be nominated by the embassy. Again, it’s a tool of public diplomacy, so it’s for the public affairs officers to go out and make these contacts in their communities. They might decide to nominate someone because they’ve shown leadership in a particular area. We do projects on so many issues, the topics range from things like countering violent extremism to things like higher education models. Human trafficking is a huge, huge topic for us. The State Department puts out a Trafficking in Persons report every year and we do a massive program around that. We have a Women in Entrepreneurship program that brings entrepreneurs from all over the world together to talk about what are accelerator programs for women, how we can create supportive policy and incubators, and how we can approach public/private partnerships. I once had a group on Animal Welfare Rights. I mean, it can be so many things. It’s fun because I get to become a mini expert on all the issues, and then figure out who’s the best person for them to meet with.

Related to that, your role is for their programming when they are in the States?

Exactly, yeah. So I have a counterpart at the State Department who helps develop the overall objectives of the program and recruits the participants. And then I’m handed this stack of paper and I created the program from there. At TC, I actually took a designing curriculum and instruction course outside of our department, and once I began doing this I found that course hugely helpful because that’s essentially what I do – I develop a curriculum for them. Who are they going to meet with? What are the objectives? What are the themes of the meetings? What are they going to talk about? What are the outcomes? And then of course the sequencing and pacing because a lot of these topics build on each other so you can’t have this meeting before that meeting. So even though it’s not an educational program per se, it’s not an academic program, although we do send them to me with lots of academics, the whole program has a very clear and specific learning journey for everybody involved.

So you act as a kind of proxy between the participants and the institutions here that they are going to get the more formal education from?

Exactly, but it gets more complicated because we have regional partners. So I work with a network of nonprofits around the country who are really the local experts. So I know DC and I set up those meetings, but then I’ve got a guy in Jackson, Mississippi who I call up and I’m like, “Hey, this is a group, do you want to host them? What resources do you have on this topic?” and I have a dialogue with them, I co-create the program with our partners, because when they’re actually allowed to travel it’s great because they help set up like the logistics of hotels, and meet with them and have helped host them in local communities, which is an important part of the program. It’s not just getting all these people to come to the U.S. and they only see D.C. and New York, they’re also going out to Sioux City, they’re seeing sometimes more of the U.S. than most US Americans have encountered. So again, it’s about for them to see with their own eyes the complexity of the situation here.

This is for mid-level professionals, so does that mean the visitors have formal education and are established in formal careers in their home countries?

It can vary – sometimes you get really high-profile folks like we had a country’s former president on one of the programs. But I also had some 18-year-old college students on one of my programs. So you know, the “rising leaders” qualification can be interpreted, but I think the spirit of the program is for it to be a bit of an accelerator for leaders. Like Maggie Thatcher came on the program before she became prime minister. So, you know, we’ve kind of targeted people who are up and coming and giving them an experience. There are often participants who have never been to the US before. You know, it is often even more powerful for those folks, because it is generally the only opportunity that they would have to come here.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced doing this kind of work?

COVID-19 comes to mind. Completely transitioning from a fully in-person, high-touch, people-to-people diplomacy to a virtual environment is challenging, especially while trying to provide a comparable experience for the participants. I think back on some of the frameworks I had from both TC and AFS, I was working a little bit on blended learning programs for them. And so having that experience has really helped me guide this transition. I’m now the virtual program lead for my team because I had the most experience in this. Thinking about adult education frameworks, how do you get people to be engaged online? It requires a lot of different approaches, but also being really intentional about how you engage people in a learning conversation. It’s hard to articulate, but I think the biggest challenge right now is trying to find different ways to replicate the magic of getting people who are like minded in a room together and letting them guide their own conversation. Now, we have to actively play more of a facilitating role in that and I think experience as an educator definitely helps.

Is there any advice that you would give prospective students or current master’s students?

The best advice I ever got that I tell everybody that I mentor is that it’s not just about the topic that you’re working on, but it’s really about what are the everyday tasks that it requires and do they give you energy. That really helps guide what I do. I think about when I was in school and I would get an assignment, and that rush of excitement of all the ideas that I would have — that’s how I feel for every program I get. It’s a new program that has a start, middle, and end on a different topic every time with a new set of people coming through. And that gives me a lot of energy. So with anyone looking to join the workforce or even graduate school, just sit down and think about what parts of the everyday, the little things, make you excited and give you energy.

Broadening the idea, people who are interested in international education, there are so many different things going on in the field. It’s not just government funded programs, either — there’s so much more going on now. So, I’d also push them to broaden their perspective and definitions of what that means. There are ways to apply this work in a lot of different spaces. You know, it’s funny, I think about my friends from the program as well, and how valuable it was to have their perspectives because we all went in very different directions. We all came together, we have similar ideas about things but we also push back against each other’s ideas and we grow from those experiences even though we’re now in very different professional spheres.

Interview conducted by: Lizz Melville

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