Q&A Part 1: GlobaLinks Learning Abroad Founder Comments On 20 Years In International Education

In Part 1 of this five-part Q&A series, Cynthia Banks reflects on the chain of events that ignited the formation of AustraLearn (now GlobaLinks Learning Abroad) in 1990 and how those events impacted her own career path. Look for Part 2 of the series, which explores organizational milestones, here.

By Stacey Hartmann
GlobaLinks NewsWire Editor

As GlobaLinks Learning Abroad concludes the celebration of its 20th anniversary, Founder and Executive Director Cynthia Banks and her family are opening a new chapter in their own lives by living abroad in Australia for a year.

“If I’m going to practice what I preach, then I want to keep exploring my own boundaries,” said Banks, who with her husband, Gordon, and their two children, Nick and Megan, earlier this year relocated from Colorado to Yeppoon, Queensland, (the Great Keppel Island area), Australia, where the organization’s South Pacific Educational Support Centre is based.

“I want my children to get a taste of other things,” Banks said, “and I want to focus my efforts on building our program models overseas.”

While in Australia, Banks is working in the same capacity as executive director of GlobaLinks Learning Abroad, which she founded in 1990 as AustraLearn and over the next two decades grew into the leading North American provider of degree, year, semester and short-term programs at universities in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

“In my heart, I like to serve,” said Banks, who sat down with the GlobaLinks NewsWire during the week before her family’s departure to reflect on her organization’s history and future. “The reason this career appealed to me was that I could serve using my business skills, and that seemed better to me than running a business in a product or service that I did not really feel passionate about.”

Banks began her career in international education in 1989 after her own life-changing experience accompanying Colorado State University’s first study abroad group to Australia and serving as a resident director there for five months. She founded AustraLearn (now known as GlobaLinks Learning Abroad) in 1990 with a focus on Australia. New Zealand and the South Pacific were added in 2000, and in 2007, she expanded the organization to Asia and Europe through the launch of the AsiaLearn and EuroLearn programs.

GlobaLinks Learning Abroad 20th AnniversaryToday, GlobaLinks Learning Abroad sends more than 3,000 students annually from more than 800 North American universities and colleges on study abroad programs across the globe, employs more than 60 people worldwide, and in 2010 donated more than $400,000 in scholarships to deserving students.

“There were many years that have been extremely difficult, and we kept pushing on,” Banks said, “but with the hard work and dedication of all the staff who have worked here through the years, we really do have a great study abroad organization and program.”

A native of Colorado, Banks earned a Bachelor of Business (marketing) degree from Colorado State University, a Graduate Certificate of Entrepreneurship from the University of Colorado and a Master of Organizational Development degree from the University of Colorado – Denver.

Banks served in 2010 as Chair of the Education Abroad Knowledge Community of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. In addition, she is both an international and Colorado member of the International Women’s Forum, a member of the Board of the Up With People non-profit organization, and is engaged with other local Chambers of Commerce.

In 2008, Banks was a finalist for the Denver Business Journal’s “Outstanding Women in Business” Awards, and in 2009, GlobaLinks Learning Abroad was named the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce “Small Business of the Year.” In 2010, ColoradoBiz magazine ranked GlobaLinks Learning Abroad 9th among Colorado’s “Top 100 Women-Owned Companies.”

Here’s what Banks had to say about the beginning of GlobaLinks Learning Abroad and her own start in the field of international education:

Q: When this all began for you personally more than 20 years ago, was your vision for your career at all close to the path that actually resulted?

Cynthia Banks, GlobaLinks Learning Abroad Founder and Executive Director.

A: When I was in college and undertaking my first degree in business I didn’t really think I would be working in international education. In my class, we were trying to get jobs at IBM and Anderson Consulting and even bigger, more well-known places. I was not entirely certain I had found my passion or my true calling through my business studies, however I do know that I liked organizational studies and working with other people. The thing that really changed my life was going to live overseas in Australia in 1989 for the five months, working as the resident director of a study abroad group.

