Fostering global opportunities: Meet Kirsten Aoyama

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“Study abroad changed my life.”

This is a headline for many a blog post, tagline for many a study abroad program brochure, popular Tik Tok theme and a common refrain among students and alumni of overseas study.

Indeed, a quick Google search of that phrase pulls up dozens of first-person accounts about how being an exchange student or participating in faculty-led immersions resulted in transformative experiences that produced cosmopolitan, global citizens on the other end.

Some scholars have pointed out that the phrase—and the sentiment behind it—is problematic, suggesting that it places the student in the passive position of receiving a (purchased) transformative experience, rather than actively engaging in opportunities for personal development.

At best, the phrase is a bit of a cliché.

For Kirsten Aoyama, Director of the Global Business Center at the Foster School of Business, however, the phrase is no mere platitude: studying abroad for a year at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan on a Fulbright grant—her first time overseas—really did change her life. Her work, her relationships and her interests have all been deeply informed by that decisive year.

Time and distance from home would expose some of the glaring inequities and social complexities that exist in contemporary American life. Still more time away would reveal similar complexities in Japanese society, in a balancing out of perspective that Kirsten now understands to be a commonly experienced stage of the study abroad experience.

And although she loved studying abroad, and fell in love with Japan, it wasn’t all perfectly framed photos of cherry trees and inexpensive udon and sake among new friends. There were many moments of culture shock, discomfort, intense homesickness, loneliness, language barriers and public transit challenges.

And accessing a study abroad experience would never have been financially feasible for Kirsten’s family without the Fulbright scholarship.

All these factors have coalesced to shape how Kirsten approaches her work building partnerships among international business education programs and preparing UW students for life after college in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.

Setting the global stage

Growing up in Seattle, Kirsten was exposed to many diverse people who piqued her interest in the world. She was particularly interested in Japan and Japanese culture, having spent a great deal of time at the home of her best friend, Nancy, whose Japanese family delighted in sharing their culture and language.

She remembers developing quite a taste for seaweed.

Though her parents had never left North America, they encouraged Kirsten’s interest. So when she was accepted to Tufts University in Massachusetts, where there was a strong Asian Studies program through which she could learn Japanese—and hopefully study abroad—Kirsten was elated.

It didn’t hurt that she’d be 3,000 miles from home—like many first-year students, she was looking forward to some independence.

It was during her time at Tufts that mutual friends introduced Kirsten to fellow Seattleite Gregg Aoyama, an economics major and fourth generation Asian American of Chinese and Japanese descent. They became fast friends—there were few West Coasters at Tufts, and even fewer Washingtoninans—but didn’t marry until several years after college, at Seattle’s old Four Seasons hotel.

To Kirsten’s great disappointment, she realized that studying abroad as an undergraduate was too expensive for her. As an out-of-state student on financial aid, her budget couldn’t accommodate the extra burden of airfare, lodging and living expenses on top of tuition.

Looking for alternative options to get overseas, she applied for a Fulbright Grant in Japan Studies and the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. To her surprise, she was accepted into the JET program, and to her still greater surprise she was also awarded a Fulbright.

The Fulbright program, the world’s largest and most diverse international educational exchange program, provides round-trip travel, health insurance, a housing stipend and visa assistance to awardees—so Kirsten would be able to focus on her studies rather than worrying about money.

She recalls a conversation with her dad about whether to accept the Fulbright scholarship or take the JET teaching opportunity. She was leaning toward teaching.

“My dad told me to sleep on it,” she said. “I did, and woke up the next morning knowing I would take the Fulbright.”

Discovering her dream job

After her year abroad at Tohoku University, Kirsten would go on to earn a Master’s in Japan Studies at UW while working at the Port of Seattle managing aviation marketing to increase international air service.

As part of her job, Kirsten served as a Port representative on “familiarization tours” for the airlines’ new and popular destinations, the better to market their offerings. These tours took her to Scandinavia, Germany, and China (including Hong Kong and Macau), among other locations.

“I grew so much during this time, and learned a great deal about international business,” she said.

Her next role, consulting on international business for an engineering firm, turned out to be less than ideal. It was largely solitary work and didn’t have the kind of impact on people’s lives that Kirsten hoped to have.

“I asked myself what kind of role would get me excited,” she explained. “And I realized I wanted to help people have a similar experience to what I had in Japan.”

Every year, Foster MBA students get to travel the world as part of long-term MBA exchange programs or on short-term study tours/projects, led by the Global Business Center. Kirsten (kneeling, third from right on bottom) joined in this 2015 MBA study tour to Japan.

Perhaps it was kismet: she came across the director position for the Global Business Center at the Foster School and, though she felt it was a stretch, she applied for and was offered the job.

