Brian Whalen, AIRC, US

Published 24/05/2023

After a stellar career in international education, AIRC executive director Brian Whalen is set to retire at the end of the year. Whalen recently sat down with The PIE and reflected on prominent themes that have been woven throughout the personal, professional and academic parts of his life.

“I think about it in terms of categories of human experience,” Whalen tells The PIE. “My dissertation was on home and homelessness in the American imagination. And one of the themes was to tease out the different dynamics of American journeys overseas and intercultural journeys. And so intellectually, I developed a really strong interest in the whole notion of home.

“Where are the places we call home and why do we call them home? And can we carry home with us? And can we ever really return home? And all of those different rich themes that have existed in many cultures around the world throughout history.”

Reflecting back, Whalen says, given this early academic interest in the psychology of home, he had an intellectual reason to enter the field of international education.

“Maybe we’re all searching for home in one way or another, and it is in our international education, where we find many homes,” he suggests.

Whalen proffers that working in international education, one connects with people in different cultures, situations, and contexts. “And we relate to them, and have empathy, and we can identify with them in some way. And that’s one of the joys of our work.”

In discussing the intersection of his work and personal life, he says, “International education is often a journey that involves your family or significant others.”

“Maybe we’re all searching for home in one way or another, and it is in our international education, where we find many homes”

When Whalen’s wife was working on her master’s thesis in Italian art history, the two spent three months in Italy. Whalen’s maternal grandparents were born in Italy, and he felt a strong connection to the country and its people.

Two years later the couple returned to Italy to work and spent five years there and it is where their children were born. “It was a real family commitment, raising a family within an international education framework. So that’s the emotional side [of international education] for me.”

His son has lived in Greece and his daughter in Ecuador for the last 13 years. “They’re completely bicultural, bilingual and have succeeded in business and in living [an international] life. And so, it’s continuing to be kind of an emotional experience in that way.”

In terms of the professional aspect of this triad, Whalen speaks of early days in the field at University of Dallas and Boston University. In a period before fax machines, computers and mobile phones, he says the relationship with mentors was critical.

“There was no professional development that I knew of, no handbooks, no seminars or webinars, and no Forum on Education Abroad. NAFSA existed, but we didn’t know so much about it overseas.”

They gathered in informal mentor circles to discuss “what we’re doing and how we’re dealing with the challenges that we have and sharing ideas and best practices”.

During that time, he developed lifelong, collegial friendships and had reliable, knowledgeable, trustworthy mentors that helped shape the trajectory of his career.

“And that led me to realise that we all need mentors within our different fields. We need to cultivate those relationships and we need to give back as well.”

Whalen asserts, “There’s a certain amount that we can transmit via written publications, webinars, and workshops, and those are really important. But the individual mentoring relationships that we have are never going to fade away in importance.”

Looking ahead to his official retirement from the field, Whalen is excited for the next chapters in his life and intends to continue to give back to the sector.

“The world has become increasingly interconnected. Globalisation has really impacted our sense of who we are and our place in the world. I definitely want to continue to engage with the field in a productive and helpful way.”

“I definitely want to continue to engage with the field in a productive and helpful way”

In circling back to his original dissertation topic of many years ago, Whalen frames his career trajectory around that concept of home that has been so central in his life.

“I’ve always been struck by the overwhelming majority of our colleagues, no matter what area of international education they work in, international educators have this skill set. It’s not just cross-cultural communication or intercultural communication, or empathy.

“It’s a constellation that I would call homemaking – the ability to feel at home and to be at home in so many different contexts. That is extraordinary. It really is. And it is a blending of the personal and the professional and academic that makes it so incredibly special.”

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