The UI's first study abroad advisor reflects on her 30 year career
By Lauren Katalinich
Six years ago, UI Study Abroad advisor Maria Hope helped a student make the momentous decision to study for a full year on an exchange program in Reykjavik, Iceland. One month ago, Hope received an e-mail from that same student, who had felt moved to contact Hope and thank her for her guidance in what turned out to be one of the most transformative years of her life and an influential part of her future as a PeaceCorps volunteer and English teacher in Turkey.
If you’ve studied abroad through the University of Iowa sometime in the past 30 years, there’s a good chance you’ve had the pleasure of meeting Maria Hope. She’s been with Study Abroad at the UI since its inception in the early 1980s, first in a clerical position and eventually as the university’s first, and for many years only, study abroad advisor. Hope recently retired from the UI after more than three decades of helping students identify and achieve their study abroad goals.
Hope’s passion for international education was cultivated through her own personal experience. Born in Cali, Colombia, to a Colombian mother and Swiss father, Hope carried on her family’s transnational legacy by choosing to attend college in the United States.
She was a French and philosophy major and studied abroad in Paris for the duration of her junior year. That year abroad for her, as for so many others, was a period of intense self-discovery and transformation. It was in Paris that she also met her husband, Geoffrey, an American student studying abroad. They moved together to Philadelphia and eventually landed in Iowa City when Geoffrey was offered a position as a French professor at the UI.
When the director of the former UI Office of International Education and Services (OIES) wanted to expand the office from its international student focus to promote more study abroad opportunities, Hope quickly transferred from her secretarial position to become the university’s first designated study abroad advisor.
In her 30 plus years in the office, she witnessed a complete transformation in the world of study abroad. It was a gradual process, Hope says, with a few key turning points. These included the development of a study abroad resource room, the ability to transfer credits from overseas institutions, and UI President James Freedman’s establishment of the Presidential Scholarship for Study Abroad in 1983.
However, Hope says the real breakthrough came when the office was finally able to demonstrate to colleges and departments across campus that study abroad was not a passing fad, but an essential part of the future of the university that could serve as a strong attraction for future students.
When she began in the office, just three study abroad programs were offered. Students on these original programs all went abroad for an academic year, but today’s students can fit their international experience into a semester, summer, or even as short as ten days on a Winterim program.
Hope confesses she had to make some adjustments to her personal philosophy on study abroad when she began as an advisor.
“When I first started advising students, to me, a London program was not study abroad. I was very fixated on foreign language.”
However, she soon came to appreciate the benefits of cultural exchange outside of language immersion when she witnessed the personal and academic growth her students were experiencing on non-language based programs.
With all of these developments in the field, Hope’s core convictions on study abroad remain constant. She believes that students should view their undergraduate degree as a valuable time for self-discovery and an opportunity to move away from the structures that their past has kept them within. Study abroad, she says, can be one of the most useful tools for this.
This belief has led her to encourage students to participate in more independent, longer programs. When she was posed the oft-asked question by students, “Which program is the most popular?” Her response was, “You come to college to find yourself, not to do what everyone else is doing.”
One student, Laura Willis, says this advice was just the thing that convinced her to study abroad for a semester in a small French town rather than the Parisian experience in which she had always envisioned herself.
“Thanks to Maria, I was able to explore a more authentic piece of France that wasn't overflowing with tourists, and could focus on the language component of studying in a foreign country.”
After graduation, Willis moved to France where she works as an oral English teacher in an elementary school.
Autumn Tallman, associate director of Study Abroad, notes Hope’s influence on so many students’ educational development,
“She is very good at helping students identify and articulate their goals for study abroad and then offering an honest assessment of which programs can best help them reach those goals.”
Hope says one of the most gratifying aspects of her career here at the UI has been the opportunity to work with those students who are the first in their families to go to college who may have never seen study abroad as a possibility but who boldly take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.
As her career as an advisor comes to an end, Hope has two pieces of advice for future students. First, she stresses the importance for students to disconnect while abroad, which better allows them to leave behind their “Iowa identity” and discover a new part of themselves. The task of fitting those pieces together again when they return home is part of the study abroad process.
Secondly, she urges students to go abroad for the length of time necessary for these kinds of personal transformations. While a well-focused short-term program can serve a great educational purpose, longer programs ultimately allow students to have a more immersive experience.
The office will lose a wealth of knowledge upon Hope’s retirement, Tallman says. But Hope, who is looking forward to cooking, gardening, and time for The New York Review of Books and other good reading in her post-retirement life, isn’t worried about the future of Study Abroad at the UI.
“Over the years, we have been putting ourselves in the position to have a great diversity of options for students. It’s a mammoth task but I leave it in very good hands.”