“I was beyond thrilled, on cloud nine,” to be offered the job, Kirsten said. “The mission and vision of the Center’s programs really aligns with my passions, values and beliefs.”

Still in her 20s and new to the idiosyncrasies of working in higher education, Kirsten was fortunate to have an amazing mentor and coach in Global Business Center faculty director Kathy Dewenter, a professor of international finance and fellow Tufts alumna in Asian studies.

Kirsten had a small team of three employees, a number which has since more than doubled, with whom she began the work of building international partnerships and securing the necessary resources needed to equip UW students with the level of intercultural competence they would need to become global business leaders.

Eliminating barriers to global opportunities

The breadth of study abroad opportunities offered through the Global Business Center is staggering—there are courses for undergrads and grad students, business majors and non-business majors; programs from one week to a full semester; and options for faculty-led immersions, partner programs and exchange programs, as well as case competition and consulting project opportunities.

And the locations! England, Argentina, Spain, Japan, Italy, India, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, China, France, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand, Chile, Norway… it’s a list to inspire a serious case of wanderlust for even well-seasoned travelers and study abroad alumni.

Kirsten is quick to point out, however, that not all students see themselves studying abroad, for a variety of reasons: fear of the unknown (more formally known as uncertainty avoidance), cost (both perceived and actual), not wanting to be outside their comfort zone, family obligations and entrenched cultural norms.

She sees part of her job, and that of her staff, as helping students understand that studying abroad is a possibility for every UW student who wants to do so.

“My team spends a lot of time thinking strategically about how we can remove barriers to participation,” she said.

Kirsten notes that of Foster’s in-state students, many of them have never traveled outside of Washington, particularly those from lower-income families or those who are the first in their families to go to college.

Traditionally, the advantages and resources associated with middle- and upper-income levels—including previous international travel—have made it easier for those students to participate in study abroad. And although the diversity of students studying overseas has increased in the last decade, it is not representative of the UW or the U.S. as a whole.

Historical exclusion of under-resourced students and students of color in study abroad experiences specifically and in higher education more generally means that these students may not seek out or get involved in activities, including studying abroad, that seem “off-limits” to them during their college career.

Moreover, both BIPOC students and LGBTQ+ students express wariness of the potential for race- or identity-based microaggressions or threats to their personal safety while living abroad. And for students with disabilities, accessibility concerns and the potential lack of accommodations for successful participation present major barriers.

“Nationally, under-resourced and BIPOC students are engaging in study abroad experiences at significantly lower rates,” Kirsten explained, “and that trend applies to our campus as well.”

In many cases, the students least likely to study abroad are the ones who would benefit the most from the experience. For those who do, the experience levels the playing field somewhat for students’ post-graduate economic opportunities—since students who have studied abroad demonstrate traits like resourcefulness, adaptability, resilience and empathy that give an edge in any job market.

To remove barriers, Kirsten takes a two-pronged approach: fundraising for the Global Business Center’s scholarship funds, helping offset the cost of participation for as many students as possible, and engaging with the UW community—students, faculty, staff, alumni and business partners—to tell the Center’s story.

Last year, the Center awarded more than $200,000 in scholarships, providing opportunities for students who may otherwise have missed out. The Center’s annual donors include UW faculty and staff, along with alumni of various study abroad programs who believe in the value of time spent overseas.

And storytelling—through blogs and social media—has become increasingly important to Kirsten, as a recruitment strategy that resonates with UW’s diverse student population.

“Word of mouth is a big factor in getting prospective students excited about our opportunities,” she said. “When students see peers with whom they can identify successfully studying overseas and being supported, it makes them more confident in their own ability to do it.”

A global citizen

Since that first overseas trip to Japan, Kirsten has never stopped traveling.

Last year, after pandemic postponements, Kirsten and her family visited Denmark (she is of Danish heritage) and Italy—the latter being at the request of her kids. In the spirit of her own parents’ encouragement, Kirsten is delighted to foster in both of her sons a deep interest in exploring other cultures.

“If the pandemic taught us something, it’s that life is short, so do all the things,” she said about the somewhat unusual itinerary.

This summer, the family is traveling to Hawaii to visit her in-laws and extended relatives. And next summer she’s planning a family trip to Japan, before her oldest heads off to college and his own adventures. Kirsten is eager for her sons to experience the country of their father’s ancestors that made such an indelible mark on her—an experience that changed her life.

This September, Kirsten will celebrate 23 years in her role as director for the Global Business Center— encouraging and making possible the study abroad dreams of thousands UW students. She can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“It’s still my dream job,” she said. “I still love it.”