It’s difficult to describe my job. When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I’m a program coordinator at the NOVA Annandale campus for the Community College Initiative, which is a Department of State sponsored program. But that doesn’t describe what I do. My job description would tell you that I advise a cohort of 16 international students from 11 different countries who are participating in a 10-month exchange program, that I manage the budget and write quarterly reports, that I teach a weekly class on United States Culture, Society, and Institutions (CSI), that I plan intercultural events and workshops, and that I facilitate other opportunities for the students to develop field specific skills through experiential learning. But that still doesn’t describe what I really do.
I didn’t receive the more accurate job description until after I accepted the position and received the Community College Consortium (CCC) Guide for Program Coordinators, which gave an overview of the coordinator’s roles and responsibilities that included: hub for the spokes of a wheel, academic advisor, career counselor, teacher, facilitator, motivator, advocate, disciplinarian, psychologist, psychic, trusted family member, and last but not least—magician. And even this isn’t complete. It leaves out key elements like conflict mediator, chauffeur, travel agent, event planner, diplomat, entomologist, and miracle worker, which is not to be confused with magician.
In many ways it’s a lot like motherhood, except instead of having two children, I have 16—more akin to Mrs. Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting. It’s not surprising that many of the students refer to their coordinators as Mom, although at times I think they only do that to try to soften us up when they want to get out of doing something.
I started this job last July right as the new cohort was arriving to the U.S. They flew in from 11 different countries and we all had to hit the ground running. We learned together and at times I struggled to stay a few steps ahead of them as I discovered exactly what my new role involved and navigated a new college campus and system. Each day brought something new—a new revelation, a new challenge, a new insight. At times I was the nemesis when students were frustrated and angry and they blamed me or expected me to fix their problems. At other times I was the shoulder they cried on when they were overwhelmed or experienced loss and tragedy. I learned a lot and I made some mistakes, but we all survived the year.
When I look back over the past ten months, I can honestly say that this has been simultaneously the most stressful and the most fulfilling job I have ever had. As a coordinator, we are on call 24/7. Fortunately, I never had any real emergency calls late at night. However, there were many non-emergency calls and texts, especially in the first few months. The most memorable one was the call at 11:30 pm to let me know that they had called 911 to report a lost phone and the subsequent sting operation with the police officer. But the real stress came with trying to create the best experience possible for these students and having to be flexible enough to shift course, often at the last minute. It was like navigating uncharted waters with ever-shifting winds and currents. Sometimes it was due to unexpected changes and other times from new and developing expectations for the program. There was always the question of how can we make this better?
My colleague at the NOVA Alexandria campus, Jaclyn, was also new to the program this year. Sometimes we were like the proverbial blind leading the blind trying to figure out what we needed to do next. We had some basic guidelines, but very little information from previous years to go by. Along the way, we took note of what worked and what didn’t, what we wished we had done and what we would like to try for the next group. We made the program our own and developed a robust CSI class. We often coordinated things together since our combined group of 30 students lived and took classes together. We tried to challenge our group mentally and physically through workshops and rope courses, conflict resolution and teambuilding, and trips to places near and far. At times we were all forced to step out of our comfort zones and by doing so, we all grew and learned from each other.
As the spring semester progressed, I began to look toward May 16th with mixed feelings of relief that the year was coming to an end and sadness that I may never see some of these remarkable young people again. When that day finally came, it was frantic and stressful. Jaclyn and I, along with one other colleague, made a total of eight trips to two different airports starting at 3:00am and ending at 9:30pm. We learned that 12-person vans are not made for carrying the luggage of 5 or 6 returning exchange students. We put our Tetris skills to test and fit suitcases and students into every square inch possible. We said our goodbyes at the airport and watched them walk away toward the next step of their journey. We expect great things from these young people. They are the future and we hope that we have given them something of value to take home and use to better their lives, their communities, and our world. We will miss them, but now we take a deep breath and set our sights toward the next group.