Over the next few weeks, we’ll meet the team behind AIFS Customized, Faculty-Led programs.
This week, we spend a few minutes chatting with Ailsa Brookes, Senior Vice President, based in our London, UK office.
What do you do for AIFS?
I oversee the programming and overseas campuses for AIFS Study Abroad.
How long have you worked for AIFS?
33 years full-time, and for three years as a summer job before that (when I was at university).
What do you love most about your job?
Knowing that what we do makes a difference. The opportunity to see first-hand that study abroad really does change lives. For the first 15 years or so I worked directly with students and faculty on a daily basis, first of all as a Student Advisor and ultimately as Head of Student Services in London. For about 6 years I lived with the students as an RA, so I had a great opportunity to see pretty much 24/7 the impact that studying in a different culture had on students. How living away from home and viewing their own culture from the outside gave them such an opportunity for personal growth and the kind of learning you just can’t get in a classroom.
In the field we talk about study abroad changing lives and I was lucky enough to actually witness it on a daily basis. Although my contact with students is different now, those experiences always stay with me and drive everything I do. I keep the student contact as much as I can, visiting the programs, through focus groups etc. as it helps keep me connected to what they want. Now I get to develop programs around the world such as our new semester in Valencia, Spain and summer 2021 opportunities for students to learn about LGBTQ+ rights in Europe, diversity in London, sustainability in Scandinavia and women in leadership in the UK and Ireland. I love the variety of my job and feel truly blessed to say that I have never had a single boring day at AIFS!
What do you love most about working for AIFS?
The people! My colleagues, the faculty and students, the advisors I work with at US universities, the staff at our partner universities all over the World. That and the fact that throughout the whole organization, the focus is on the student. On doing right by them and giving them the best experience we possibly can. Our founder Sir Cyril Taylor was a giant of a man – passionate about education and cultural exchange. Until the day he passed away in 2018 aged 82 he was in the office every day and always wanted to know that we were putting students first – it wasn’t just allowed to make them the priority every day, it was expected. He fostered a culture of doing the right thing – doing good in the world and that’s really important to me.
What do you like most about working with faculty and students?
Their enthusiasm and openness to something new. The willingness to step out of their comfort zone and experience a different culture. I love to see my own country through their eyes too. I’ve learned so much about the UK from our students and faculty! In these challenging times, the fact that there are so many people who want to reach out beyond their own lives/experience and connect with others from different parts of the world gives me hope!
Where and when did you study or work abroad?
One of my biggest regrets is I didn’t study abroad. It wasn’t really “a thing” in the UK in the early 80s other than for language students and it was an opportunity that passed me by. I haven’t given up on the idea though. I see a study abroad experience in my retirement plans! Although I’ve never spent a prolonged period working abroad, a big part of my job is doing just that.
I’ve been to the US over 100 times, most of them on business trips and a lot of my working life has been in countries around the world looking at facilities and working with academics and international education professionals to arrange study abroad programs for our students. I’ve met some amazing people and travelling in this way means you spend a lot of time with local people so you get a deeper insight into the culture and way of life.
Any advice for faculty thinking of leading a CFL program abroad?
Do it! And of course, I would say this, but work with a provider so that you can get local knowledge to help you design your program and so that you can focus on your teaching. It sounds obvious, but it’s always good to really make use of the location to add richness to the student experience. Working with someone who has experience in the location with expert knowledge and excellent contacts can help you enhance your classroom teaching with academic visits, guest speakers and opportunities for integration that you may not be able to arrange on your own. Also, once on-site the support staff can add cultural context to the learning experience and handle any pastoral issues or emergencies that may arise, leaving you to focus on teaching your class.
I’d also advise faculty to really think through how much they want to fit into the program. Sometimes there is a tendency to cram in too much and although this is understandable, in my experience the most successful programs allow time (and guidance) for students to reflect on their experience in the moment and to experience the culture they are living in as well as keep up with their studies. Having a more in-depth experience in one or two locations can be better than skimming the surface of three or four.