Professor Robert Allerheiligen of Colorado State University was the one who gave me the opportunity to attend this program. What resulted was a chain of events – meeting people at the University of Queensland who were an innovative group of Australians getting involved in international education.

Len Zell (a professor at the University of Queensland who is a noted Australian marine biologist and author) was really the person who gave me the chance to create something special with AustraLearn. I was just 24 years old. I am in debt to Len because my young age and lack of stature didn’t matter to him. It was my enthusiasm and hard work that appealed to him. Not everybody in life treats people that way.

That experience changed my life and was a way for me to take my interest in organizing things – like how business is organized – into something I knew was important to students. From that initial group of 35 students on my first program to the various groups we send today, I really have a passion for how study abroad impacts a student’s life.

Q: Do you think the opportunity you experienced in Australia was somehow more possible than it would have been in the U.S.?

A: I don’t know if it was as much an ‘Australian thing’ as it was a ‘Len Zell thing.’ You meet people in life who recognize strengths and also recognize weaknesses. But giving young people an opportunity is really important.

In my experience, I ended up with the right people who gave me a chance. What I did after that time was a product of hard work and time. Not everyone I worked with gave me answers. They opened a door for me to some incredible possibilities, and I am grateful for their encouragement and their help.

I started out with the intention of making AustraLearn the best it could be. I always envisioned a big thing. The only frustration I have as that it took me about 10 years longer than I wanted, which may be just too high of expectations of myself and those things around me. It is always harder than you think it is going to be. And it is not that I thought I deserved to get there quicker. It was merely a hard road.

Through it all, I thought this was such an exciting place to be – international education. I felt still near to a student’s age, and I knew I could make a difference to those students. I knew that was something that would matter to them.

Did I think I could raise a business? No. I had no idea what it was like to raise a business until I was knee deep in the paperwork, lawyers, foreign currency, and administrative processes. I had no idea how hard it was going to be.

Q: You were in school for business, but your dad was a businessman, right? So you had some model?

A: My father was an excellent role model. Talk about someone who always said, ‘You can do anything you put your mind to!’ However, I had never been around an entrepreneur. There were others, though, who really were good role models, such as Christie Doherty. She changed my life through her mentoring and teaching. I admired her as a woman and as a businessperson. I, to this day, would still like to be like Christie. Maybe in another 20 years I’ll get there (laughing).

Other people I remember, and will always thank, are Dick Pegnetter, the dean of the business college at CSU, and Loren Crabtree, who was dean of liberal arts at CSU in 1990.

There are people in life that tell you that you can. And there are people in life that tell you that you can’t. I think the quotient of our self-confidence and motivation comes as a direct result of the people who tell you that you can. If you are encouraged in life, you will probably accomplish a lot. My parents encouraged me.

I’ve always felt people have been very kind to me. I’m never sure why, but I do find people have been very kind.

Q: What has been your role, more broadly, in international education? In other words, how would you describe the impact of your work in the field?

A: When I started 20 years ago, private providers were the rarity. And yet more and more universities wanted to send students abroad. They didn’t often have large staffs or large budgets to actually set up programs to do it. Providers had the specialties and overseas connections, as well as an ability to share knowledge across more than one university.

Since then, I’ve witnessed the growth of providers, especially in the last five years, and so much change has taken place. Study abroad providers now make up a rather large percentage of people and resources in the field of education abroad. Significantly, some very well-known educators have moved to working for providers, which has strengthened the bond between a provider and a university.

In terms of our organization, I don’t think we can ever claim any amount of recognition other than that we were a part of the last 20 years of evolution. We have a responsibility to provide programs that are in line with the guidance of quality study abroad programs. We must provide cultural opportunities, quality academic programs, and support services. We must be sure these are really good programs for students.

Find Part 2 of our five-part Q&A with Cynthia Banks here.

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  1. [...] After I started, we named the business AustraLearn, and we started sending information to students. There was no Internet or email at that time. I [...]

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