During the months of September and October, Yale College’s Co-Directors of International Admissions Jean Lee and Rebekah Westphal hit the road — or, more accurately, the airport.
Criss-crossing entire continents may appear to be a glamorous and exciting job, but there is hardly time for sightseeing, the two said. Most of their tourism is done while staring out of taxi windows.
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Westphal and Lee are responsible for reaching out to hundreds of high school students on five continents and delivering presentations about Yale and the U.S. college application process at locals schools and government outreach centers. In the past year, the pair has traveled to 21 countries. Westphal returned to New Haven from Africa last week — just in time to begin reading early action applications.
Once out of the country, Lee and Westphal battle jet-lag as they work around the clock to connect with students, school administrators and alumni from around the world. While their time abroad lasts for only a month each year, the pair said the brief glimpses of exotic locations and interactions with future students make up for the layovers, exhaustion and many months of planning.
ON SOLID GROUND
A typical day for Lee and Westphal begins at 7 a.m. with local school visits and meetings stretching across the day. Evenings often include dinners with alumni and public presentations. The day is rarely over before midnight, when all there is left to do is to return to the hotel for sleep before a grueling 5 o’clock flight the next morning.
For stamina, the two said they rely on drinking packets of Emergen-C, a vitamin-rich, flavored-drink powder that helps to ward off illness. The two added with relief that they have never been seriously sick during one of their trips.
Still, with so many countries to visit and so little time, there is rarely a “typical” day for Westphal and Lee. More often than not, the two hit roadblocks and must make last minute adjustments to their itineraries.
“In so many of the cities we travel to, the traffic is crazy, things break down, people don’t show up and then all runs behind schedule,” Westphal said. “In Sao Paulo, [Brazil], you would be lucky to squeeze in three school visits in a day because you will be stuck in traffic for half the time.”
But getting to some places requires more patience than waiting in traffic.
As part of routine trips to lure applicants from Norway, Westphal flies from London across the frigid North Sea for a three-day odyssey. After landing in the city of Bergen, Westphal ferries up the fjord, hops on a bus and then delivers a routine, one-hour presentation about Yale College at the Red Cross Nordic United World College. Then, she heads back to the bus, hops on the ferry and takes a plane ride back to the European continent.
The issue of time sometimes pales in comparison to the other hazards that come with the job. In April, Lee was traveling in Hong Kong just as the swine flu pandemic began surfacing in Asia. A Mexican traveler at the hotel she was staying was diagnosed with the disease. Had she chosen to leave a day later, Lee would have found herself quarantined for over a week, equivalent to nearly half the duration of her two-and-a-half-week trip, she said.
Indeed, dealing with potentially dangerous situations is part of Westphal and Lee’s routine when travelling abroad. On multiple occasions, the pair has encountered political violence and riots, as was the case in Thailand last year. Lee and Westphal’s Yale colleagues who travel to the Middle East have also met similar obstacles — one was searched for several hours at the border of the West Bank — and the colleagues must carry two passports to get around travel restrictions in the region.
Still, even when there are no immediate threats, Lee and Westphal must take precautions.
“You can’t break down because there is simply no time to waste when you are traveling,” Westphal explained. “You have to watch what you eat, what you drink and how much you sleep.”
AN UNLIKELY CAREER
While Westphal said every trip brings a rush of adrenaline and invaluable memories, she never envisioned herself working as an admissions officer.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Westphal studied music and English at Bennington College before completing a master’s degree in musicology at McGill in 2003.
After graduation, Westphal spent her time teaching music and only stumbled on the position by chance when a vacancy opened in the role of international admissions. Brimming with nostalgia for her days as a graduate student, she applied to the position and is now into her fifth year at the Admissions Office.
She said she enjoys seeing the progression of meeting a student overseas, and then seeing the student’s application on her desk, admitting him or her and then encountering the student on campus.
One memory she particularly cherishes came from her visit to South Africa last month, when she met the mother and two sisters of a current Yale freshman.
“They ran up to me, calling out, ‘It’s you! It’s you!’ ” Westphal recalled. “That was just so sweet, so rewarding.”
Lee, on the other hand, caught the admissions bug early on. She landed a position at its admissions office after graduating as sociology major with certificates in dance and gender studies from Princeton in 2000. While new officers typically work at their alma maters for two years before moving on, Lee stayed on for six.
“At that point, I realized there was a reason why I had been sticking around, so I decided to undertake a master’s degree in higher education,” she said.
After earning her graduate degree at Harvard, Lee found herself at the Yale Admissions Office.
“You don’t earn a lot of money, so you have to do this for benefit of being able to see families and communities change,” explained Lee, when asked what drove her to be an admissions officer.
On the other side of the globe in Sydney, Australia, a Yale pennant hangs on the wall of the office of Angela McDermott, a guidance counselor at Sydney Girls High School. While Yale was not the first U.S. college to visit her school, McDermott said the demand for information about the University is growing. The ability to connect with an admissions officer face-to-face, she explained, makes the possibility of applying to college abroad appear “real” for her students.
“It is a huge undertaking for officers to travel so far to visit us,” she said. “And it is truly wonderful of them to do so.”
MONTHS OF PLANNING
Despite a 7.5 percent budget cut this past year, the Admissions Office has kept its international travel component, although Lee and Westphal said they now have to do their best to save money when traveling, taking less luggage and bringing more compact promotional materials to save shipping costs.
While Harvard admissions officers currently do not travel abroad and cut travel by 50 percent this spring, the Yale Admissions Office still recruits in person across the globe. International travel not only enhances Yale’s global visibility, Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said, but it also allows admissions officers to gain a better understanding of the educational and cultural background of candidates applying from abroad.
Given their limited time and resources, Lee said the pair often chooses to travel to countries and cities from which they receive the most applications.
This year, Westphal returned to many of the same countries in Africa she visited last year — Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe — in order to cement ties with local schools and education organizations and maintain Yale’s visibility on the ground.
Lee, on the other hand, travels to Asia each April because compared to their African and even American counterparts, Asian students tend to make preparations for college earlier and are more likely to benefit from a Yale visit in the spring, an earlier point in the admissions cycle.
Once their destinations are decided, Lee and Westphal then reach out to local schools, with the aim of making as many as 15 new contacts in each country they visit. Despite the allure of Yale’s brand name, the pair still encounters schools which are less than receptive to their outreach efforts.
“It is difficult to start relationships with new schools,” Lee said. “Sometimes they are not willing to meet with you, or they are not interested — or simply don’t care.”
Some international school administrators are fearful of Yale stealing their best students from the local institutions, Lee and Westphal said. In China, for example, students admitted to Yale don’t take the country’s national exams, the gaokao, which determines a student’s university placement and helps boost a school’s ranking.
In other instances, Westphal noted, school counselors simply do not want to dedicate their time to one possible Yale applicant in lieu of other students with less lofty ambitions. Westphal and Lee said while they understand these attitudes, they have learned to be persistent, adding that they repeatedly reach out to school administrators when met with resistance.
Last year, Yale College received 4,032 international applications and accepted 115 foreign students from 38 countries.