By Sam Mercer • Staff Writer
Phil Gadzekpo sits in his office in St. Edmund’s 115, he works diligently on two desktop computer monitors while simultaneously live streaming world news on a laptop next to them. The shelves behind his desk are adorned with sculptures and art pieces from several different continents. A chalk board mounted on his wall is scribbled with every possible academic opportunity for an international graduate student at St. Michael’s College.
An assortment of bagged snacks are arranged next to a Costco coffee maker on the table by the door for the enjoyment of his visitors, who pop in frequently.
“Almost every day, students come here, get a snack, sit down, chat for a few minutes, and just do the assignments and things like that, and then go to class,” Gadzekpo said.
As the new director of the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS), Gadzekpo has numerous responsibilities. He provides support to both undergraduate and graduate international students, ranging from guidance with visa applications to weekly trips to the grocery store.
Originally from Ghana, Gadzekpo has worked in the field of international education for nearly a decade. In 2012, he earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, and went on to work in their Center for International Education.
“My first task was to work with students from the University of Wisconsin,” he said. “They had a project in Ghana, so I was part of the welcome team. So we worked with them, and that kind of aroused my interest [in international education].”
[What was the exact moment that aroused his interest]
Gadzekpo came to the United States in 2015 to earn a master’s degree in early childhood education from East Tennessee State University, he worked simultaneously in their Office of International Programs. In 2018, he started work on his doctorate of higher education from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, a process that remains ongoing.
Gadzekpo then moved to Washington State in March, 2020 and worked as an international admissions coordinator for Washington State University for a year, before he discovered the open position at St. Michael’s College.
“I was going through this [website] and I saw the position at St. Michael’s College, and I Googled it. And I was like, well, it’s very interesting,” Gadzekpo said. “I did a lot of research on St. Mike’s. And I thought it was great. I liked the fact that they support social justice. They had a lot of programs and activities and events supporting minorities.”
Gadzekpo was hired in July as the director of the OISS, which is part of a broader effort to bolster the College’s appeal to international students. The OISS is overseen by the newly minted Center for Global Engagement (CGE), which opened in July. The CCE coordinates all international activity for the college.
Jeffrey Ayres, professor of political science and director of the CGE, said that Gadzekpo impressed him with his personable nature and extensive experience in international education.
“We had a very good sense that Phil would not only have the skill set to fulfill the responsibilities of the office, but he also would really be a great mentor to students, which is what we’re all about in a small student-centered institution,” Ayres said.
Gadzekpo quickly established a rapport with Ayres over their shared goals for international engagement. He said it was more like a conversation than a job interview.
“During my interview, we had a lot of things in common come up… we [Ayres and Gadzekpo] both supported globalization, promoting our students to be global citizens, and also increasing internationalization at St. Mike’s,” Gadzekpo said.
Gadzekpo’s primary objective is to sustain and support the international student population on campus. He works closely with Peggy Imai, director of study abroad, to encourage more international travel among the student body. He also works with Lisa Lagerquist, associate director of international admissions to increase international student numbers.
Gadzekpo’s work with international students begins after they are admitted to the College. Enrollment and Marketing Vice President Kristin McAndrew explained the importance of his role at St. Michael’s.
“He [Gadzekpo]… serves in a critical role as the College’s Principal Designated School Official, which means he is our on-campus expert in immigration regulations,” she said.
Gadzekpo provides guidance in the visa application process, which is a vital step for any international student before they can even enter the country. After helping international students retrieve their visas, he coordinates with a myriad of other services on campus to prepare for their arrival.
Gadzekpo said he teams up with a wide range of departments including counseling, CMAS [Center for Multicultural Affairs and Services], Bergeron Wellness Center, the Durick Library, dining services, the registrar, and financial services.
“So pretty much you know, almost all the departments on campus. I reach out to them and make sure that we can help our students feel comfortable and safe,” Gadzekpo said.
Once students actually arrive in the country, Gadzekpo works to ensure a seamless transition. Francois Wemniga, an international graduate Fulbright scholar from Burkina Faso, said he was initially concerned about his arrival to the United States.
