NAFSA’s Rising Star Young Leader Award Winner: An Interview with Seth Riker

ISA recently caught up with one of our study abroad alums, Seth Riker, who was awarded the Rising Star Young Leader Award at the 2015 NAFSA national conference in Boston. Seth studied abroad with ISA in Valparaiso, Chile at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso during his undergraduate time at the University of Kentucky.

According to NAFSA, “The Rising Star Young Leader Award is given annually in recognition of a professional who has impacted the field of international education during the first five years of the recipient’s area of work. The rising star will have demonstrated a commitment to internationalization and an ingenuity of thought that has the potential for having substantial and lasting influence upon global education.”

We wanted to hear from Seth about this award as well as his time studying abroad and how that effected and continues to affect the work he does today.

ISA: Tell us about your time studying abroad in Chile. Do you remember why you decided on going with ISA?

SETH: I knew I wanted to study Spanish in Latin America, but I was overwhelmed by all of the options. As a first generation college student, working with a limited budget, having never traveled outside the country, I had quite a few questions and concerns.  Not only did I find ISA to be among the more affordable options, their support from the application process all the way to the return home was fantastic.  Everyone at ISA that I came in contact with, here in the U.S. and in Chile, was eager to help me.  And the scholarships I received from ISA were the cherry on top. I couldn’t be happier that I chose to study abroad with ISA.

ISA: What were some of the highlights or your favorite story from your study abroad experience?

SETH: I could go on and on with stories from my time in Chile, but the most meaningful pieces of my time abroad stem from the relationships created in my homestay.  To explore another culture through the eyes of locals that have invited you into their home, into their family… it takes a lot of vulnerability on all sides and, as one might imagine, there is ample room for things to go awry.  However, I could not have been more blessed.  Even with my less than proficient Spanish, I learned so much from my Chilean parents and brothers.  The family outings, the late night kitchen table conversations—my time in Chile would have been very different if it weren’t for their hospitality, enthusiasm and compassion.  I am convinced I had the absolute best homestay in the history of study abroad.  Seriously, THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF IT.

ISA: Did your experience abroad change your future career path and planning? If so, how?

SETH: If it weren’t for ISA, I wouldn’t be working in international education.  The semester after studying in Chile, I was lucky enough to get an ISA-sponsored work-study position in the University of Kentucky Education Abroad office.  I think this was an early version of ISA’s more formal global ambassador positions.  Anyhow, that semester I worked on special marketing projects and eventually started working for the entire office.  I continued to make suggestions and take initiative, and the office noticed the work (I was doing) was making an impact on enrollment.  Eventually, the office created a full-time promotion and outreach position and I was lucky enough to be hired.  In the simplest sense, that first position was the small edge of the wedge.  ISA gave me a great opportunity and I ran with it.

ISA: What does it mean to you to be recognized by NAFSA for all your hard work?

SETH: It’s incredible that NAFSA chose me as their inaugural young leader.  I am really thankful so many have supported my unconventional approaches to marketing and communications at the University of Kentucky and across Region VI.  To have only been involved with NAFSA for the past three years and already have such a great professional network, it’s really unbelievable.  More than anything, I think it’s ironic to be recognized by a community that has given me so much.  For a first generation college graduate from the lower end of the social ladder, I can’t adequately express what it means to be a part of this community, let alone to be put on this sort of stage.  It’s more than humbling and it encourages me to stay involved for years to come.

ISA: Are there things that you learned while abroad that directly impact your work on a consistent basis today?

SETH: There are a number of things I learned while studying in Chile—about their country, about our country, about the world, about myself.  In fact, I am still discovering the ways study abroad has impacted my life.  More than anything though, the appreciation for different perspectives has been the most invaluable.  Of course, this isn’t a new, profound idea and many of us have probably heard it since grade school.  However, spending a semester living and learning in another country, another language, increases the capacity for empathy of even the most open-minded individual.  You learn many routes can reach the same destination, many words can reach the same statement, many approaches can reach the same goal.  Few days go by where I don’t exercise that muscle—in team projects at work or in conversations with colleagues.  And, just as I learned in Chile, I often get more out of the process than the product.

ISA: What advice do you have for current students or recent graduates looking to get into the field of international education?

SETH: For someone looking to join the field of international education, I think they’ll be most successful where their skills and passion intersect with an organizational need.  From my perspective, the field is increasingly dynamic and is constantly calling for greater specialization.  While this is a challenge for veteran international educators who are accustomed to being “jacks of all trades”, it has created a lot of opportunity for new professionals.  International offices across the country are creating new positions in information technology, communications, marketing, event planning, research, curriculum development, etc.  Young professionals should think about their skills and experience, creatively consider how those can advance international education initiatives, and approach international offices for internship or volunteer opportunities.  Young professionals from any number of academic and professional backgrounds are likely to have answers to questions yet to be asked in international education.  Overall, I think any career in higher education can be as international as one makes it.  It just takes creativity, initiative and application.

ISA: If you could tell someone why study abroad is an important experience to have, in one sentence, what would you say?

SETH: If approached with only the humble expectation to learn and explore, studying abroad can be an investment with unquantifiable personal and professional returns that last years after coming home.


We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Congratulations, Seth! We couldn’t be more proud of you.


Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

One thought

  1. Seth – How truly awesome … everything!
    Your award! Congtatulations! The article.
    Your depth of thought and expression.
    Your humble attitude and gratefulness.
    You deserve this honor and ultimate
    success in your career. I am proud of you.

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