Staff Spotlight: Vija G. Mendelson

Director of Experiential Programs
Vija has been part of the API team for more than twelve years in varied roles: advising students, developing orientation resources, leading research and intercultural initiatives, and most recently directing our teach, work, and volunteer program options. She helped launch API's programs in Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Qatar, and the UAE, and has led multiple groups to Cuba.

woman in wing costume rio brazil

What is your favorite travel memory?

That is hard to narrow down! One of the more recent ones is from 2014, when I went to Río de Janeiro to parade with Mangueira in Brazilian Carnaval. I’d been involved with the Austin Samba School, a local samba community patterned on the famous schools in Río, for 6 years at that point. Being able to participate in Carnaval in the very place where everything originated felt like a culmination of years of study and practice. Parading through the Sambódromo with literally thousands of fellow samba devotees, all passionately singing that year’s school song, was incredible! We were not just observing and admiring the amazing costumes, elaborate floats, and pageantry – we were in the thick of it ALL, experiencing a living tradition! You can see the costume from my “ala” (wing) of the school among the photos that accompany this interview.

Which destination is most underrated? Conversely, which is most overrated?

I am fascinated by Japan. I had not studied any Asian languages, nor had I travelled before in Asia, but when I went to Japan in 2015 I was surrounded by sights and sounds that made a big impression on me. I don’t hear a lot of people talking about travels to Japan, which makes me conclude that it is underrated. I loved every place I visited, and I feel like I could go back multiple times, to different cities and towns, at different times of year, and have a unique experience there each and every time, all the while surrounded by beauty and graciousness.

It feels like passing an unwarranted judgement to single out a place as “overrated”, but for the purposes of this interview, I’ll say Florence. It’s a beautiful jewel-box of a city, but for me it just doesn’t have the same lively energy that I feel when I’m in Rome, Venice, or other famous and highly recommended locations in Italy.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

I believe the biggest factor is a meaningful mission and a clear vision on how to fulfill it. In our field of education, I think any definition of “success” has to focus on the substance of what we do and our underlying motivation, and not just the bottom line. Put another way, the “why” and the “how” behind what we do are far more important in my view than the “how much” that results from our efforts.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

I have become a better problem solver and counselor. Each day we are faced with challenging situations relating to our students’ cultural adjustment, academic difficulties, housing assignments, immigration situations, health and safety concerns, travel issues, and a myriad assortment of other personal “crises”. Over the years I’ve come to view these problems as opportunities – moments when you can offer support, coach someone through their discomfort, and encourage them to learn and grow as a result of their experiences. Although I’ll never be a natural optimist, I do think this outlook is far more constructive and instructive. It has formed over time as a result of my job responsibilities and roles, and I believe it’s impacted both my professional and personal life choices and experiences.

What unique qualities does your company possess?

Last year API revised our mission statement to be shorter in length and complemented by a series of company “core values”. I think the desire to “stay ‘small’ as we grow” is something that gets lost in many business expansions, but it really is true at API. We still take the time to speak with each and every student and participant as a valued individual. We listen to their needs and goals, we help them develop the study or experiential plan that suits them best, we prepare them as much as possible, and we continue to support them on-site and after they return so they can make the most of their time abroad and be successful on their own terms.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

In one of our first summers offering our program in Havana, Cuba, I had a student who still had family on the island. In addition to handling all the preparations for their program, I met the students in Miami and personally accompanied the group down to Havana. That afternoon we held the first meeting of our on-site orientation and then gave the students some free time to rest up after dinner. We met again the next morning to continue our orientation activities, and I heard then that the student had called his family and been able to connect with them and meet in person the night before. Because of how limited communication was between the US and Cuba in 2013, he had not been sure prior to his arrival if he would even be able to meet them. Seeing him recount stories of their meeting, and how incredibly moved both parties were to make that connection and experience something they had thought impossible for so long, was wonderful.