Chance Meeting Leads to Creation of International Study Abroad Day
Event Celebrated Nationwide by the Education Abroad Community
Erin Kunert and Jessica Mulvihill were serving on a panel for IIE Generation Study Abroad scholarship when they were randomly matched together. While the two read scholarship applications, they talked.
“I distinctly remember saying, ‘Oh my gosh, if there’s a National Pickle Day, there has to be a National Study Abroad Day,” Jessica recalls. “Erin said, ‘If you’re serious about this, I’m serious about this.’ We decided to see where it would go.”
A friendship bloomed—and so did National Study Abroad Day, which they later changed to International Study Abroad Day. First offered in 2020, the annual event is held on the last Monday in February. It’s up to universities, colleges, and organizations to decide how they wish to celebrate. Suggestions are offered on the studyabroadday.org website.
Erin, the former director of the Office of Global Education at Valparaiso University, is a director of student success at Academic Programs International (API), a position she started in November 2021. Jessica is the director of education abroad at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), where she’s worked since 2005. IUP is also Jessica’s alma mater. She earned a bachelor’s in French Language Teacher Education and an Ed.D in Administration and Leadership Studies from IUP.
Once Jessica and Erin landed on the idea for developing a Study Abroad Day, they began kicking around the idea of when they should hold it. They chose February so Study Abroad Day could complement, not compete with, International Education Week (IEW) in November.
IEW is often a hectic time for EA professionals, Erin says. She wanted to have a day that was just for celebrating study abroad.
“I wanted to take recruitment completely off the table,” Erin says. “I wanted to give some real attention to why we do this. I wanted to give our returnees permission to come out for a day and post on social media their study abroad photos and memories. I wanted our faculty and staff to talk about their global experiences, to take time in their classes to share what it meant for them—not to tell students they should do it, but hopefully in the telling they’re inspired.”
Jessica adds: “We kept coming back to: there are so many ways to celebrate this and to highlight study abroad, whether that’s your professionals, your staff, your students, your returnees, your faculty, your university leadership—whatever works for you. This is just a fun day to celebrate study abroad.”
They gauged interest with their colleagues in the Education Abroad community through SECUSS-L, a forum for International Education professionals, and NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The EA community embraced the idea—then and ever since. Across the country, International Study Abroad Day is celebrated with everything from social media posts to daylong events.
Both Jessica and Erin have been impacted by their own global experiences. As a junior in high school, Jessica’s family hosted an exchange student from France. The following year, Jessica planned to go to France with her French class but at the last minute, her teacher cancelled the trip for personal reasons.
“The French student who stayed with us wrote a letter and said, ‘My parents don’t understand why you just can’t come anyway.’ My parents said, well, that sounds like a good idea.” Jessica made the trip at age 17, the first in her family to travel abroad.
“It was so much more than being able to spend three weeks in France,” Jessica recalls. “It was going to a French high school. It was understanding that my parents had this amazing faith that everything was going to be okay and sent me over there. I fell in love with the whole idea of study abroad, that there was this big world out there. I was hooked.”
At IUP, while earning her bachelor’s in French education, Jessica spent a summer and an academic year in France. She also returned several times while earning her master’s degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures at West Virginia University.
“I was really fortunate to be able to discover one country and explore it in a lot of depth,” she says. “It was important to me to not just tick off places I’ve been, but to understand and live and really get to know a culture through that. I’ve been blessed in my job to travel to a lot of places around the world so I can help our students have those same eye-opening and amazing experiences as well.”
Erin, who took German at her Sheboygan, Wisconsin, high school, decided to major in German Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She was all set to spend a year in Germany when a family member fell ill about four months before she was to leave. She made the trip but returned home after her first semester to be with family.
“I tell my students the luxury now is that your cell phone works literally everywhere, but when I stayed abroad, that’s not how it was,” she says. “I had this little burner phone in Germany that only did some things and when I needed to go somewhere, I’d have to look at a map and try to remember the directions. I didn’t have constant connection with my family so I didn’t know how my family member was doing.”
Despite everything, Erin still sees her study abroad experience as “one of the most important things I ever did.”
She loves empowering global experiences through her job. During a freshman seminar she was teaching, they were talking about group projects and how they won’t just do group projects at school—they’ll do them in the real world too.
“Existing on this planet is a group project and we’re not doing it very well most of the time,” Erin maintains. “As we’re thinking about how to equip people to be better planet group members, having that experience of going somewhere and understanding that everything you thought about as normal throughout your entire life may not be normal anywhere else on the planet. Having that experience of realizing that things that are different aren’t bad—they’re just different and that’s okay. There’s always going to be a lot of learning to do and we’re not always going to have the answers, but we do have to keep doing the group project. We can’t opt out.”
To submit ideas or learn more about Study Abroad Day connect with us here: Contact Study Abroad Day