by Alexandra DeMarco
When Programs Abroad Office Director Carolyn Becker moved away from Knoxville in 2014, she always hoped that, someday, she would have the opportunity to return to East Tennessee.
Becker has lived across the country, from the Northeast to the Midwest to the South, but it was both the environment and community of Knoxville that captivated her during the two years she worked as an academic advisor of undergraduate programs in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“When my husband and I moved here many years ago, we just felt embraced very quickly,” Becker said. “There was a sense of belonging where we really felt, ‘Wow, we belong.’”
Nearly ten years later, UT’s Programs Abroad Office was looking for a director, and Becker was the person for the job. She relocated back to Knoxville for the job earlier this year with her husband and children, embracing the chance to continue the work she loves in the city she missed.
Becker has extensive experience working with the international aspects of higher education, including founding Haslam College’s International Business Club. She worked as the residence director of the International House at Illinois Wesleyan University and most recently as the director of Education Abroad at Texas Woman’s University. In her last position, Becker helped to build TWU’s Education Abroad department from the ground up.
“I think it was the best possible thing for me career wise in that I had to really get my hands in all the pots,” Becker said. “I had to understand academic articulation. I had to understand SACS accreditation. I had to understand the faculty experience. I spent a lot of time listening and learning and connecting. … I wanted to understand how all of the pieces touched education abroad so that I wasn’t creating a system that was designed for failure.”
The process of designing the new department wasn’t always easy, Becker says, but the work was always affording learning opportunities.
“The other great thing is that when you’re creating something, it’s never going to work out the way that you hope,” Becker said. “There’s going to be things that are better, and there’s going to be things that you’re like, oh, that was not a good idea, and so there’s kind of that trial by error. … I feel like that position prepared me and positioned me to be able to come into this role at Tennessee.”
As an international educator, Becker aims to emphasize the importance of education abroad and the lifelong effects such education has not just on the students who experience it, but also both their home and host communities.
“(Study abroad) doesn’t just transform the student; it transforms their whole social network,” Becker said. “I really look at this as an investment, and when a student goes abroad and they’re coming back, they’re talking with their friends, they’re sharing that information with their family, their community. So that single person having this experience wasn’t transactional. It influenced the entire community of that person.”
To Becker, education abroad extends beyond physical study abroad trips. Part of her mission is to make international education more accessible to students through other mediums, such as lessons from visiting international lecturers, online collaborations and courses on international topics.
In today’s globalized world, where young professionals may apply for not just domestic jobs but positions on international teams around the world, it’s imperative for students to acquire the skills of a global citizen, Becker says.
“Those career readiness skills should not just be for people who have the privilege of being able to get on a plane,” Becker said. “They need to be available for all students.”
In a world deeply altered by the effects of a global pandemic, Becker hopes to embrace the Center for Global Engagement’s various departments, to expand international education opportunities through a variety of efforts.
“The pandemic has really demonstrated just how interconnected we are. … That really allows us a venue to communicate why this is important, why global skills are important and the ways in which Programs Abroad can support that,” Becker said. “So my vision is to expand the work that we’re doing so it’s more inclusive of students, faculty and staff and really the community beyond just that physical mobility.”
When she’s not bolstering international education, Becker spends her free time exploring both Knoxville’s urban environment and East Tennessee’s natural one.
“There’s so much free outdoor activity and ways to meditate and get back into nature, be with yourself or enjoy time with family outdoors, and that’s really what I wanted, and so I get to live that everyday,” Becker said.
On her daily commute to campus, Becker passes downtown Knoxville at one particular exit where the skyline is perfectly accompanied by surrounding mountains, all roasting in the early morning sun. Taking in this idyllic view, she is grateful for her life in Knoxville and her role as an educator.
“I am a believer that you are right where you need to be when you need to be there, and I am right where I need to be,” Becker said. “The work that I’m doing fuels my soul, and the community is exactly where I’m supposed to be, so I’m just so grateful and excited to be able to continue my work here at the University of Tennessee.”
Jason Moody (865-974-5752, firstname.lastname@example.org)