Staff Spotlight: Alexa Smith
Assistant Director, International Enrollment Development
Q: Your career path with the Office of International Affairs has been so interesting! Can you tell us about your first job here while you were still an undergraduate and how you worked your way up?
I've been working at the Office of International Affairs for almost seven years. I was first hired in March of 2009 as a student assistant to the building manager. The OIA is located in the International Cultural Center, one of the most beautiful buildings on the TTU campus, and we rent out our rooms for classes, conferences, etc. It was my job to set up and break down tables and chairs for events. After about half a year, a new student assistant position opened up in the International Sponsored Student office, and my manager was kind enough to walk me down for an interview. She said she thought I was too smart for tables and chairs, which was incredibly flattering. In truth I suspect I may have been too clumsy! At that time, the sponsored student office was a one person office, and over the next six years our population grew very rapidly so I was able to take on responsibilities that aren't always given to student assistants such as immigration advising, communicating with government and corporate partners, etc. I had really excellent mentorship from the person who had first established the sponsored student office in 2007. She involved me in every aspect of running the office and growing our population, and I owe her a great debt of gratitude for all the opportunities she provided me. The OIA staff overall are incredibly welcoming and supportive, and I was very lucky to receive their training, mentorship, and guidance.
Once I graduated with my Bachelor's degree, I was hired as a graduate assistant and continued to work in the sponsored student office throughout my MA program. We were also able to hire a new student assistant, which was my first experience managing someone. After I completed my Master's degree, I was hired full-time. I worked as the International Sponsored Student Advisor for a year and a half. In October of 2014, my supervisor and her husband moved away from Lubbock, and I took over as the International Sponsored Student Manager. We were a two-person office, and I was very lucky to be able to work with my colleague who took over as the Sponsored Student Advisor. She kept me sane in a time of several major transitions, even as our population grew by more than 160% between Fall 2013 and Fall 2015. After working as the Sponsored Student Manager for 11 months, I was offered a new role in our organization as Assistant Director for International Enrollment Development. It's been both a huge opportunity and a huge challenge for me over the past six months. I'm now responsible for managing TTU's international undergraduate admissions and recruiting teams as well as the sponsored student office. It's been a very exciting few years in my professional life, and I'm so lucky and grateful to have spent them at the OIA.
Q: Please tell us about your study abroad experiences.
I've studied abroad a total of three times in my life. I caught the bug for the first time in high school. I started studying German in my freshman year at Amarillo High School, and was able to go on a three-week summer study abroad trip to our partner school in Hildesheim, Germany, the summer after my sophomore year. After that I couldn't wait to go back. I applied for the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship, and through that program I was able to spend a full academic year at a German high school from 2006-2007, after graduating in the United States. I graduated high school at 17, so that year abroad was an incredibly valuable year of growth for me before I started my college career at the University of Texas in 2007. (Please note: I transferred to TTU in 2008 and never looked back, go Red Raiders!). The next time I studied abroad was one of the biggest adventures of my life. I received the Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State in 2012 to study Arabic in Rabat, Morocco. I was a little over-confident going into that experience; I thought that because I'd already spent a year abroad in Germany I was a seasoned world traveler and wouldn't experience any culture shock. I was incorrect. Living in a non-western country was a truly eye-opening experience, and something I think everyone should try at least once in their lives. I started studying Arabic both for my Master's degree and because I work with a large number of Arabic-speaking students, and the cultural knowledge and language skills I learned in Morocco help me every day in my work to better serve my student population.
Q: What is your educational background and what drew you to a career in international education? Were your Study Abroad experiences factors?
Ever since high school, languages and literature have always been the major focus of my academic career. I received a Bachelor's degree in German from Texas Tech in 2010. Then I went on to earn a Master's degree in German in 2013. My Master's studies primarily focused on German Literature, but what I enjoyed most about my graduate program was when we had the opportunity to bring in aspects of cultural studies. I had the most amazing thesis advisor who really encouraged me throughout my Master's program, and I really enjoyed the process of writing my thesis, which was titled, 'Der Unterricht für die Unterschicht (in English: Lessons for the Lower Class): Voices from the Margins in German Gangster Rap.' A large amount of German rap music comes from Germany's large Turkish population, and I believe their music provides some really interesting insights into their experiences living in Germany and within German culture. The opportunity to see out of someone else's eyes was the main driving force behind my interest in literature and foreign language, and my study abroad experiences really reinforced that interest. There are two quotes that speak to me about these topics. Nelson Mandela stated, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong." Both of these sentiments, and my interest in language and literature, ultimately led me to a career in International Education. I find my work incredibly fulfilling. I have the privilege of spending all my time helping incredibly worthwhile, motivated students from around the world come to Lubbock to receive a top-quality education. It's my goal to make these students' experience at Texas Tech as positive and as successful as I can. Having studied abroad myself, I can understand how challenging it is to be successful in an entirely different culture, especially while speaking a second language. If I get to practice my German or Arabic while doing so, that just makes my day even better.
Q: Please tell us who is considered a sponsored student. Who are some of the sponsors and sponsoring agencies you work with?
Sponsored students are the recipients of full scholarships from a third party, usually their home government or a corporation that will be hiring them once they return to their home countries. Some are charitable foundations, but all of our sponsors are making a huge investment in the education of young people that they believe will be returning to their home countries after they complete their degrees to make a positive impact on the country and its future. Probably the most commonly recognized sponsored students that I work with are the Fulbright students because the program is so prestigious, and we're always striving to bring more Fulbright students to TTU. Approximately half my student population is from Saudi Arabia, and the majority of them are sponsored by the King Abdullah Scholarship program, which was established by the Saudi government in 2005. We also have a fairly large number of students from Central Africa sponsored either by their countries' governments or by engineering firms that identified them as excellent candidates for future employment. The vast majority of my students come here for our College of Engineering, but we have students in a variety of other majors as well.
Q: What are the most interesting things you've learned from working at the Office of International Affairs?
I learn new things every day! That's one of my favorite things about working with international students. I'd say my favorites are hearing anecdotes about how my students navigate the cultural differences between the US and their home countries. I once had a Saudi student tell me about trying to order at McDonalds. As a Muslim, he doesn't eat pork so he ordered his premium burger with no bacon. He had to send it back twice because there was bacon on it. After they got it right the third time, as he was walking out an employee chased him down with a little box of bacon, very concerned that they'd missed it on his burger! He was impressed by their dedication to customer service, but I thought it was pretty hilarious. I also love hearing about my students' lives in their home countries before coming to Texas Tech. I love to travel, and in a way I get to travel every day just by learning about my students' lives in their home countries. Each culture is unique and fascinating in its own way, and I'm very privileged to get to learn about so many in such a personal way. For example, another one of my favorite things is getting to see pictures and hear stories about my students' weddings. Weddings are such joyful events, no matter where you are, and I love learning about each country's unique ways of celebrating.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
I have the cutest dog in the world! Of course, everyone thinks their dog is the cutest, but I have a phone full of photo evidence, so I'm pretty sure I'm justified in saying so. I like taking her on walks and out to the park. As you might suspect from my literature degree, my absolute favorite hobby is reading. Ever since I finished my Master's, I've been taking a break from classical literature and reading all the sci-fi and epic fantasy I can get my hands on. I also like to cook, and I particularly enjoy trying out dishes I hear about from my students but otherwise might not have tried. My kitchen is somewhat unique, I have a cabinet full of Indian spices, but I'm always forgetting to buy staples like bread or pasta. One of my favorite things to do on weekends is combine my love of books, food, my dog, and parks by going on picnics. There's nothing better than sitting in the shade by the lake after a long walk with some good food and a good book.