Finally, know that we are here to support you as well as your students. This is your program, not ours. Our job is to help you make it the best it can possibly be, for you and for your students. So we won’t be giving you a fixed itinerary that suits our needs, we’ll be finding out what your objectives are for the program and then working with you to create something customized that is academically rigorous, affordable and stimulating for your students.
Any advice for students thinking of studying abroad?
Do it! I know it’s a big investment, but I have literally never talked to a student who didn’t think it was worth it. Keep an open mind and if there are things you find very different to home, remember that that’s why you’re doing it. Hopefully you will be lucky enough to travel after college but living and studying abroad is just on another level. You’ll really get beneath the surface in a way that tourists struggle to do, maybe even living with a host family and taking an internship as part of your program. By all means make new friends among your fellow study abroad students but resist the temptation to spend all your time with them. Get out of your comfort zone a little and the rewards will be immense.
Tell us something about yourself:
I’m originally from Sheffield in Yorkshire but have lived in London since 1987 when I came here after graduating to start my first job as a Student Advisor with AIFS. My happy place is in the forest. I’ve always lived in big cities but love being surrounded by nature, particularly trees. I love to travel, am an avid reader, enjoy hiking, theatre, live music and spending time with family and friends.
Where do you plan to travel to next? Why?
I’m heading to Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland in a few weeks to spend time in a beautiful, remote spot. The trip was a birthday gift from great friends. We plan to just relax, hike and read for a week. I can’t wait!
Tell us a favorite travel story.
Some of my happiest memories are from my travels. Just a couple of stories, one work related, one not.
In spring 1988 I went to Moscow and St Petersburg (was Leningrad then) with a group of students. It was still the Soviet Union and travel was fairly restricted. Tourists stayed in certain hotels and these were a magnet for young Soviets wanting to meet foreigners, trade Soviet pins, hats and sweatshirts for jeans. Some in our group met two 20-year old locals and on our last night in Moscow they managed to get them access to the hotel lounge. We had all grown up in the Cold War era, hearing stories in our respective media and from our governments about how people lived in each other’s countries. I (a Brit) spent an amazing evening with the 2 Soviets and 4 Americans talking about our different lives/experiences – I think we all had a lot of our stereotypes and myths deconstructed that night.
My other story is from a vacation to Ecuador and the Galapagos a few years ago. We spent a few nights on a boat on the Rio Napo, a tributary of the Amazon. I’m interested in trees/plants and wildlife and spent a lot of time with our guide during the first few days, on deck as we sailed down the river and on optional walks. One night around 11pm he asked my husband and I if we’d like to take a trip with him. His father was a Shaman and had asked him to take a gift to a friend of his who lived close to where we were moored. Our guide Hector was heading out to travel down the river in a canoe to where this Shaman lived and asked if we’d like to join for the experience. We said yes and set out. It was a journey of about 40 minutes, in pretty much total darkness. The sounds of the animals and birds were so much louder than in the daytime.
When we arrived, the Shaman was out working, but his family welcomed us and we drank tea and talked with them, with Hector translating. When he arrived, we were introduced and spent about an hour with him hearing about his work. He performed a brief healing on us both before we said our goodbyes and journeyed back down the river to our boat. The clouds had shifted and the moon was full. It was a really amazing and educational trip and I love those unexpected experiences that take you beyond the tourist trail and give a deeper understanding of where you are.
(Another favourite memory was running into Bishop Desmond Tutu at the Waterfront in Cape Town. I was down there on my last day in South Africa paying a final visit to a great bookshop and there he was waiting for the ferry to Robben Island. He is one of my heroes and we had a lovely conversation.)
A favorite book that inspired you to travel?
I don’t remember the name of it, but when I was about 6, I read a book about Egypt and was fascinated by the story of the pyramids. That really sparked my desire to travel. I didn’t really get the opportunity until I was about 19 but haven’t looked back since.
Tell us your dream trip with an unlimited budget:
I’d love to spend a few months driving coast to coast in the US. Another retirement plan as I want to take my time, visit with friends along the way and just go where the mood takes me.