By Lois Gray
Photo by Tom Jorgensen
This feature story about Autumn Tallman appeared in fyi, The University of Iowa’s faculty and staff electronic newsletter.
Autumn Tallman’s experiences abroad inform the work she does today. She remembers the challenge of deciding whether or not to come out while participating in a high school study abroad program in Israel at age 15.
“Being far from family and friends without my usual support system was harder than I imagined it would be,” says Tallman, who has served as a study abroad advisor and program coordinator in the University of Iowa Office for Study Abroad since 2002.
She adds, “The program was religious in focus, and negative attitudes about homosexuality were the norm.”
Tallman says that had she considered the implications of being gay in another country and received advising prior to departure, she might have looked for a program more responsive to her needs. When planning a subsequent study abroad experience, Tallman did some homework first and selected a program in Cuernavaca, Mexico, that offered gay- and lesbian-friendly home stays.
“I learned that the program providers I chose, rather than the program locations, had the biggest impact on how comfortable I was simply being myself abroad. Finally, I was able to focus my attention and energy on an international experience without being preoccupied with my identity,” Tallman says. “The experience led to my mastery of Spanish, years of working in Mexico, and ultimately my decision to make international education a career.”
Now Tallman uses both her education and her own study abroad experiences to daily counsel all UI students who wish to study abroad. She provides expertise for programs in Italy, Greece, and the Czech Republic. Tallman also administers study abroad programs, primarily in Latin America and Europe, for UI and for the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC). She serves on the executive board of the UI Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Staff and Faculty Association (LGBT SFA).
fyi recently caught up with Tallman to learn more about the work she does, the growing importance of study abroad for all UI students, and how she and her partner, Sherri, juggle their busy lives, including raising 5-year-old twins and a 1-year-old.
How did you get interested in study abroad and international education?
My interest evolved over time in subtle ways. I was born in Canada and moved to the United States right before I started kindergarten, and over the years my relatives have moved back and forth across that border like ping pong balls over a net. I grew up experiencing a border as something I was entitled to cross, not a barrier. I finished high school 45 minutes from the U.S.-Mexican border in Tucson and came to see this other border less as a line in the sand and more as a complex region. I had an unusual childhood that allowed me to travel and gave me inside access to several families that were vastly different in terms of values, financial resources, languages spoken, and beliefs. The religious differences I experienced were very influential.
By age 8, I had an epiphany moment, perched alone on top of a snowy Iowa hill with my sled: so many religious views can’t all be right. It was my skepticism about religious beliefs along with a deep respect and love for their believers that really sparked my interest in exploring how lives are framed and experienced differently from place to place.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
The opportunities I have to develop new study abroad programs in collaboration with UI faculty, and the role I get to play in building relationships with institutions overseas. Recently, I have enjoyed overseeing the Diversity Ambassador Scholarship competition and hearing about the recipients’ experiences upon return.
What is your hope for students who study abroad?
To let go of assumptions long enough to experience life on someone else’s terms—that for me is the ultimate goal of a study abroad experience. If you want to know what makes human beings tick and how different economic, social, and political factors influence our values and our identities, then it is a very good idea to start by moving beyond what you think you already know.
Traveling to see sites and experience superficial differences can be thrilling for a young person seeking new life experiences, but there is so much more to be gained from spending time abroad. It may be exciting and ego-gratifying to post pictures of a castle in Prague to your Facebook account, but the real fun begins when you take the time and effort to carve a place for yourself in a new community, and that community in turn comes to know you as something more than a generic foreigner who is passing through. My hope is that study abroad won’t be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our students. At its best, study abroad can lead to a lifetime of routinely considering perspectives from beyond our borders when framing problems and seeking solutions.
The UI Office for Study Abroad has just launched some specific diversity web pages. Why was this done, and what are the different areas?
Four pages are poised to launch this semester addressing issues of identity abroad for students with disabilities, U.S. racial and ethnic minorities, LGBT-identified students, and first-generation and nontraditional college students. (Visit international.uiowa.edu/study-abroad to see the pages.) The cornerstone of each page is a “Student Reflections” section. The forum allows prospective study abroad students to learn from the experiences of returnees who share stories or advice related to a common identity or attribute. Some of the groups we are addressing are traditionally underrepresented on study abroad programs, while others may not be statistically underrepresented but nonetheless have unique issues that deserve consideration prior to study abroad.
What do you do outside of work?
My children do most of the planning for my social calendar. Thanks to flex-time options, I am able to be home when preschool ends several days a week. Thanks to my children, I do a lot of things I would not have dreamt up on my own! I recently built a model Apatosaurus (not to scale) and put on ice skates for the first time in 20 years. I also volunteer for the UI Safe Zone Project, a campuswide program that offers a visible message of inclusion, affirmation, and support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people in the University community. (Editor’s note: Check out fyi’s feature on the Safe Zone Project on Monday, Feb. 7.)
How many different countries have you traveled to, and do you have a favorite?
Mexico is special to me because I learned so much from so many people during my time there. I don’t know how many countries I have been to, but I would definitely run out of fingers and probably run out of toes if I counted them. I wasn’t particularly drawn to Europe when I was a student, but I’m currently intrigued by the European Union and how debt issues will influence social perceptions and alignments. If I could study abroad now I might consider Greece, Germany, the Czech Republic, or Russia. Then again, maybe Tanzania…