Uliana Gabara's vision of internationalizing the university has transformed campus culture

September 3, 2013

The woman who emerged from behind the Iron Curtain to make international study a hallmark of a University of Richmond education retired Sept. 1.

Uliana Gabara arrived at the university at a time when few undergraduates had visited another country, and even fewer international students found their way here to study. Both groups were missing opportunities to gain a global perspective, says Gabara, who has led the university’s internationalization program since its beginning in 1987.

Today, Richmond’s nationally ranked international education program sends some 60 percent of undergraduates to study abroad, has attracted 11 percent of the student body from 70 countries, and arranged for dozens of professors to participate in seminars abroad, resulting in new courses and fresh global perspectives in the curriculum.

As dean and Carole M. Weinstein Chair of International Education, Gabara is responsible for the vision and strategic planning for what those in her profession call “comprehensive, integrated internationalization.” She developed the “Richmond Model” of internationalization — a program that is coordinated within all five schools, curricular and non-curricular, on and off campus, and equally accessible for all students.

Under her leadership, Richmond has forged exchanges or affiliations with 60 leading universities abroad; grew the number of international students; welcomed visiting international scholars; created a Global House, a residential center for international and domestic students; developed a host family program; and integrated international content into the curriculum in all five schools. And finally, in October 2010, the university opened the Carole Weinstein International Center, the fulfillment of Gabara’s long-term dream.

While study abroad once was considered a pursuit for a few language majors, today Richmond sends hundreds of students abroad each year to study in more than 30 countries on six continents.

Gabara has always possessed a vision for internationalizing the university. Tom Cossé, associate dean for international business programs, has observed the university’s transition. “Through dogged determination, hard work, exceptional organization and management skills, and amazing political savvy, Uliana has led the faculty, staff and students on a fascinating trip from a relatively isolated campus environment to a globally oriented university.” 

A native of Soviet-occupied Poland who spent her early childhood in Uzbekistan before moving back to Poland, Gabara taught at the University of Warsaw, University of Virginia and University of Richmond while obtaining a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literature. In 1987, she became the founding director of Richmond’s Office of International Education. In 2003 her title changed to dean and Carole M. Weinstein Chair of International Education.

One of her early projects, in collaboration with the Media Resource Center, was to establish an international film series. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the series screens more than a dozen films per year for the campus and greater Richmond community.

Gabara and her office “provided a significant portion of the budget to support the film series and guidance in the selection of the film titles,” said Paul Porterfield, head of the center. “Uliana has also been very involved in promoting the film series to the campus and general Richmond communities. Her leadership and commitment to the series have been essential in making it such a successful program.”

Gabara created the Faculty Seminar Abroad in 1989 because she believed strongly that faculty immersed in the culture and history of another country would be inspired to use that knowledge in teaching and research. Whether they are in Poland, Russia, South Africa, India or other countries, faculty bond with each other across disciplines while meeting with leaders and ordinary citizens of the country, visiting churches, mosques and museums, and interviewing potential partner universities. The program has been recognized as an exemplary practice in higher education nationally and cited as a model for other colleges.

Perhaps Gabara’s most important and lasting legacy is the life-changing impact her work has had on Richmond students. One of them, Brett Wigdortz, who graduated in 1995, studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Wigdortz says Gabara pushed him to think globally about his career prospects. “She helped me to look past normal preconceptions and stereotypes and develop a deeper understanding of global trends. She supported me in my own entrepreneurial work at UR, including (being) the first student to study overseas in Israel and the first resident assistant at the International House.” That training enabled him 10 years ago to start Teach First, a program that trains teachers to work in low-income communities in the UK. “She was a great influence in my life,” he says.

Aileen Crowe Nandi, commercial officer with the U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service,
has held positions in Chennai, Calcutta, Mexico City and D.C. She says Gabara challenged her to view the world differently and not solely from a U.S. perspective. “She urged students to step outside their comfort zones, whether inside a museum in Richmond, befriending a foreign student or undertaking a lesser-explored study abroad program. She also expected that her students be — or become — global citizens both in Richmond and abroad. The exponential expansion of the University of Richmond's global diversity and study abroad rates is a testament to her drive to globalize the campus, well before globalization was a buzzword, benefitting students and faculty alike.”
Nandi says the Office of International Education was instrumental in ensuring that her Fulbright Scholarship application was successfully submitted. Gabara “stretched my thinking, dared me to critically analyze how I viewed the world and encouraged me to only strive for the highest achievements.”

Jaroslaw Derylo came to Richmond as an international student from Poland, Gabara’s homeland. Gabara was not content just to let him learn about American culture – she encouraged him to take advantage of the university’s study abroad program to travel and study throughout Western Europe. 

However, Derylo said it was Gabara's own life story that had the most impact on him – “one which could be said to be my own home country's modern history writ small and one whose poignancy was further amplified by the discovery of common acquaintances in yet another land far, far away."

Gabara has been a leader of national and state international education associations, having served as president of the Association of International Education Administrators and the Virginia Association for International Education, and past chair of the International Studies Association’s National Committee of International Studies and Program Administrators. She also chaired the Virginia NAFSA: Association of International Administrators and was a member of the National Advisory Council of the Institute for Study Abroad.

She is on the boards of Scholars at Risk, the Greater Richmond World Affairs Council, the American Council on Education’s Internationalization Collaborative Advisory Board, the Academic Board of the Foundation for International Education, and the Partnership Council of the School for International Training.

She holds degrees from Bennington College, University of Warsaw and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.

The university will launch a national search for Gabara's successor. Joe Hoff, associate dean for international education, is serving as interim dean.

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