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Inemesit Williams

Champion for study abroad wins
SDSU’s Global Diversity Award 

By Michael Klitzing

Inemesit Williams remembers being practically giddy as she began her first job after college.

“I was really excited to be a scientist for real,” she said. “I was working in a lab and I was part of a team – it was amazing.”

At a biotechnology firm in Emeryville, Calif., Williams, who often goes by Ine, worked side-by-side with colleagues from around the globe. Her co-workers were predominantly made up of immigrants and first generation Americans – people with roots in Cambodia, Vietnam, China, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Williams was enriched by the experience, but also witnessed the conflict created by cultural differences, as things such as social cues, gender dynamics and views on hierarchy became pitfalls. The problems became so pronounced that the company brought in intercultural communication experts. As Williams went through the tedious trainings, a stray thought crossed her mind.

“I remember thinking – it was random – if all these people had just studied abroad, we wouldn’t be having all these problems,” she recalls.

The idea stuck. It got Williams thinking about what she – because of her eclectic upbringing and international perspective – had to offer. It eventually set in motion a career change that has led her to her current position as Interim Assistant Director of SDSU Study Abroad.

In two years at SDSU she has made it her mission to bring the transformational study abroad experience to the entire student body – including groups traditionally left out of the equation. In recognition of her dedication, she will be honored as the inaugural recipient of the Global Diversity Award at the 12th annual SDSU Diversity Awards on April 27.

“What makes Ine so special is that she is passionate about helping every single student study abroad –  she wants everyone to go,” said Noah Hansen, director of the International Student Center. “That means whether a student fits the profile of a student who traditionally studies abroad, or a student who we wouldn’t typically see in our office, Ine is great at finding a way for every student to have the experience.”

Many definitions of diversity

Williams, who is African-American, is quick to point out that too often the term “diversity” has become shorthand for ethnicity – a definition she finds far too reductive.

“I think there’s an assumption that people identify with the most obvious piece of their diversity,” she said. “But there’s so much more to individuals.”

While it’s true that people of color study abroad at rates far lower than their white peers, they’re not alone in missing out. Williams fits a couple of other underrepresented categories, as well. She came from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background. She was also a scientist and STEM majors have traditionally not been encouraged to go abroad.

“As a study abroad proponent, I want to make sure every student here who falls into any category understands this is something they can do,” Williams said.

Each member of the SDSU Study Abroad team Williams leads performs targeted outreach to underrepresented groups, including people of color, veterans, student-athletes, the LGBT community – even men, who traditionally lag behind women in seeking out international experiences.

Williams is also a strong advocate for another kind of diversity in study abroad – diversity of location. While many students are interested in studying abroad in Western Europe, Williams sees the value in pushing outside of one’s comfort zone.

“I love helping students see the world as a bigger picture,” she says, “one that’s not so limited to them.”

Added Hansen: “I’ve sat in on some of her advising sessions and she is truly impressive. She knows her work so well, and she’s had so many types of experiences, that she can let the student take the conversation where they want and need it to go. Ine is intently focused on how she can help students go abroad at a time, to a place and on a type of trip that works for them. She takes the time to listen, find out what a student’s goals are, and then finds the best solution.”  

A unique path

To understand why diversifying study abroad is important to Williams, it helps to know a little about her unique background. As a child, she spent her formative years living in student family housing at UC Berkeley. It was an arrangement that had a distinctly international flavor, as she made friends who hailed from West Africa to South Korea and many points in between. Her family then moved around, first to a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley, then a predominantly white neighborhood.

Then, at age 14, came the biggest change.

“My mom decided to move to Mexico, and that’s when I learned what it was like to be an immigrant,” said Williams, who spent two years in Guadalajara. “I had to learn another language and figure out how things worked – it was a big culture shock. I didn’t want to go there at first, but by the end I didn’t want to leave. I’d made a community of friends, learned a new language and I felt like it was home.”

Williams returned to Berkeley to attend high school and went on to UC Santa Cruz to study molecular cellular developmental biology. While there, she completed a study abroad program in Vancouver, Canada at the University of British Columbia. It may not have been an exotic locale, but the experience was enough to further globalize her already international perspective.

Which brings us back to Emeryville, and the young scientist pondering a very different path for her life. After her epiphany, Williams started by going to the library and rifling through book after book on international and intercultural careers. One possibility jumped off the page: working in the study abroad field.

“I thought if I could go into a university environment and help students like me go abroad, I’d be helping them come out of their undergraduate degree feeling more confident, having more of a sense for how to work with a diverse group of people and having more of a trajectory in their careers,” Williams said. “So I figured, ‘Well, I’m probably going to have to go back to school.’”

She chose San Jose State, working at the International House, as well as with incoming and outgoing students in the International Programs office. After earning her master’s degree in counselor education, Williams put her experience and perspective to work as a study abroad advisor and international student adviser at Long Beach State, where she stayed for six years. She took a two-year hiatus to teach science in China, but returned to the study abroad field when she joined the SDSU staff in 2014.

“Having the experiences that I’ve had helps me see the bigger picture,” she said. “I don’t just see the student in front of me, I’m thinking about all SDSU students, who they’re connecting to, the communities they’re coming from and where they’ll go afterwards.”

An unexpected honor

To Williams, encouraging diversity in the study abroad field is a no-brainer. So when she found out she was receiving the Global Diversity Award, she was surprised. But that doesn’t diminish its meaning in her eyes.

“This award doesn’t say much about me, per se, but it says that we as a university value the diversity of our student body and the people who work here who fall into those same categories,” Williams said. “They want to make sure this university is for everyone. So that’s what it means to me – that I picked the right place to work.”

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