Skip to content

Interview with Gudrun Nyunt, Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University on Study Abroad, the Internationalization of Higher Education, and Equity for Faculty and Student Affairs Staff

About Gudrun Nyunt, Ph.D.: Gudrun Nyunt is Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University (NIU), where her work focuses on educational equity as it pertains to the internationalization of education, particularly with respect to study abroad programs as a resource for cultivating equity and the experiences and mental well-being of international students.

Dr. Nyunt is co-editor of the recent collected volume, International Student Identities and Mental Well-Being: Beyond the Single Story, and her work has appeared in leading journals such as Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Journal of College Student Development, and Equity and Excellence in Education. Dr. Nyunt’s commitments to equity are reflected in her service. She was Chair for ACPA-College Student Educators International’s Commission for Global Dimensions of Student Development, which earned a number of awards under her tenure, and for which she was recognized with a Distinguished Commission Chair Award. She currently serves on the ACPA @ 100 steering committee and will start serving on ACPA’s Leadership Council in March of 2024. Dr. Nyunt is an editorial board member for the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, the Journal of College Student Development, and the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, and serves as an associate editor of the Journal of College and University Student Housing.

Dr. Nyunt is also an acclaimed educator and an Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) Distinguished Teaching Scholar at NIU. Dr. Nyunt received her Ph.D. in Student Affairs from The University of Maryland, College Park. She earned her M.A. in Education with a concentration in Higher Education and Student Affairs from the University of Connecticut, and her B.A. in Journalism from the State University of New York at New Paltz. Prior to receiving her Ph.D., Dr. Nyunt worked as a student affairs practitioner in residence life at the University of North Florida, Miami University, the University of Connecticut, and for Semester at Sea.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become invested in working toward educational equity in higher education, particularly in the context of the internationalization of higher education, and begin to explore the linkages between equity and mental health, as well as the experiences of minoritized faculty members and student affairs staff?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] I grew up in Austria, and my family traveled a lot. Early on, I developed an interest in other cultures and countries, but definitely did not think about equity the way I think about it now or with the same lens through which it is often discussed in the United States.

I came to the United States as an international student. I was pursuing journalism at the time, but then got very involved on campus. I served as a resident assistant for three years, and I was an orientation leader. That led to pursuing a career in student affairs. I got a Master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs from the University of Connecticut and then worked for seven years as a residence hall director, first at Miami University, then at the University of North Florida and the University of Connecticut. I also did a semester as a Residence Director for Semester at Sea, which is a study abroad program housed on a cruise ship.

Working as a practitioner in residence life and working with students was how I was introduced to thinking about educational equity and, in particular, the inequity that exists in the U.S. higher education system. I saw my students striving to succeed and began recognizing the barriers that some of them were facing and realizing that the system that we have built was not built with today’s diverse students in mind.

My research agenda sometimes feels a little bit all over the place. There are so many different topics that I have explored. I would say two important things tie it all together. One is this focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Through my practitioner experiences, I have recognized the need to talk more about diversity, equity, and inclusion and transform our campus communities to be more inclusive spaces. Second, having worked as a practitioner for seven years before receiving my Ph.D., I have always been interested in research that helps inform praxis. I never wanted to do research that simply gets published and maybe read by a few academics but does not lead to change.

Many of my research projects have come out of conversations that I have had with colleagues who are practitioners and have said, “Here’s this issue we are facing now in our field that we’re struggling with and we do not know what to do about it.” As a faculty member, I have the opportunity to say, “Well, let me use my academic lens and my research skills to try to figure out what we can do differently and how we can change things.”

That has led me in different directions. My interest in mental health, for example, came out of a conversation I had with some colleagues at a professional conference who described mental health as a huge issue on college campuses now. This is particularly true among international students, but there are not many resources to help practitioners figure out how to support international students. That conversation then led to some research collaborations around international student mental health, and, most recently, to the publication of [International Student Identities and Mental Well-Being: Beyond the Single Story, with Drs. Katie Koo, Patty Witkowsky, and Mindy Andino]. It is always that focus on praxis that helps push me to new research projects.

