Mary Dwyer
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Dr. Mary Dwyer

IES Abroad

Mary M. Dwyer, Ph.D., is president and CEO of IES, the Institute for the International Education of Students, one of the nation’s oldest, largest and most reputable not-for-profit organizations providing study abroad programs to U.S. college and university students. IES has educated more than 40,000 students since its founding in 1950.


What role does diversity play in international education?

This is an equal opportunity issue. There are many tangible and intangible benefits of studying abroad that underrepresented students are not gaining from due to their significant under-participation rates in the field of international education.

Diversifying international education is important for a variety of reasons:

  1. Students who learn in a diverse classroom setting are exposed to multiple perspectives on issues, an exposure which serves to further enrich their own thinking.  Society as a whole benefits as a result as these students assume leadership roles and become employed.
  2. Students who study abroad often have greater post-college employment opportunities, especially as they have gained the ability to think more globally about and gained the ability to work within multicultural/multiracial environments while abroad. The IES Abroad 50-year study showed that almost 50% of IES Abroad’s alumnae work or volunteer abroad post-college which is a much larger proportion than the college-educated U.S. population. All students should have such strong employment opportunities available to them in order to be more competitive in the global economy and, thus, should be able to study abroad.  
  3. American college students who study abroad serve as unofficial ambassadors of our country. Isn’t it important that these students reflect the diverse face and perspectives that is the United States for purposes of our country’s international relations?


Diversifying the students who participate in international education has been discussed in the field for many years.  How would you grade the progress that has been made in this area?

U.S. campuses have been investing millions of dollars in diversifying their undergraduate student bodies for over 4 decades. There have been significant efforts to recruit, financially support and retain underrepresented students in order to make higher education more accessible to underrepresented students and these efforts have made a difference for some groups more than others.

Diversity has come much more slowly to international education. The reasons vary. Studying abroad was originally thought of as an opportunity only available to a privileged few who were economically advantaged. It reflects a dated view that studying abroad is an added frill and not central to the liberal arts experience. The field has absorbed dramatic growth in the past 2 decades in students studying abroad and had neither the wherewithal nor the financial support to focus on encouraging underrepresented students to study abroad. Whatever the reasons, we have not done as well as we can.

Even though the gender makeup of the student body that studies abroad is slowly changing and a greater cross-section of majors are represented, the students have overwhelmingly remained non-Hispanic Caucasians. And this is in direct conflict with the increasing numbers of multi-racial, multi-cultural students on American campuses. Indeed, the student demographic composition on American college campuses is slated to become so diverse that groups that are currently in the minority, are forecasted by the U.S. Department of Education to become the majority in the next 10 years. Diversifying our study abroad student body is in our ethical, political, social and economic best interests.


What role do you think diversity will play in international education over the next 5 years?

In the next 5 years, the entire field must understand the barriers to studying abroad for underrepresented students and place more emphasis on encouraging, funding and getting these students abroad so that they can experience a complete liberal arts education and become global citizens able to contribute and compete effectively in our very complex world. This requires our commitment and our resources.


Do you think that the economic downturn will have a negative effect on efforts to diversify international education?

The recession most definitely will negatively impact the participation rates of all students, including underrepresented students for the next few years. Part of this is due to a perception on the part of underrepresented students and their parents that studying abroad is not central to their graduation or their employability and is entirely too expensive. Even if these students are fully funded by their campuses, they will not all have the travel and spending money funds to be able to study abroad. That’s why they require additional financial aid. It behooves the study abroad field to advocate for more financial aid for underrepresented students. 

However, there are underrepresented students who are not financially needy who do not pursue study abroad opportunities and we need to understand the other barriers to entry to explain this reality. 


Many institutions have “Diversity Initiatives” and “Internationalization Initiatives”.  Do you see synergies between these two initiatives?

In the way these two initiatives are implemented on the vast majority of college campuses, there are no synergies. There should and could be but colleges silo these initiatives in the way they are administratively structured and in the way they define the goals of these initiatives. In fact, the two should be hand in glove in order to enhance the results of both initiatives’ objectives.


How do you feel the quality of international education programs are affected by having participants from diverse academic, economic, ethnic and social backgrounds?

The various elements of education that students experience while abroad in the classroom, in student housing, on field trips, at internship sites, at community-based projects, etc., are all impacted by the diversity of the program participants. Without diversification, students have a sterile experience without the benefits of a full range of perceptions, analyses, interpretations and experiences that occur when the student body is diversified. Frequently, cultures react to students in different ways and without the ability to have a diverse student body to share these different interactions, students can have partial understandings of what it is to experience another culture. The cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal experiences may be different and all students are enriched by sharing the similarities and the differences in the experience. Majority students benefit as much from a more diverse student body as underrepresented students do. Otherwise, the experience is monolithic if everyone on a program is a Caucasian middle or upper class female to which the local culture responds in a particular way.


How does you organization define diversity?

IES Abroad defines diversity as members of racial/ethnic minorities, first generation, economically needy, and or having a history of overcoming adversity.


IES has a Diversity Initiative.  What have been some of the challenges and successes with this initiative?

I am happy to report that our efforts have been quite successful thus far. We have experienced between 8-20% year over year increases in enrollment of underrepresented students since we began our diversity initiative. But of course, there is always more that we can and will do. We have not encountered huge challenges to our efforts other than finding external funding to offer more financial aid. It has been my experience throughout my career that once an organization and its leader truly commit to a change, resources are reallocated or added to produce a favorable outcome. However, the executives at the top must be fully committed to the cause or else other employees feel that the effort is not truly a priority and the results will be weaker.


Did you study abroad? If so, what impact did that have on your life?

Unfortunately, I did not study abroad. I wish that I could have. My college restricted participation in study abroad programs to a few foreign language majors and they offered only 2 locations: Rome and Cuernavaca.  Since I took neither Spanish nor Italian and had a double major in the humanities and the social sciences with a minor in education, I would not have been eligible. It would have been difficult to fit the experience into my curricular schedule which is the case for today’s students. I did not have the financial support that would have permitted me to study abroad.  Most years as an undergraduate, I held down 3 part-time jobs simultaneously in order to augment my funding sources to attend college. As is the case for so many students, I would not have been able to afford the loss of income essential to paying for my education.  My experience has made me more empathetic to underrepresented students’ barriers to studying abroad and more committed to eliminating the barriers.

I got my international experience through working as a faculty member and health policy consultant in 7 developing countries spread across 4 regions of the world. This experience changed my life, my political and social perspectives, and my views toward foreign policy.


How did you get started in the field of international education? 

Due to the amount of international teaching and consulting I had done as a faculty member in the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I was very interested in accepting the presidency of IES Abroad when a search firm approached me. I knew that although by then my administrative roles had been varied and challenging at the University, my true interests were in international education because of the obvious benefits students and our society gain from students studying abroad.


What has been your favorite destination?

This will remain a well-kept secret since IES Abroad offers 90 programs in 33 locations around the world. I wouldn’t want to play favorites and, in fact, I’ve always been fascinated by ALL cultures. 


How would you define a global citizen?

A liberally educated individual who has experienced a range of cultures and as a result, is better able to compete in the global economy, better able to comprehend and form opinions about foreign policy, and better able to participate successfully in multiple cultures.