“One of my concerns was how I would do once at the airport, but my Director Phil made it easy for me. That day, I even arrived late but he was waiting for me, and even cooked for me because we could not find any open restaurant at that time,” he said.
Senegalese Fulbright Scholar Oumar Djigo said Gadzekpo’s previous academic experience provides him with unique insights into the challenges international students face.
“As an international scholar himself, he is in a good position to have a bird’s eye view of the actions that need to be taken to support international scholars and promote Saint Mike’s at the international level,” Djigo said. “He takes us shopping regularly despite his busy schedule and does his best to satisfy our needs.”
Wemniga describes an almost familial relationship between Gadzekpo and his fellow scholars, all of whom live in the Townhouse 100s.
“What I really appreciate with our director as a neighbor is that he does not expect us to call him ‘director.’ He does not put distance between him and us,” Wemniga said. “He considers us as his brothers and sisters. We sometimes have dinner together where he gives us advice on questions we have.”
Jolivette Anderson-Douoning, an Edmundite Graduate Fellow and neighbor of Gadzepko said his presence and role on campus will enhance the success of the community.
“I think what Phil does, simply by being a good, decent person combined with his academic research and his work at St. Michael’s will open up the St. Mike’s community to much success in the future,” she said.
Ethan Li ‘22, an international student from China, first interacted with Gadzekpo over the summer via email, and was impressed by his accessibility. “He loves to help people out. We will send an email to him and he will respond really quick. I think that’s the kind of person who really loves his jobs,” he said.
President Lorraine Sterritt expressed optimism for Gadzekpo’s work in rebuilding an international presence at St. Michael’s. “Phil has a very student-centered approach, and that is exactly what we need in this role. We are fortunate to have him at the helm of OISS!” Sterritt said.
Though Gadzekpo has made significant inroads among the international student population, there remains a long journey ahead for him and Ayres to turn St. Michael’s into the globally engaged institution they envision. The COVID-19 pandemic remains an ongoing impediment for international students entering the United States.
“After COVID, so many schools need to rebuild their international student population,” Aryes said. “[There is] a sense that the United States isn’t as welcoming to foreigners or international students, we’ve really seen a dramatic decline in international students.”
Gadzekpo considers obstruction in the immigration system as a significant obstacle.
“We do our part, for admitted students, to make sure that they are the best fit for St. Michael’s. However, we don’t have control over whether or not they get a visa at the embassy,” Gadzekpo said.
Though he may spend weeks preparing an international student for arrival, he has no guarantee they will even be allowed in the country.
“That’s a huge challenge. You prepare your students, you’re excited to see them, and the next day, they send you an email that they’ve been denied a visa, and you know, it’s a bummer, but it’s something that we can’t control,” Gadzekpo said
A major emphasis of the OISS has been the cross-cultural diffusion the program can create. “As we grow our international student population, that can only help to promote global citizenship skills and a sense of intercultural engagement amongst existing domestic students,” Ayres said.
Gadzekpo has considered implementing a mentor program for domestic students to guide international students through American culture. He believes both groups have a lot to learn from each other.
“My goal is just not for them to come in and increase our population, but at the same time, get to leave their bubble and do something that is not within the culture. That way, we can have two side effects,” Gadzekpo said.
Shefali Misra, professor of political science, said that a robust international presence would be beneficial to her courses.
“As a teacher, it is so useful if I have two international students in my class, it seems to enhance the diversity of perspectives threefold,” Misra said. “Simply by coming from a different place, they just have an outlook on things that is shaped by experiences.”
Though Gadzekpo has a long road ahead for international student engagement at St. Michael’s, he remains optimistic. He and Ayres are particularly excited for the International Student Lounge being renovated in St. Edmund’s 120, which is expected to provide international students with a welcoming space to do work or relax.
Until then however, Gazekpo’s office is the heart of the OISS. His students can stop by almost any time of the day, whether they need help with immigration documents or just a friendly face to chat with. His door remains open, regardless if they have an appointment or not.