I got my Ph.D. at The University of Maryland College Park, and one of the things I appreciated about that Ph.D. program was its dual focus. There were several people in my cohort and the cohorts above and below who were not 100 percent sure if they wanted to go the faculty route. A lot of our conversations centered on how we can work together as faculty and practitioners to advance equity in both academic and professional spaces. I have always thought about my work within both of these spaces: the research, the practice, and how I can connect the two.

[] Would you discuss how you define educational equity in your research and practice?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] I actually think we need to go beyond equity. We have probably all seen the picture of the three children watching a baseball game over a fence by standing on boxes. It tries to explain the difference between equality and equity by showing that if everyone gets the same sized box, only the tallest kid can actually watch the baseball clearly over the fence. The middle kid has his view partly blocked, and the smallest kid cannot see at all. Equity would mean the middle kid gets one box, the smallest kid gets two boxes, and the tallest kid does not need a box.

Today, we sometimes see a new picture that shows the kids watching the game without a fence in their way or through a transparent fence. This represents the need to go beyond just creating equity to removing these structural barriers. My research is focused on identifying those structural barriers that exist to student success and figuring out ways that we can transform our systems and structures to remove these barriers so that we do not need to focus on handing out boxes.

[] How do you see the internationalization of higher education as important to current discussions and initiatives surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] In my experience there has often been tension between U.S.-centric or domestic DEI initiatives and internationalization efforts. I will give you an example. When we talk about building up domestic faculty of color and the pipeline for domestic faculty of color, international faculty are often seen as taking away jobs from domestic diverse populations. That kind of tension can emerge between whatever we are trying to achieve on the domestic side around DEI and internationalization efforts.

One focus of my research is student mobility, both with respect to international students and study abroad program side of things. Part of what I have found is that study abroad is often separated from DEI efforts at an institution even though study abroad has the potential to introduce students to other cultures and to get them to think in more culturally sensitive ways, which is exactly what DEI initiatives often try to do. I think if we could work through some of those tensions and recognize how we could actually support each other, there is a lot we could learn from each other. Internationalization and DEI could go hand in hand, rather than having tension or conflict.

I also think that internationalization of education often proceeds without considering how power dynamics play out in internationalization. It is harmful when the U.S. goes out and internationalizes other places. When U.S. universities bring in international students who pay full tuition dollars and then do not provide the resources for these students to be successful — or to thrive in their environment, even if they are successful in the sense of completing a degree — this does real harm to students.

I think people working towards internationalization need DEI work. There are these beautiful connections that could form between internationalization and DEI, and we are missing out when we do not see them and do not activate them.

[] One key focus of this area of your research has been on study abroad programs as a tool for promoting cross-cultural interactions and experiences with cultural difference, for example, in your recent article, “A Catalyst for Learning or Reinforcement of Inequities: Using A Critical Hope Lens to Understanding the Potential and Limitations of Short-Term Study Abroad in Fostering Students’ Ability to Effectively Interact Across Differences.” Would you introduce us to this line of your research and the concept of “critical hope”?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] Critical hope is a concept that comes out of the applied side of the field of education. We often see all the things that are wrong with the system, and they can feel hopeless and overwhelming because you do not even know where to start to make changes. Sometimes when we engage in research, we do the same thing. We point out all the problems and do not focus enough on how we can transform them. How can we actually do something positive?

For this particular paper that you mentioned, my coauthors Elizabeth Niehaus, Mac Benavides, and I had lots of conversations about how we wanted to approach it. We wanted to look at study abroad from a critical lens and to ask not just what students were learning but what students were not learning. We also wanted to see if there were negative or harmful things that they were possibly learning. In study abroad research there is such a focus on outcomes, but oftentimes it is framed as, “Are they learning or are they not learning?” We do not consider the possibility that they are learning the wrong things, or that their experiences might be reinforcing things we do not want to reinforce.

We wanted to take this critical approach, but did not want to give up on the potential of study abroad to enhance DEI initiatives and promote social justice and cultural awareness both domestically and internationally. All three of us have had personal experiences with study abroad where we have seen the potential that it can have. Using this critical hope lens allowed us to point out the challenges and issues with the systems and examine those while keeping in mind this hope for transformation. A critical lens allows us to see how study abroad can reinforce cultural stereotypes, U.S.-centric thinking, and savior complexes — all of these things.

[] Would you expand on some of the potentialities and limits to study-abroad experiences as a tool for cultivating equity, as you have explored them here or elsewhere?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] In terms of the limits that exist, part of the problem is that study abroad has drastically changed from what it used to be like. Very few students go abroad for a semester or a year and truly immerse themselves into the culture. There is still lots of literature out there that says immersion is the only impactful way to study abroad, but most of our students go on short-term, often faculty-led trips where there are limited opportunities for engagement with the host nation and its culture.

You can stay in a country and mostly stay in your own bubble. We have all heard the stories of students who have gone into study abroad and lived in a building with other study abroad students and barely interacted with anyone outside their group of friends and so did not immerse themselves into the culture. That leads to them not learning as much about other cultures and particularly about cultural sensitivity. You can also be part of a culture but still not fully understand that culture, or not learn to respect and appreciate that culture and to think about your own culture differently.

At the same time, I think that study abroad in all of its forms has the potential to spark this interest in learning about other cultures and countries and seeing things from a different perspective. But this does not happen if it is this one-time, two-week experience and then we never talk about it anymore. Returning to the connection between DEI and internationalization [discussed above], there is a need to embed study abroad into larger diversity initiatives. Studying abroad should be an entry point into continuing education.

That is not happening at a lot of our institutions, where these are isolated initiatives. When study abroad is this isolated, one-time thing, a few students will learn a lot from it, but a lot of them will not, and many of them might learn the wrong things from it. We need to rethink study abroad and how it fits into the larger diversity, equity, and inclusion work. We want to think about how study abroad can promote what we really want students to learn from college, and this means not treating it as separate from larger equity initiatives in universities.

[] You have also explored the mental health of international students in your research, including in your recent collaboration with Dr. Katie Koo, “Culturally Sensitive Assessment of Mental Health for International Students,” and your new edited volume, International Student Identities and Mental Well-Being: Beyond the Single Story. Would you discuss some of the unique mental health obstacles faced by international students that you have examined in your research, and how mental health assessments need to adapt to the particularity of these experiences?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] I think the biggest thing for international students is that there is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of change. When you come to another culture, everything is different. They are also starting college, or at least a new degree program. Then there is all the uncertainty around immigration laws, which are complex and confusing in the United States and also frequently change. The students will be in the country and suddenly there is a new travel ban. Suddenly there are changes to H-1B visas, which are what students need if they want to continue working after they get their degree. All this uncertainty can weigh heavily on international students’ minds and lower their mental well-being.

It is also important to consider that the way we talk about mental health may not connect with how a student thinks about it because different cultures think about mental health in very different ways. Our language may actually turn them away from seeking out the help that we want to provide them. We need to think about how we can connect with international students and shape our resources in a way that makes them accessible and engaging to those students.

We also often talk about international students as one group, as I have just done, when they are such a diverse population of students. We very rarely think about all the intersectional identities that international students hold. That was something that we tried to highlight in our recent book, [International Student Identities and Mental Well-Being: Beyond the Single Story]. Many different identities intersect with each other and change how international students experience mental well-being and what their needs are.

As we think about assessing international student health or intervening with international students, we need to think about the language that we are using and how we are approaching this. Sometimes the question we might be asking may not get at what is actually going on. An international student, depending on their cultural background and other identities, might hear the question, “How is your mental health?” and shut down, or think the answer they should give is, “Everything’s great.”

We need to consider the unique needs of these students and at what stages of their transition they might face mental health challenges. For example, I came to the U.S. as an international student from Europe. My transition initially was smooth. The way I look made it easier for me to fit in. It was easy for me to make a lot of friends. I spoke English pretty fluently. A lot of the things that we talk about being true for international students did not apply to me.

Then, after my Master’s degree, I decided I wanted to stay in the United States and work here and suddenly had to navigate immigration policies. At that point in time, I did not have a network of other international students that could provide support to me in going through immigration policies and processes, or understanding the challenges that I was facing. We need to think about these intersectional identities, because they will help determine when there are particular times of concern for international students in terms of mental well-being, how these students are going to approach coping with or addressing mental health challenges, and what resources they need.

[] Your work has addressed the barriers faced by women and faculty of color, as well as the potential of faculty to foster resistance, as in your piece, “Meeting to Transgress: The Role of Faculty Learning Communities in Shaping More Inclusive Organizational Cultures.” Could you discuss the relationship between these two aspects of your research on faculty? Are there ways in which the inequities faced by minoritized faculty position them to more effectively resist the structures of higher education and, conversely, ways in which these inequities stand in the way of that struggle?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] Any time when we hold a minoritized identity, it is usually one more salient to our lives, and it also helps us be more aware of structural inequities. I think minoritized faculty are much more aware of the inequities that exist in higher education than some of us who hold more dominant identities. In that way, they are often tasked with more diversity-related work because they are good at it. But that is problematic because now we are giving them more service work, which is too often considered the least important thing in tenure and promotion processes.

This is a tension for many minoritized faculty members who want to support other minoritized students or faculty as they are coming through the pipeline. They know that if they engage in that work, it could hurt their chances of moving up and securing tenure and promotions. An example that has stuck with me is, at one of our faculty learning communities, a senior leader came in, talked to pre-tenure faculty members of color, and basically advised them not to engage in additional mentoring for students of color because it could hurt their chances of getting tenure and promotion. His argument was, “You’re not going to be able to help students if you’re not employed here anymore.”

I can see that point, but at the same time, we all know students graduate in four or five years. Then they are gone. If we do not help them now, they might not be here the following year. This is something that was obviously important to these faculty members. We cannot just tell people to wait and not engage in service. We also know that there is expectations for faculty of color to engage in service, and if they do not, that could also negatively impact their tenure and promotion case. If they do not live up to the stereotypes that students have about them, that can show up in student teaching evals. It is a lot more complex than just saying, “Well, I’m just not going to engage in this kind of work until I get tenure, and then I’ll have the opportunity to do this.”

This is an example of how we need to think through the structures that create these problems. There is no easy, simple kind of quick fix. We cannot just say, “Don’t do the service.” We need to figure out how to make these structural changes happen to make the system more equitable. Minoritized faculty have to be part of those conversations, and we know that a lot of them are at lower ranks because of existing inequities. We need to figure out how we can have honest and open conversations in academia about what to change that include people at lower ranks who have not yet gotten the security and safety of tenure. They are the ones experiencing the challenges that they are encountering, and probably also have great ideas on how to address them, but do not have the security to actually say anything yet.

We found our faculty learning communities are spaces for minoritized faculty to engage with each other and also engage in some healing from some of the challenges that they faced in everyday academia. They also provide a space to problem solve about how to navigate this system we do not have the power to fundamentally change yet, while beginning to coalition-build so that we can change these systems once we get to a place where we have more power.

[] In more recent work, you have turned to examine the experiences of student affairs professionals. Do you see similar dynamics play out in this context, and do you view the importance of student affairs to educational equity as being underexplored in current discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] I think there are definitely similar dynamics. We see the same thing as we just discussed for student affairs professionals, in terms of engaging in more mentoring and support of students of color and other minoritized students. Stephen Quaye has written about the racial battle fatigue of Black student affairs professionals. This captures the idea of existing in a helping profession where you are expected to support students, and particularly minoritized students, to navigate these systems, while you are also part of these systems and being harmed by these systems because of your identities. It is this trauma that can lead to racial battle fatigue for our colleagues of color.

Further, similarly to faculty, there are many structures in student affairs that were created with white men in mind. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion around ideal worker norms in student affairs and how they may or may not align with the needs of our diverse professionals. There is a lot of conflict and tension between how we have envisioned what student affairs looks like and what people are able to do.

What is unique within student affairs is that, as a field, student affairs prioritizes diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sometimes that leads to more support in navigating some of these barriers, or at least more awareness around these barriers. On the other hand, we have young professionals of color coming in who think this is the field they want to be in because it values diversity, equity and inclusion and they can be their authentic selves here but quickly realize that is not the case. It can lead to disillusionment with the field.

A lot of student affairs staff are leaving their positions, especially post-pandemic, as people have been reflecting on their careers and what they want to do. If we want to keep a diverse staff, we, as a field, need to address the tension between our espoused and enacted values and find ways to center diversity, equity, and inclusion in our practices and policies, including those related to staff.

[] You served on the ACPA-College Student Educators International 100 Year Anniversary Steering Committee, ACPA @ 100, and were Chair of the ACPA Commission for the Global Dimensions of Student Development from 2017-2020. You also serve as Associate Editor of the Journal of College and University Student Housing. How do you approach applying your commitments to equity in your academic service as a leader and editor?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] ACPA is an association for people who work in student affairs and higher education administration outside of faculty roles. I have been involved with it since I was a residence hall director. I credit ACPA a lot with pushing me to learn and think through equity and inclusion. It has challenged me as a professional to reflect on my values, how I approach my work, and how that aligns with diversity, equity, and inclusion. I do not think I would be the scholar and leader that I am if it was not for ACPA.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to everything that we do in ACPA. It has been the space where I feel the most validated in the work that I do and in my desire to focus on equity, decolonization, and racial justice. Because of this, when I engage with ACPA, I often just try to build on the amazing foundation that lots of leaders prior to me have put in place and benefit from the interactions that I am able to have with other current leaders who are passionate about the same things that I am passionate about.

As an editor, one of the responsibilities I think we have is to think about how different manuscripts are contributing to equity and inclusion, and how they might go against some of the values that we hold. Not every manuscript you receive is going to be about something related to equity and inclusion, but is there language in there that might offend people, exclude people, or make certain voices invisible? That is something that I try to pay close attention to when I serve as a reviewer or an editor.

For example, we often use women and men and female and male interchangeably, even though female/male refers to biological sex, and man/woman refers to gender identity. “Men and women” is therefore a more inclusive choice of language because it includes transgender people, and does not equate biology with identity. Still, so many articles talk about gender but then use female faculty or male faculty, or female and male students. I think people sometimes get so concerned about grammar and feel like saying “women students” sounds awkward. But what is more important, grammar or equity and inclusion?

As an editor, I try to challenge others to think about the language that they use. I also try to continue to educate myself on the best language to use so that I can challenge my own conventions and we can make publications more inclusive to a wider audience.

[] Based on your research and practice, do you have advice you would give to scholars, practitioners, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity in their own work?

[Dr. Gudrun Nyunt] You cannot do it on your own, so it is important to build coalitions and to find those spaces where you feel validated as a practitioner or a scholar who engages in educational equity work. For me, as I mentioned, ACPA has been one of those spaces. It has also been a space where I have built some of those coalitions with colleagues. Nobody’s going to change the system by themselves. We need to form groups to support each other.

It is also crucial to continue learning, because as much as we might think we are experts in an area, we are never truly experts. There continue to be things I learn through engagement with my colleagues about ways that I have caused harm through some of the work I have engaged in. If we want to work towards educational equity, we need to be committed to continuously learning and improving ourselves.

Finally, advancing equity cannot be something that is part of our work. We cannot think, “On Mondays I focus on advancing educational equity and on Tuesday I take care of all my daily commitments.” We need to make sure that it becomes something that is part of everything we do. I often hear from students who looked up to a faculty member because their research related to equity and inclusion, and then took a class with that faculty member and were disappointed when they did not see them live out their values in the classroom. If we are committed to educational equity, we need to think about educational equity in everything that we do.

Thank you, Dr. Nyunt, for sharing your work on study abroad as a way to cultivate equity, the internationalization of higher education, supporting international student mental health, and more!