Jessie Voigts on International Education, Cultural Anthropology, and Learning from Disabilities

Noodle Expert Jessie Voigts discusses the importance of travel, adapting to the surprises of life, and why she'd love to learn from seminal cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I’m lucky in that I’ve learned from many of the people I consider experts in my field of international education. However, one educator I’d love to learn from for a year would be Clifford Geertz. He was an educator and a seminal leader in cultural anthropology who used thick description and ethnography to understand and share cultures.

His views and his practices of looking deeply into cultures are things I want to experience firsthand — how to pay attention to symbols, conversations, traditions and make sense of them. These all point to ways in which a given culture functions, and what our experiences in a place mean to both ourselves and others. Talking with and learning from him for a whole year about this It would be incredible.

I believe that the more you understand about a person, a population, or a culture, the more you can contribute to global understanding and peace. This is the basis of my lifelong work in international education; for me, it's about increasing intercultural understanding.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

I will never forget the words of my mentor, graduate student advisor, and friend Dr. Josef Mestenhauser, at the University of Minnesota. He was one of the biggest advocates of international education in the world. When I was a graduate assistant with him, I would sometimes grumble about the traffic on the way to the airport when I had to pick up yet another international student or scholar. But he told me that for nearly all of them, the journey was the biggest so far in their lives (mentally, academically, and sometimes physically) — and that they needed a friend to help them. For many of these individuals, it took great courage — and often an entire country’s assistance and belief in them — to get them there.

I never forgot that. For each person, a journey to start anew and learn in a different place is a leap of faith — in one's abilities and in one's responsibilities to his or her home country upon returning. It’s an enormous gift and an honor to help facilitate and be part of that.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

When I work with students in study abroad, I always delve deeply into their passions: What are they most interested in? What inspires their dreams? It might be anime (go to Japan!), a particular style of cooking, music, fashion design, a holiday, nature, landscape, sports, languages, hobbies, or books.

Once you discover that, selecting a destination is pretty easy. Follow your passions, and not only will the travel bug nab you for life, but you’ll also be extremely excited and determined to explore and learn.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I've had to overcome some major adversity in my life, which has taught me a great deal about myself, education, and life. When I was 18, I had an accident that resulted in permanent physical disability. This completely changed my life's dream of living and working in Japan, which is not so accessible for people with disabilities. I reworked my studies and goals, and focused on the field of study abroad. Later, during graduate school, I was diagnosed with a neuro-immune disease for which there is no cure or treatment. I was very sick for long time, and again had to rework my goals and career plan to accommodate living with several very different disabilities.

I learned that being flexible, nimble, and self-aware is key to personal, career, and academic success — and that being positive and believing in oneself can go a long way toward both happiness and achieving your dreams, even if you have to alter them. Life isn't easy, nor is living with the disabilities I have, but I wouldn't change a thing, as they brought me to where I am now. I'm pretty good at finding the silver lining.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I went into international education because I truly, wholly, deeply loved my international experiences. They changed my life and expanded my world. I want that for everyone — to learn that there’s so much to see all around the world (including in your own neighborhood), to experience diversity and difference, to discover new cultures, and to make new friends wherever you go. Living like this makes a difference — for global understanding and citizenship, for peace, and for intercultural understanding.

What did I expect? I thought I’d work in study abroad in a university setting, but life intervened. Now I publish a travel library for people curious about the world, teach teen travel blogging, mentor hundreds of travel writers, and continue my work in study abroad by being a White House Travel Blogger. I also share people’s study abroad and international education experiences. Additionally, I run my studyabroadbecause tumblr site and more — all with the goal of promoting international education and exchange — in my own way. I'm so happy to be doing what I love!

Article Topics: