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UT News

Going Global, Texas style

Chief International Officer Sonia Feigenbaum has big plans for increasing UT’s global footprint

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Feigenbaum at her desk

When Sonia Feigenbaum was a girl in France, she had a globe — the kind that lights up from the inside. She would study it and dream about places she might one day go. The only thing she knew of Texas was that there was a Paris there too.

Feigenbaum was born into a French family — her French mother was born and raised in Algeria and her father was a Parisian — and moved to the U.S., where she earned two graduate degrees in Spanish and became proficient in Russian, Portuguese and Italian. She and her husband, who is from Mexico and is part Japanese, have a 13-year-old son, who was born in South Korea (and so now she is also learning Korean). It would be hard to find anyone with deeper international bona fides, and so she seems tailor-made to lead UT’s internationalization efforts and initiatives.

Hers was a fairy-tale childhood. Raised in a Paris suburb, she recalls gathering chestnuts in Fontainebleau forest, a wood surrounding a castle of the same name, near her home. Her parents often took her to visit castles, monuments, churches and cathedrals. “I remember that very distinctly because architecture is really important to me,” she says. “I find it very intriguing — how we use the built environment to express the human experience.”

When Feigenbaum was 12, the family immigrated to the U.S. and moved to Maryland. “For people around the world, the U.S. is the dreamland. That’s where you can be who you want to be and really offer opportunities to your kids.” Though she spoke no English, she had an incredible gift for languages, and her road to English proficiency was aided by a steady pop culture diet including “Happy Days,” “The Flintstones” and “Bewitched.” Her parents enrolled her in a D.C.-area public middle school, which proved a difficult transition. The next year, they switched her to the French international school, where she got her feet under her before transferring to a public high school.

Simultaneously, she enrolled at the Catholic University of America to study cello and pursue her undergraduate degree. She transferred to Indiana University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in cello performance and a master’s and doctorate in Spanish.

“If I’ve learned anything from living in the U.S. all these years, it is the beauty and diversity of our country. I am often surprised by how misinformed about various parts of our own country Americans can be, often parts we’ve never visited. I always suspend any kind of judgment, and I embrace new experiences. I appreciate how English is spoken throughout the nation in so many different ways — not only in terms of accent but in terms of how you convey information, how you present yourself, how direct or indirect you are. To me, that has been an amazing experience.”

Texas was not part of her consciousness growing up, except that she considered it “so huge and so intimidating.” Since she has such an ear for language, what does she hear when Texans speak? “I admire the friendliness, hospitality and the ‘Texas accent.’ I have so much to learn as this is such a diverse state with numerous cultures and traditions.”

Her experience at the U.S. Department of Education as director of the Hispanic-Serving Institutions and International and Foreign Languages Divisions, and at the National Endowment for the Humanities as deputy director of public programs, further prepared her for a career in international higher education. That phase of her career began as a faculty member at Williams College and the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), and as a campus leader at Brown University. It continued at the University of Nebraska, where she was serving in a similar role when UT came calling.

Being hired as UT’s inaugural senior vice provost for global engagement and chief international officer in February 2019, she experienced less than one year of normal campus life before COVID-19 struck.

What is the current status of both international students and study abroad vis-à-vis COVID?

When we heard about COVID in January 2020, the global risk and safety team at Texas Global immediately began to monitor the situation as we routinely do when there are events that can impact our community abroad. We knew it had the potential to impact the world, especially as we recalled our experiences with SARS and the avian flu.

The situation in terms of student mobility has been evolving. At the onset of the pandemic, very few faculty, students and staff traveled internationally, but we never discontinued outbound mobility. We’ve supported students and scholars traveling since the beginning of the pandemic. We have a very thorough process whereby our International Oversight Committee evaluates travel requests to determine the level of risk. Students who wish to study, intern or conduct research abroad have a pathway to do so. Fewer students have gone abroad during the pandemic, but participation is increasing steadily.

We have partners in all parts of the world that are closing or opening inbound mobility, and when one partner cancels, we redirect our students to programs in other part of the world. I call this “responsive internationalization.” We need to be aware of what’s going on in the world. Whether it’s an earthquake, social unrest or COVID, we’re always thinking about our next step.

And what about inbound students?

The State Department suspended visa services for several months, which resulted in backlogs that students and scholars continued to face into 2021. But I am so proud of our international students, research scholars and faculty. The majority has returned to campus and while many spent a year studying from their home countries, they were determined to forge ahead.

U.S. News & World Report ranks UT No. 43 among “Global Universities.” What is a global university?

In our case, internationalization is embedded in the fabric of UT Austin. Our community is diverse, with students and scholars from multiple diasporas and world regions. Our curriculum incorporates global perspectives, our pursuit of academic excellence is informed by transnational research collaborations, and our campus internationalization programs expose our community to so many opportunities. That increases our global competency. We’re a highly ranked global university with ambitious goals.

Why do we need international students here?

International students are an inherent part of our community, and they are at the heart of our institution. They contribute to the diversity of our campus. Hailing from different world regions, with diverse socioeconomic, ethnic and religious backgrounds, they bring knowledge, talent, perspectives and life experiences that enrich our university.

The United States is recognized globally for excellence in higher education, and Texas is a beautiful and diverse state — geographically, topographically and linguistically. It’s a microcosm that illustrates the complexity of living and addressing challenges together. Creating an inclusive environment for international students, faculty and visiting scholars is paramount for our university.

What do international students need most?

Our international students need to be supported and integrated into the community. So at Texas Global we provide services that include specialized courses to introduce campus resources, such as help with tax preparation, health insurance and financial aid. We also offer extensive social and cultural programming activities for students to experience Austin and discover our beautiful state and its people. For example, our Friendship Program matches international students and scholars with members of the Austin community who meet monthly in a social setting. With the pandemic, our focus shifted to virtual programming, but the return to campus this fall has energized our community, and we have had robust participation.

What do Texas students get from studying abroad?

We want to ensure that students who graduate from UT are globally engaged citizens. Our campus offers so many opportunities to be exposed to distinct cultures, languages and perspectives. In addition, we’re proud to have partnerships with institutions across the world that serve students’ academic and professional interests. Students who study, conduct research or intern abroad return home transformed — both personally and professionally. In fact, immersive experiential learning abroad gives students a competitive advantage for today’s globally interconnected job market. It also enhances interpersonal and intercultural skills and has been shown to positively impact graduation rates. To Texas students, I say, be curious, keep an open mind and take advantage of UT’s scholarships to go abroad.

What’s something you’d like to see Texas do globally that it’s not doing yet?

Global engagement is at the heart of UT’s mission, and our slogan, “What starts here changes the world,” calls us to pursue academic excellence and address global challenges collaboratively. Our faculty’s research and creative activities span the globe, and international students and scholars represent over 127 countries. During the past couple of years, we’ve developed global engagement initiatives to support our diverse student population, respond to faculty expertise and interests, and align with broader institutional priorities. Also, in partnership with the Texas Exes, Texas Global launched virtual dialogues featuring UT faculty and alumni, who share their expertise with the Longhorn community.

Our slogan, “What starts here changes the world,” calls us to pursue academic excellence and address global challenges collaboratively.

Sonia Feigenbaum

With President (Jay) Hartzell’s vision, and with travel resuming, we have an opportunity to bolster our presence internationally and to build deeper connections with the Longhorn community. For example, this month we welcomed the inaugural director of our Mexico Global Gateway, located on the campus of the Universidad (Nacional) Autónoma de México, a long-standing institutional partner. Our presence in Mexico positions us to support campus stakeholders and strengthen collaborations with institutions in the region. It will increase faculty research and creative activity. The Global Gateway will allow us to liaise with employers and create internship opportunities for our students as well as study-abroad programs. And it will help connect UT more closely with our alumni there for in-person events. We hope to replicate this model of connectivity between the UT campus and strategic locations in Asia and Europe.

The steady growth of industries in Austin and Texas places UT in the desirable position of engaging with the local and global in parallel. We’ll strengthen collaborations with local companies and startups that are globally oriented. This will open doors for our students to explore opportunities domestically and internationally, giving them a competitive edge, and for UT to develop industry partnerships. It’s a very promising and exciting time for UT.