President , Academic Travel Abroad
Kate began her career at Academic Travel Abroad, Inc (ATA) in 1988 as the China Program Manager and is now a proud owner of the business, along with her partner, Chase Poffenberger. Kate graduated from Yale with a degree in East Asian Studies, and spent a year in Taiwan on a post-graduate fellowship. In 2008, Kate completed a three-year program for owners and presidents at Harvard Business School. Kate is a Director on the board of NTA (a travel industry association) and serves on the Executive board of the Fund for Education Abroad. (www.fundforeducationabroad.org)
Please provide an overview of ATA.
Academic Travel Abroad is a 62-year-old company founded by Fritz Kauffman, a gentleman who escaped Europe during WW2 and came to New York and decided to educate Americans about the world. He began taking students, mostly to Europe and Russia, after the war. He wanted to educate Americans about the greater world. Many US universities began sending their faculty along on his educational trips and these trips were in a way a precursor to what study abroad is today.
In 1972, ATA’s current Chairman, David Parry, bought the company from Fritz Kauffman and moved it to D.C. Around the same time the Smithsonian Institution placed an ad in the Washington Post looking for a partner to help organize a travel program. David Parry responded and within a short period of time the Smithsonian began offering educational travel to their members. Back then they chartered entire Pan Am jets to take them to Europe. Each trip was accompanied by an academic expert in history or art history or another academic focus relating to the country visited. These programs eventually branched out to the Soviet Union and China.
For more than a half century, we have continued to offer innovative programs to new and favorite destinations to help travelers delve beyond the surface of these treasured places to explore the hidden riches unique to each. Our clients are still the largest providers in the field of educational travel.
How would you describe ATA’s primary target market?
ATA doesn’t sell to individual travelers and instead provides educational programs to non-profit institutions who rely on their sizeable membership lists to sell the programs they select. We are somewhat like a wholesale travel provider. Many of the participants on our programs are between age 60 and 70, well-educated, and fairly affluent.
How has the economic recession and recovery affected ATA’s work?
ATA offers very high-end travel experiences and the recession definitely had an impact on our work. We were pretty devastated in 2009 with nearly a 40% drop off in our educational travel business. However, the great thing about ATA is that we are diversified and our study abroad programs actually are instrumental in carrying us through these tough times. This diversified business model has also worked well when study abroad-related challenges emerge, such as when SARS hit. Even in the downturn, our target market had the resources to participate in our programs; however, many felt that it was not in good taste to be excessive about spending the money. Some also had adult children who were negatively affected by the downturn and they were now in a position where they were helping out their adult children financially.
What areas of the world (or countries specifically) do you see as the next frontier for ATA’s programs?
We are looking at a few interesting places. The first is North Korea. We had a meeting with a company in Beijing this June who does a lot of good work with North Korea to learn about opportunities there. We also see a lot of potential in Myanmar. Cuba is a place where we are currently very focused and we know that that window could very well close quickly again depending on the election in this country.
In our post-9/11 world, have you notice any shifts or trends in the curiosity of travelers?
Yes. The baby boomers are typically in our demographic because we serve many people over 55 years old. The average age of our travelers is around 65. As these people are coming of age, we are noticing that they are more fit than their parents’ generation. So they are interested in programs that include walks and interactive elements. We try to have things like cooking demonstrations and bike rides, but still nothing too physically demanding. We look at things that will get them more engaged with the local culture. They also don’t like to feel like they are on a bus tour with a lot of “older people,” so we try to work the logistics out to help reduce that sense. To sum it up, I would say that they are more sophisticated, active and experienced travelers, especially given that some have been traveling since they were in high school.
What do you see as the main challenge to expanding international education opportunities today?
Well you know that less than 2% of U.S. undergraduates study abroad, which is horrifying. There are huge segments of the American undergraduate population that don’t even consider studying abroad, especially among minorities, men, science and technology majors. This is in part due to the fact that it may not be a part of some students’ family culture. They are told that study abroad is something that you do if you have the money, that it’s a luxury. Therefore, I think the lack of understanding, particularly over the cost of study abroad (versus staying at home in school) presents a unique challenge. Another challenge is that some campuses are still actually discouraging their students from studying abroad unless it is during the summer. I mean some students are asked questions like, “Why would you want to study art history in Florence when you can study it here with our great faculty?” These kinds of questions are not just being asked on the small campuses, but some of the top U.S. institutions have had this outlook when it comes to studying abroad.
Given the challenges that you just outlined, what do you think international educators can do to improve the academic reputation of study abroad on their campuses?
I think that there will always be study abroad programs that have academically “light” approaches because the market for those programs will remain. By low academic standards, I mean programs for students that simply want to tour Europe and have fun. I don’t think these programs are bad, because I firmly believe that a student is better off having an experience abroad in some way than not at all. I am in favor of getting students overseas, regardless of the type of program, simply because I believe they will learn something valuable about themselves and the world.
