Staff Spotlight: Alexandra Mitchell

Director of International Programs
Alexandra Mitchell, Director of International Programs – France. Alexandra has been directing Study Abroad programs in Paris since 1999. Today, she is based in Paris and responsible for programming at all CEA’s sites in France. She earned a BA from Washington University in St Louis in Art History and French, as well as an MA and a DEA in Art History from the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne in Paris. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, Alexandra has also lived in the U.S. for many years, as well as France, Italy, and Greece.

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Did YOU study abroad?! If so, where and what inspired you to go?

Alexandra: I studied abroad twice as an undergraduate – to Florence, Italy on a summer Art program, and to Caen, France for a full year immersion program. I then studied abroad as a graduate student for the duration of my studies, enrolling directly into an Art History program at a French university.

Looking back, I have to say that I was most inspired by my family and by my home university. My family saw study abroad and travel as the key to learning to be independent and informed. I would even say that ‘inspiration’ is not a strong enough word - I would go as far as to say that it was mandatory to NOT come home over the summer – my sisters and I were meant to arrange much more engaging and stimulating plans!

I was lucky to be at a university with many opportunities to study off campus. From alternative spring breaks to short term programs, to year-long programs, my professors were always encouraging and inspiring. I owe a lot to the wonderful people who put in place all the opportunities I took advantage of. Many years later, I think I am still officially studying abroad – still here, and still learning!

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

Alexandra: First and foremost, you have to love what you do, and believe in what you have helped build. From there, of course, being a successful organization in Study Abroad will depend a lot on your commitment – commitment first to students and to their learning and development, but also commitment to excellence, to improvement, to finding creative solutions, and to proposing an affordable experience.

When we are working on a new program, or on making improvements to existing programs, we are always asking ourselves whether we have put in our best effort for the students. This is our best gauge to know whether our program will be successful.

Why are language learning and cultural immersion important to you?

Alexandra: I think for the same reasons they are important to most people. Learning new languages helps us understand people who communicate in ways we are otherwise unfamiliar with. This is a great way to gain perspective, to build self-awareness. Cultural immersion, or integration, is one step further.

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Beyond verbal communication, we learn also how other people think, what their priorities and values are, how they see the world and how they function together as a family or as a community. And, if we are lucky, we begin to not just identify those differences, but to actually identify with them.

The idealist in me thinks that Study Abroad will save the world – the more we can put ourselves in others’ shoes, the more we are tolerant, accepting, and adaptable.

What changes would you make to the study abroad industry?

Alexandra: I would love for Study Abroad to be more affordable, but that said, I would love for higher education to be more affordable. I think as a culture and as an industry, we need to be conscious of the cost of higher education in the US. The more it costs, the more pressure students feel, and the more responsible, stressed and guilty they feel for changing their major and adding on that extra course or semester. If we can’t be spontaneous and undecided between the ages of 18-22 yrs old, when can we be?

And secondly, we have to remember that some of the most important outcomes of studying abroad as an undergraduate are building independence and autonomy. We are always working towards setting student expectations and ensuring a strong infrastructure, but we also need to leave enough space for adventure and for the sometimes difficult steps we have to take to learn from our experience. Smoothing over or eliminating too much of the cultural difference can be detrimental to how much students can get out of Study Abroad.

What does your home-country's culture​ value that is taught in your program?

Alexandra: Community is very important to French people. We are a very collectively focused people who value diversity, tolerance and acceptance within that group. I like to think that this sense of inclusiveness is the thread that ties our program together.