Olinger’s 15-Year International Education Career Grows Into ‘Whole Way Of Life’
Fiji Program Expansion Among Highlights Of AustraLearn Director’s Time At GlobaLinks Learning Abroad
Editor’s Note: This is the second of an occasional series profiling individuals who, through their unique circumstances with the AustraLearn, AsiaLearn, EuroLearn programs of GlobaLinks Learning Abroad, collectively tell the story of the organization’s 20 years of impact and vision in international education. Read the entire 20th Anniversary Series here.By Stacey Hartmann
Fifteen years ago when Kathryn Olinger took a position with AustraLearn as an administrative assistant, it was impossible for her to envision how the organization and her own career might evolve.
At the time, it was 1995, and Olinger was one of just four employees of the company.
“I did all of the inquiries and a lot of administrative work, including sending all of the guides and packets out to the students,” she says. “When I started, I didn’t really think of it in terms of a career. I suppose I didn’t know that really existed. I just knew it fit in with my love of international travel.”
Within a year, she was promoted to coordinator. A year after that, she became a senior coordinator. Then, senior coordinator was made a management position. In 2001, Olinger was made acting director of AustraLearn, which grew in scope and responsibilities to evolve into her position today as Director of AustraLearn Programs. In this position, Olinger oversees program development and enrollment services within the semester/year abroad, degree, internship and short-term programs in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.
She also is GlobaLinks Learning Abroad’s most tenured employee after Executive Director Cynthia Banks, who founded the company 20 years ago.
“I’ve done just about every internal job there was,” says Olinger, who resides in Fort Collins with her husband and son, “and I’ve had the opportunity through working here to visit Australia, New Zealand and Fiji multiple times.”
Olinger says she’s also found it professionally rewarding to be a part of the culture of GlobaLinks Learning Abroad, where she’s watched alumni of the programs join the company as enthusiastic employees who assist student participants and grow in their own careers through more travel and educational experiences.
“It’s the development of the people through the work we do, as well, not only the development of the students,” she says. “It really filters into every single aspect of who you become and who you interact with.”
Career Growth And Change As Organization Evolves
Olinger’s career in international education is one of professional growth and diversification in tandem with an employer.
“When I started, we had 28 universities, and they were all in Australia,” she recalls. “At that point, we sent about 150 students a semester to Australia. We hardly had email at that time.”
“Now,” she says, “we’re sending more than 3,000 students a year – and to destinations around the world.”
Those destinations today fall under the program names of AustraLearn, AsiaLearn and EuroLearn, which, as part of the umbrella organization GlobaLinks Learning Abroad, annually send students from about 800 North American colleges and universities on degree, year, semester and shorter international education programs at partner universities in Australia, as well as New Zealand, the South Pacific, Asia and Europe.
“In 1995, there weren’t as many avenues for students who were interested in studying abroad,” Olinger says. “Now, it’s an ever-changing and ever-growing field with a lot more opportunities and a lot more options for students.”
In addition, GlobaLinks Learning Abroad’s expertise in international education is much greater than it was in 1995.
“We take our programming and all aspects of health and safety, and risk management, very seriously,” Olinger says. “These are standards that are much more at the forefront of the consciousness of the field than they were in 1995.”
Olinger’s Global Experiences Began Young
International education is something Olinger got a taste for as a child and missed out on – now regretfully – as a teenager.
But now, as a professional in the field, international education “isn’t just about work and a passion any more but a whole way of life,” she says.
Born and raised in Fort Collins, CO., Olinger was a young child when she got her first taste of international education and travel. She was at the time just four years old when her father, an Asian history professor, went to Taiwan on sabbatical for nine months and took his family with him.
“I attended an international pre-school with children from many different countries,” Olinger says, “and we travelled around the world on the return home.”
Then, when she was in the sixth grade, her entire family boarded the ship called the S.S. Universe with the Semester at Sea program, a provider of ship-board global international education. Her father taught on the ship, and she and her brothers were home-schooled for the semester.
“We started off in San Francisco and went to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Egypt, Spain and Greece,” she says. “We were usually in each port anywhere from two to six days and saw so much, including the Valley of the Kings, the Pyramids in Egypt and the Parthenon in Athens.”
When Olinger was a senior in high school, her father once again went on the Semester at Sea, and she had an opportunity to go along.
“I didn’t go because it was the start of my senior year,” she says. “It was one of the things I’ve regretted in my life.”
It is one experience, however, that spurs her in her program director role today to strongly encourage young people to search out every opportunity they can to gain an international education experience.
New Program In Fiji Among Favorite Accomplishments
As Olinger reflects on all she’s achieved during her career at GlobaLinks Learning Abroad, she lists among her proudest accomplishments the program she helped set up in Fiji, an island nation in the South Pacific that posed unique challenges but has yielded many rewards.
Before opening a program in 2007 at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva, Fiji, AustraLearn’s program expansions had all taken place in the developed countries of Australia and New Zealand.
With Fiji, “the challenge initially was just going into a developing country,” Olinger says, “and whether that would be a place where students would want to go.”
As Olinger and Banks met with USP representatives to explore the establishment of a study abroad program, they had to consider the academic offerings of the university, the safety of the destination, student accommodations, and how to advise students on what life would be like for them in Fiji, where most would be an ethnic minority.
Then, once those aspects were more clearly defined, the program had to be delayed because of a political coup.
“There was health and safety of our students to consider,” Olinger says.
Once the political climate stabilized, however, AustraLearn in July 2007 sent its first two program participants to USP.
“The students love Fiji,” Olinger says. “They’ve found it to be one of the most remarkable experiences of their lives.”
Now, the company sends 15-20 students a semester, with participants experiencing a six-day Culture and Adventure Program to introduce them to local customs and culture, including a community service project at a local village. They also have access to many travel and cultural opportunities along with their schooling, as well as 24-7 access to an AustraLearn resident director to assist them with any needs or emergencies.
The people in Fiji are “beautiful and amazing human beings,” Olinger says.
“Some can be a bit quiet, however,” Olinger says, “so students are encouraged to reach out more to get to know the local residents.”
“Students have gotten involved in the rugby program and various campus clubs,” she says. “We have one student who trekked through the mountains and the hills handing out jeans and shoes, sent by his father, in the villages he visited.”
Olinger expects to play an integral role in more ground-breaking educational and cultural programs from GlobaLinks Learning Abroad.
“It’s just really exciting to know that after 15 years of working here, I want to continue to be a part of what we do,” she says, “and to see what more we can offer to students in international education.”