Non-Traditional Career Pathways in International Education for Young and Mid-Level Professionals 

February 24, 2023


This article explores the pathways in international education for young and mid-level professionals. In centering the diverse stories of educators who have non-traditional journeys to and within international education, we aim to demystify mobility and the meanings of “success” within the field. It addresses how educators understand their intersectional identities and identify the interpersonal and institutional challenges faced by professionals. This article will encourage professionals by providing concrete approaches that amplify their skillset and experiences. 


  • Daniella Lubey, MSOD | Senior Program Coordinator, Northwestern University
  • Constance Holden | PhD Student, University of Connecticut

As international education changes in the face of multiple pandemics, understanding how best to support career development is essential for attracting and retaining non-traditional, traditional, young, and mid-level professionals. In centering on the diverse stories of educators who have non-traditional journeys to and within international education, this article seeks to demystify mobility and the meanings of “success” within the field. Drawing on our 2022 Diversity Abroad Global Inclusion Conference presentation, we discussed a variety of career trajectories in international education. This article addresses how educators understand their identities and identify the interpersonal and institutional challenges faced by professionals. These experiences include the pursuit of advanced degrees, the importance of networking, and advice for transitioning within the field. Although these terms are not all encompassing of career stages and experience, based off our data, the terms help indicate the main trends and themes that we see in international higher education, for those who have pursued advanced degrees, and spent considerable time in the field. 

We are defining our terms in the following ways: 

  1. Non-traditional: Individuals who have entered IE through a career change or brand new to field within the last 3 years 
  2. Traditional: Individuals in IE who studied, worked abroad and/or have an advanced degree (e.g., MA, MS, Ed.D, Ph.D) 
  3. Young Professional: 0-5 years in International Education or Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
  4. Mid-level Professional: 6-10 years in International Education or Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 

As a young professional it is noted that there are various challenges within International Education. Based on our 2019 survey of young international educators, we identified 9 key challenges that they encountered in the field:  1) lack of mentorship, 2) tokenization & microaggressions, 3) building networks with other young professionals, 4) work/life balance, 5) pay and workload, 6) lack of funding (for professional opportunities), 7) being taken seriously, upward mobility, self-advocacy, and empowerment. In highlighting a few key report findings from the 2021 Diversity Abroad, Survey of Diversity and Inclusion Among International Educators, more than three-quarters of the respondent pool indicated they had studied abroad (78.8%). This means that this percentage is still falling into the “traditional” category. Suspension and eliminate programs; furlough and staff layoffs; and in some cases, closure of offices, eliminated departments, and dissolved organizations due to the unexpected duration of the pandemic have caused a huge shift in International Education staff.  

Our testimonials reinforce these challenges. While the content of the work—advising students, collaborating with partner organizations, developing co-curricular programming---remains invigorating, structural inequities detract from the ability to remain fully committed. The ever-present bureaucracy in higher education, especially at the intersection of DEI work and International Education, produces a lack of clarity around priorities and an overburdening of responsibilities. At times, the work/life balance suffers in these offices because of additional financial infrastructures and budgetary boundaries. We must therefore think about how to move forward from these challenges, especially with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where can we search for healing and a sense of belonging? Are we creating a community within our university, departments, and overall industry? These questions point out the need to foster inclusion across institutional spaces. In modeling inclusivity within the work cultures of international education, professionals will be better equipped to prepare students to practice the values of equity and inclusion.  

Strategies for how to curate critical, constructive, and collaborative work environments emerge from our testimonials. For some, freelance work affords the opportunity to create flexible work schedules, non-hierarchical structures, and to still support students, staff, and faculty across a variety of institutions, departments, and provider programs. Similarly, within colleges and universities, professionals can encourage solution-driven approaches that embrace creativity and innovation. For many, commitment to tradition and the status quo hinders the ability to problem-solve in a way that meets the reality of student lives and institutional needs. Instead of adhering to deficit interpretations of student problems, educators can encourage a growth mindset that fosters critical thinking and empathy. In so doing, educators can embed reflective practices within institutional structures that understand change and innovation as worthy goals of higher education. The stories that we tell ourselves about who students are and what they need impede progress, produce dysfunction, and lead to stagnant institutions. Without challenging what we know about ourselves as educators, institutional work cultures will continue to impede inclusivity and belonging.  

Among all our testimonials, we saw the importance of networking via the internet (LinkedIn, affinity groups, NAFSA, Diversity Abroad, etc.) or face to face in meetings, at conferences, or other formal/informal professional events. Mentorship allows for intergenerational and intersectional career connections while exposing professionals to new strategies for fostering inclusive work environments. Encouraging professionals at all stages of their career to network and collaborate with others in cutting edge research opportunities, conference proposal submissions regionally, nationally, and internationally, and becoming involved in professional and personal groups outside of the immediate workplace is an important way to increase employee retention and overall satisfaction and well-being in the workplace. With an opportunity to work on initiatives the employees are passionate about, the institution is allowing for creativity and fostering a place of inclusion to enhance diverse perspectives. That exposure helps widen career pathways within international education and beyond while also increasing collaboration and innovation within the field.

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