Balancing Structure and Spontaneity: Engaging graduate students as co-designers of meaningful intern

Updated: Jan 17, 2019

By Lisa Jasinski, Educational Leadership and Policy, The University of Texas at Austin, USA.

Originally posted 8 October 2017.

For the last ten years, I have worked as an academic administrator and adjunct instructor at a private liberal arts college in San Antonio, Texas in the United States. The residential campus where I work is adorned with colorful banners bearing words of wisdom from beloved faculty members. One of my favorite banners reads, ‘plan the route, remain open to the journey.’ I’ve thought of this mantra often since enrolling in a doctoral program in higher education.

As an adult learner in a graduate program, I became acutely aware of the tension between advanced planning and spontaneous action while accompanying my academic advisor for two weeks of field research at a private university in Porto Alegre, a coastal city in southern Brazil. To the higher education scholar, Brazil presents a fascinating case study. As one of the most diverse countries in the world, it is the ideal place to investigate the impact of a decade-old national affirmative action policy to expand college access.

Yet, the experience of conducting fieldwork in Brazil presented challenges. Like most doctoral students I know, I prefer predictability to uncertainty. We don’t like surprises that might delay our progress toward graduation. But it is easy for the love of the familiar to inhibit our learning. Had I restricted myself to the known and familiar, I would have had a far less enriching graduate school experience. In particular, I would have shied away from doing international field research (especially in a country where I had limited language capacity). But, by stepping beyond my comfort zone, I became deeply immersed in a fascinating global case study, gained greater self-awareness about my needs as a learner, and developed skills to better manage uncertainty. I suspect that there are many doctoral students out there (like me!) who would thrive as global learners, but we just need a push to get started.

This experience prompted me to reflect on larger questions: What should meaningful international experiences for doctoral students look like? I offer some initial thoughts below.

The unique needs of graduate students should be considered.

In the United States, only 10-13% of all graduate students study abroad each year (the percentage of doctoral students is less than 1%) (Open Doors 2016). This suggests that graduate programs must be more proactive and intentional to develop a generation of faculty leaders who possess the desired global mindset. Yet, it takes some creativity to offer meaningful international experiences that are accessible to doctoral students, especially working adults. Short-term international experiences are appealing because they limit the disruption to familial, professional, and academic commitments (Lightfoot & Lee, 2015). Other ways to entice graduate students to study abroad are by offering grants and financial support, faculty encouragement, and by awarding academic credit for participation.

Involve graduate students as partners in developing (and revising) goals.

Preparing for the trip, most conversations with my academic advisor centered on logistical details, like flight arrangements and visas. Looking back, I wish that we had talked more explicitly about larger goals and roles. Although I was learning a great deal about Brazilian higher education, I was sometimes uncertain about how my contributions supported the larger research agenda. Specific outcomes may not be unknowable in advance—especially with exploratory research projects. Maintaining an ongoing dialogue about challenges and strategies to navigate ambiguity can go a long way to address learners’ emotional needs. Whereas reflective journals and processing conversations are mainstays of undergraduate study abroad programs, these practices can be modified to benefit adult learners too. Graduate students may be waiting for confirmation or instruction. Through regular check-ins and debriefing sessions, faculty and graduate students can begin to work together as equals.

While it is helpful for faculty and students to have some shared goals in advance, it is important to leave space to for the unpredictable. On my second day in Porto Alegre, I found myself engrossed in a multi-lingual conversation with colleagues from the host university over cafezinho—Brazil’s deliciously strong black coffee (and one of the few things I can order confidently in Portuguese). Aided by expressive hand gestures, we discovered shared interests around design thinking methods and other innovation practices used by the Stanford

This unexpected connection ultimately resulted in two international conference presentations with Brazilian partners. At the outset of my fieldwork, I did not have the goal of pursuing this research interest—not only did it contribute to my scholarly growth, it allowed me to strengthen the many relationships I developed in Brazil. Looking back on the experience now, I wish I could say to my younger self, ‘plan the route, remain open to the journey.’

As doctoral students, many of us are emerging experts with broad interests. But, we’re also novices who need some extra guidance and perhaps more likely to be risk averse. Providing graduate students the support, freedom, and flexibility to capitalize on unforeseen opportunities makes international fieldwork even more rewarding and appealing.


Institute of International Education (IIE). Open Doors Report for 2016. Retrieved from

Lightfoot, E. & Lee, H. (2015). Professional international service learning as an international service learning opportunity appropriate for graduate or professional students. The International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives, 14(1), 32-41.