I Spy Someone making a difference.
Geoff Parsons: CCU's international ambassadorby Mona Prufer
Earlier this year, a small group of Coastal Carolina University ambassadors made the all-day trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, approximately 2,610 miles from New York City, to meet with a group of about 60 CCU alumni who live there.
Geoff Parsons, director of international programs at CCU, made the trek, along with President David DeCenzo; Darla Domke-Damonte, assistant dean and executive director of global initiatives; and Debbie Conner, associate vice president of university relations.
Conner recalls the impression that Parsons made on the former students.
"Geoff remembered every one of them [Icelandic alumni] and could pronounce their names correctly, which is no small feat for Iceland," says Conner. "You could see the great affinity these alumni have for Coastal, and it's all because of Geoff.
"Story after story was told where Geoff had gone out of his way to help a student. When a flight was canceled, he drove to Charlotte to retrieve the stranded student. He let someone make a long distance call on his office phone because they were homesick. He sent a fax to resolve a problem," says Conner. "It's not in his job description to do all that he does, but Geoff wants to ensure that each and every one of these students has a great experience here."
Head of the program since 2001 (he was coordinator before that), Parsons is focused on easing the transition for the international students and making them feel at home in this setting. He is a surrogate parent for students so far from home, often homesick and dealing with an unfamiliar culture and customs.
"I used to host international dinners at my house," says Parsons. "We would celebrate the cuisines of different countries." He would take the young people on field trips to Charleston, the mall, bowling, movies, to local festivals, even shopping at K-Mart when needed. He even gave haircuts to students who didn't have money to go to a barbershop.
For eight years, there were bus trips to Washington, D.C., Parsons' hometown. For years, he drove a busload of the international students to the nation's capitol over the Thanksgiving break. "It's an American holiday, so it meant nothing to them, and it was a good opportunity for a field trip," says Parsons. He tells a hilarious story of losing the transmission along the way on one memorable outing, getting it fixed (sort of) and having to add quarts of fluid to get the bus back to Conway.
These days, with 83 international students on campus, such events are harder to coordinate, but Parsons is there to help when needed.
In addition to the students from other countries, there are also visiting scholars and dignitaries such as the two Chinese professors who visited recently from Nanjing. They didn't speak English, so when translators had to be located to help with a "Coastal Today" interview and lunch and other meetings, Parsons was called on to help solve the issues. It's one of the many facets of his ever-evolving job, along with assessing foreign credentials for students, evaluating teaching credentials of international faculty and dealing with immigration documents.
There are also 14 short-term study abroad trips offered each year – over Maymester and spring break – and another eight international long-term study programs through agreements with universities in other countries.
Parsons, who is widely traveled, claims not to know other languages, though he admits to "speaking passing French" and "survival Spanish." To hear him pronounce difficult, tongue-twisting names, however, would make you think otherwise. "I'm a natural-born mimic," says Parsons, who is able to pronounce a challenging foreign name perfectly after hearing it once or twice.
Parsons first came to Coastal Carolina in 1988 as a graduate student. He worked with professor Steve Nagle, who was then in charge of international programs, and was asked to provide support to Fred Hicks, principle investigator on a three-year grant for curriculum enrichment in international studies focusing on the needs of historically black colleges and universities. Parsons organized conferences, recruited guest lecturers, developed workshops and assisted with tracking the expenditures for this consortium of colleges in the state.
In 2001, Parsons was moved into the position of director of international programs at a time when a trip to Oxford University in England was the only study abroad program Coastal offered. "I was responsible for the money," he says. "Back then, there weren't credit cards, so you couldn't buy tickets to things ahead of time. It was just pay-as-you-go and in a different currency."
He attended Virginia Tech before earning a bachelor's degree in psychology at USC-Coastal Carolina College and a master's degree in education from USC. His first study abroad trips as an undergraduate were to Queens College in Cambridge and Christ Church College, Oxford, and then four years later to Sussex University in Brighton, England. The love of travel seed was planted, and it never went away, many years and many abroad trips later.
France and England are his favorite travel stops, but just before Thanksgiving, he hopped a flight to Mexico to visit Sachin "Sunny" Gupta ('92), an alumnus who, like so many of his former international students, has become a lifelong friend,
"I have been so fortunate to work here at Coastal and make all these great friends over the years, many of whom were international students," says Parson. "I can't imagine how my life would've gone if I hadn't come to Coastal, if I hadn't been to all the places I've been."