However, I work in the field and the goal is to get those who do not work in the field of international education (like members of Congress and business leaders) to buy into international education. They don’t see study abroad as a priority. An example of this is the difficulty we’ve had in passing the Paul Simon bill. Part of the reason they don’t see it as a priority is because the results are so long term and our system is not setup to wait for long-term results. Study abroad is a long-term investment in the future and well-being of our country. The beneficiaries of study abroad are our children and grandchildren. It’s kind of like the social security debate right now in that way. It rages on with no firm action because the crisis is not immediate.
What is ATA doing to provide the financial resources that international educators need?
ATA sets aside a portion of our annual budget for scholarships. However, we also founded the Fund for Education Abroad a couple years ago to raise awareness on the need for more funding in study abroad while also raising funds for student scholarships. The Fund is really focused on supporting underrepresented student groups. We understand underrepresented students to be students in one of the following groups: minorities, men, science and technology students, athletes and those who want to study critical languages in non-traditional destinations.
Our scholarship amounts range from $5,000-$10,000, which is well above the average study abroad scholarship. In 2011, we awarded 8 scholarships. In 2012, we awarded 12 scholarships. We are supported mostly by individual donations. However we also receive support from private and public funding.
A recent CFR report discussed U.S. Education Reform and National Security and found highlighted the need for making issues related to international education a top priority on the U.S. policy agenda. How do you respond to this report and its findings?
I completely agree with it. That’s why I think that the alarm needs to sound right now. We are so far behind in our vision and understanding of the world, which inevitably affects our foreign policy. If you were to look through recent history at the number of members of Congress that have passports you will find that the number has been traditionally very low. Now this number increased a bit when we began requiring people to have passports to go to the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico in 2008, but it is still low. This is sad considering how much our country and economy depends on other countries around the globe. We need members of Congress with experience in these areas of the world.
What are three important skills that study abroad provides students that can prepare them to be globally competitive?
1. Adaptability: being able to survive and thrive outside their comfort zone.
2. Humility: a more clear sense of their nationality and their place in the world through non-American eyes.
3. Language: learning a another language is an invaluable skill.
You started at ATA 25 years ago as a program manager and now you are the president of the company. Do you think that the type of career trajectory that allows young graduates to enter a company at the bottom and work their way to the top is a thing of the past?
It was definitely not expected for me to work for the same company for 25 years but I think it is a testament to the kind of work that we do that requires constant learning. I think there will be a backlash in the future from what the Chinese call "jumping from one trough to the next". ATA is very lucky that we have a lot of longevity in the company. For example, we just had one colleague leave after spending 6 years with us. She had come to us right after graduation and during that time she had four different positions with ATA. By the time she left, she was a fairly senior employee. I think given the technology and know-how today, there are ways to retain good people in your organization and make them happy. A lot of my senior staff have spouses who get jobs in other places that require them to leave the area and at times we have decided that the person was too valuable to lose so we allowed them to telecommute. If the employer is in touch with the needs of their employees, then they will make the necessary accommodations to retain good people. ATA has had this approach for some 20 years.
What does diversity mean to you?
Diversity is what makes the world interesting. It is the mother of creativity and innovation. If we’re all the same, nobody is going to be challenged, pushed outside of their comfort zone or asked to explore new and different opportunities. Diversity makes us question our assumptions and explore our prejudices. We can’t all be “Stepford Wives.”
I conduct a training session with all new staff on conflict resolution and we discuss diversity issues. In those trainings I often tell people that conflict is good. We can’t progress without conflict. It’s natural.
How valuable has language learning been in your career?
It’s central. I have always loved languages. Growing up bilingual, I actually spoke French before I spoke English and my parents would speak English to each other when I was very young so I wouldn’t know what they were saying. I quickly began to master the English language. I then moved on to study Italian in school. Then I thought that I should study something really different and was leaning towards Russian until my counselor told me that I had study with Ms. Hu, who was the Chinese teacher. I loved Ms. Hu and studying Chinese made my brain do things that no other language had done in the past. I love the process of language learning and continue to practice Chinese every week. I speak French to my children at home, which makes me feel like I am sharing a piece of my childhood with them.
How did growing up as an American diplomat’s daughter influence your present passion for languages and international affairs?
My parents were both instrumental. My father was a D-Day veteran who helped storm the beach at age 18. He would return to France later to study art on the GI bill, which was the first big study abroad program our country had. He fell in love with all things French and having had a role in the liberation of it, he felt somewhat possessive of it. He then went to work for the United States Information Service. His work took our family to Vietnam, Algeria, Australia, Paris and Marseilles, where he held the title of Consul General. My mother was a vibrant, adventurous soul. She loved everything about travel and communicated that to us throughout our childhood. She had a red MGB convertible that she bought when we lived in Marseilles and we had a house in Ireland, so she would make us ride with her with the top down—rain or shine. She loved doing that trip. She had a love of life.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the Diversity Network?
My big concern is that travel and study abroad is still for such a privileged few. Though there are many who believe in it, a large part of the country remains unconvinced. If we can get the word out to those who don’t even consider venturing abroad to study, then we are really doing something.