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Meet Ahmad Refky: Diversity Abroad Community Highlight

Posted By Administration, Friday, September 8, 2017

Ahmad Refky
Director of Custom & Faculty-Led Programs
CEA Study Abroad

Level of Experience: 10+ years

What does diversity & inclusive excellence mean to you in the context of your work?

For me, and I know this to be true for CEA as an organization, diversity and inclusive excellence means creating feasible opportunities for students from all walks of life and backgrounds to expand their horizons, and explore life and culture abroad. This includes not just developing a wide array of academically rich programs, but also having a strong network that support these students on their journey, and provides them with the tools they need to achieve their goals.   

Please describe the factors that led you to pursue your current career track?

 My career in study abroad is a cumulative product of my life experiences to date. My first experience living abroad was when I came to the United States as a high school exchange student for my senior year. It was the first time away from my family and support network, which challenged and propelled me on a journey of self-discovery. 

When I returned to Egypt I chose to pursue an education at a liberal arts American university specifically so I can have an environment that not just supports, but also challenges students. I came out during college, and when Egypt proved to be an unsafe place to live, my family from my high school exchange year opened their home and hosted me again in the US. I applied and was granted political asylum as a gay man, and my experience in exile shaped my views about the importance of cross cultural understanding and communication in shaping a more inclusive world. My short-term study abroad experience in The Netherlands with students from across Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia during grad school also cemented my views about the importance of studying abroad and being exposed to other ideas and cultures. 

So with all these experiences, working in higher education in general, and in study abroad in particular seemed like a natural progression of my life’s journey. I started my career at The Rotary Foundation working to send groups of professionals abroad to experience how their vocations are practiced in other countries. I then worked with a Chicago-based non-profit bringing high school exchange students to study in the United States, and from there made the jump to higher education focusing on faculty-led programs, first at IES Abroad, and then at CEA Study Abroad. Looking back at my life over the past 20 years, this career—which sort of chose me, makes perfect sense, and allows me to apply my personal and professional experience to benefit a greater cause.

 What aspects of your work are you most excited about?

 Every day I use the experience I gained on my personal and professional journey to create new opportunities for students to explore life outside their local bubble, push their boundaries, and hopefully become more globally engaged citizens. 

In addition, at CEA I have the wonderful opportunity to put together a diverse team of talented, creative, and strong women that not only push and challenge boundaries and the status-quo, but also make me a better person and stronger team leader. 

Please describe any challenges you've encountered in relationship to your current role? What strategies have you employed to overcome them?

 I think the most challenging aspect of my current role is channeling the creativity and energy of my colleagues. I work with a very motivated group of strong individuals, and unfortunately the reality of any organization is that not all great ideas make the cut or come to fruition. This can be frustrating, especially for team members who are just starting their careers in study abroad or higher education. 

I have found that the most effective strategy is to not lead from the top down. I strive to create opportunities for my team members to impact strategy, set high level goals, hold themselves accountable, and become invested in the success of the initiatives they helped shape. By helping set goals and shape strategy, everyone is invested and the entire team works in unison to achieve outcomes, meet targets and milestones, and celebrate individual and collective successes along the way.  

As you reflect on different aspects of your career, what are you most proud of?

This is a difficult question for me to answer. Seventeen years ago I immigrated to the United States with no real plan or direction. I had a degree from the top private universities in Egypt, and my first job was as a nigh clerk in a 7-11 mopping floors and stocking fridges. So I am proud of my journey and accomplishments to date, and “pulling myself up by my bootstraps” to make it to where I am today. 

That said, a simpler answer would be that every day I am incredibly proud of the Custom Programs team at CEA. I could not be more proud to work with such a diverse, creative, and strong team of women who bring their a-game to work every day. They put me through my paces, challenge me to be a better colleague and leader, and as a team we help bring to fruition wonderful opportunities for students to study abroad every day.

What do you work toward in your free time?

I recently bought a house, so I spend most of my free time making it into a home with my husband and our ever growing pack of dogs (we're currently up to 4 rescue dogs ranging from Chihuahuas to Pit-Bulls)

You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What color would you be and why?

Pink! Almost every other color goes well with pink, which makes it a nice addition to any palette. Pink adds vibrancy and energy to any drawing, but can also be toned down if needed. I am not a wall flower, but I don't crave attention either. I like to let me work speak for itself, so pink seems like the best fit.

Recent Engagement with Diversity Abroad

Co-Chair: 2017-2018 LGBTQI+ Task Force
Member: 2016-2017 LGBTQI+ Task Force
Presenter: 5th Annual Diversity Abroad Conference


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