For Karen Boucias, director of the University of Maine’s Office of International Programs, playing tour guide comes with the territory.
As part of her job overseeing the university’s international activities, Karen helps students and scholars adjust to their new lives in the U.S. and at the university by working with her staff to organize outings to popular attractions such as Acadia National Park, Baxter State Park and Freeport. She also assists faculty, staff and alumni who call with questions about trips they are planning.
Karen’s duties include supervising admissions of international undergraduates, study abroad programs, and services for international students and scholars, as well as overseeing immigration processing and advising.
“My work is interesting and it’s fun. No two days are alike,” says Karen, recalling impromptu visits from an ambassador visiting Maine on vacation and from a couple of international students who had just been married and came to the OIP first with the news.
“We really are home for many of our students and scholars,” says Karen who describes OIP as the “key international office on campus.” She and her six staff members regularly work with all departments on campus as well as with local hospitals and schools, state and federal government agencies, House of Representative and Senate offices, and embassies and organizations that bring international students and opportunities to Maine.
Karen has had a connection with the University of Maine for much of her life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English here in 1971. After obtaining her master’s degree in library science from the University of Kentucky, she worked at libraries in that state and in Florida. She returned to UMaine and became a department head at Fogler Library in 1981. Five years later she became director of admissions and student services at the Graduate School where she also served as associate dean. While at the Graduate School, she became a member of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, because, at that time, about 80 percent of the university’s international students were graduate students. She worked with international teaching assistants and created a teaching assistant training program for the university.
In 1994, she was awarded a Fulbright grant to study the German educational system. Next year, knowing she had worked extensively with international students, then UMaine President Fred Hutchinson asked her to take on her current position.
“I enjoy my job because it brings me into contact with many different people: students, staff, faculty, alumni, people in the community, across the nation, and around the world,” she says. “I’ve had wonderful opportunities to work with international scholarship organizations by being an in-country interviewer. For 10 years I’ve been a trustee for the American University in Bulgaria which UMaine helped found after the fall of Communism. I am invited to review study abroad locations, and while I have enjoyed these opportunities personally, I am delighted that they have also given me the opportunity to talk about UMaine and our campus setting, academic programs and student life. People are always pleasantly surprised that we have more than 400 international students and scholars on campus each year – all of a sudden we are players on the teams of agencies wanting to place students.”
The success she has experienced at UMaine both as a student and an administrator is the impetus for the support that she and her husband, Professor George Jacobson, have provided over the years to a number of academic, athletic, art and scholarship funds.
“We feel strongly about the University of Maine. We both have had great careers, with opportunities both personal and professional. I got a great education here. My college years were a wonderful part of my life. They prepared me well for graduate school, and later, for a career. We are pleased to be in a position to give back, and we have selected areas to give to that are meaningful to us personally, such as the arts and athletics as well as academics. We know how much the university offers students, staff, faculty, and the community.”
International scholars help make UMaine a valuable resource, Karen says. Hailing from 75 countries in any given year, they bring different knowledge and culture with them that enrich the classroom, foster understanding and tolerance, and prepare students to successfully participate as world citizens.
“Through our international population, we get to know well people from other countries and learn other viewpoints. We have helped local hospitals when they need language translation for a patient. Many of our students volunteer in local schools to teach children about their countries. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we had a group of UMaine students who toured the state for a year giving talks on Islam. We have specialized international groups, such as the Asian Students’ Association, that bring many off-campus people to the university for holiday celebrations. In addition, our faculty are very international, with colleagues and research collaboration in many countries. A monthly lunch program in Orono called “Women of the World that is sponsored by OIP has been a great meeting place for our own constituents as well as the spouses of area doctors, businessmen and other professionals. All of these associations make a stronger community that enriches the Orono-Bangor area.”
When U.S. students go abroad they benefit in numerous ways, according to Karen. They have a great time learning, travel to interesting places and often experience growth on a personal level as they adapt to a new environment and learn to become more resourceful and independent. Students who study abroad typically report that their experience dramatically changed their life in positive ways.
Official statistics for study abroad participation nationally have only been kept for 28 years, Karen says. “Many of us who were undergraduates prior to 1985 were not aware of study abroad programs. We had to search out opportunities or even take a year off if we wanted to travel.”
While study abroad programs have been included in the curriculum only in the last 20 years or so, The Fulbright program has been active since 1956. Karen says she is grateful for the Fulbright grant she received because it provided the opportunity to experience another country.
“My Fulbright experience was particularly interesting because it came only a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we felt and experienced much of the societal changes in Germany in addition to learning about the structural changes in the educational system.”
Because of her enthusiasm for the Fulbright program, she helped found the Maine State Chapter of the Fulbright Association in 2006. The goal of the group is to make visiting Fulbright recipients in the state feel welcome, foster international awareness and understanding through advocating increased worldwide support for Fulbright exchanges, and facilitate lifelong interaction among alumni and current participants. Currently in Maine, there are more than 400 residents who have received a Fulbright Award. These include teachers, researchers, administrators, and students.
“We use chapter activities to bring people together,” says Karen. “Last fall we had a series of dinners and this fall UMaine hosted a Fulbright Day.”
A tireless advocate of international education and exchanges, Karen works hard to encourage others to take advantage of travel opportunities.
“Passports are being prepared in less than three weeks these days and there are easy trips to take to sample another culture overseas. Within Maine we have an outstanding Balkan Women’s Choir, a steel band in Blue Hill, foreign film series, the annual Camden Conference, and of course, our own CULTUREFEST and International Dance Festival – where UMaine international students feature information, food and music from their countries.”
One of the benefits of living in Maine is that it’s not necessary to go too far to find a meaningful international experience, says Karen. Twice a year she and her husband, Dr. George Jacobson, travel to Quebec City to ski, golf and tour.
“We’re lucky it’s within easy driving distance for a quick cultural immersion,” she says.Posted in News