Heather Thompson, Director of Education Abroad at Texas Global, Retires After 26 Years
- Jul 28, 2022
- Education Abroad
- Ellen Stader
Heather Thompson, director of Education Abroad at Texas Global, retires in July 2022, after 26 years of service to The University of Texas at Austin. This story celebrates the legacy of Thompson’s inexhaustible dedication to the cause of study abroad, which has augmented the educational experiences of multiple generations of Longhorns.
In 1994, Heather Thompson was new to Austin, freshly graduated from Texas A&M University with a bachelor’s degree in French and no idea where to look for a job. Her study abroad advisor suggested she meet Ivy McQuiddy, director of Education Abroad at UT Austin.
So Thompson put on a sundress (“completely inappropriate for a job interview,” she laughed) and walked across campus to find McQuiddy's office in the basement of Carothers Hall.
“There’s a tiny door on the side of the building,” she described the scene. “It looks like you're going into a hobbit's house. And when I opened the door, her desk was right there! There was no way not to walk in and say Hi. She interviewed me on the spot and hired me shortly after.”
The Education Abroad office at UT Austin was officially recognized by the university just a few years earlier, with McQuiddy arriving in 1987 as inaugural director. When Thompson was hired, the staff increased by 50 percent—from two employees to three.
“I was very lucky to have two amazing colleagues and mentors: Dr. Ivy McQuiddy, the first director of Education Abroad, and Ms. Helena Wilkins, the first program coordinator,” said Thompson. “Even in the beginning, the two of them were known as a force in the field of international education.”
Thompson remembered their early work building personal connections with students. “The atmosphere was so intimate,” she said. “The students would come into the library, and we’d sit down with them and chat and have tea. We used to watch soccer matches together!”
Yet the intention was clear: They were planning to build something big. Those first years were fundamental, recalled Thompson. “We were at this precipice of creating. It was like crossing a new frontier… paving the way, making inroads and establishing the foundation for study abroad at UT Austin.”
From simple beginnings, Thompson would continue this work for 26 of the next 28 years, dedicating her boundless energy and abundant heart to helping students from every background find a way to learn in another country.
Sonia Feigenbaum, senior vice provost for global engagement and chief international officer, said of Thompson: “Heather's unwavering commitment to international education has transformed the academic pursuits and trajectories of tens of thousands of students. We are grateful for her legacy, which will remain a core element of the educational experience at UT Austin for decades to come.”
Building on Strong Foundations
The Education Abroad staff initially focused on developing solid foundations to support the greater functions they envisioned. Structures were designed for longevity to foster a sustainable program, plus scalability to allow it to grow and serve more students every year.
“There are policies and procedures that were established in 1990-1994 that still form the backbone of why we're so successful today,” said Thompson, who has seen the program expand into one that, at its pre-COVID height, sent an average of 4,400 students abroad and offered more than $1.2 million in study abroad scholarships every year.
She cites the examples of the International Education Fee Scholarship (IEFS) and May Terms (formerly called Maymesters), both leading-edge initiatives implemented by UT Austin.
The IEFS was a bold, early step in supporting student access. In 1987, the UT Austin student body voted to approve a referendum that added a $1 per semester fee to every student’s registration costs to fund study abroad scholarships. Once approved by the Texas Legislature and instituted at the university, the IEFS model was adopted by universities across Texas and around the nation. It continues to make study abroad accessible for Longhorns to this day.
May Terms also expand access, by allowing students to experience education in another country, but on a shorter timeline that can work with demanding academic schedules. Thompson recalls that the idea was born over lunch.
“In 2004, when the second director of Ed Abroad created Maymesters, I was an associate director, helping set up university infrastructure for what we thought would be maybe 100 students going abroad a year,” said Thompson. “I never imagined that years later, Maymesters would be an institutionally recognized and branded activity supporting close to 800 students per year.”
Thompson attributes these successes—and UT Austin’s consistent ranking among the United States’ top schools for participation in education abroad—to one main fact: “The values of international education at UT are so strong that they resonate around the globe.”
Dedicated to Legacy
Thompson initially resisted becoming the director of Education Abroad. Despite encouragement from within the office, “I hadn't even applied,” she said. “I was super happy doing what I was doing as associate director.” But after a national search resulted in no clear consensus for a candidate, the hiring team again appealed to Thompson.
“Heather is the kind of colleague we all wish we had,” said Heather Barclay Hamir, UT Austin’s director of Education Abroad at the time. “She is knowledgeable, supportive, high-capacity, and funny. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of UT, higher education in Texas, and global education—all of which she willingly shares to help others navigate the university successfully.”
With such traits and 20 years of experience in the field, Thompson was a natural, if reluctant, choice to succeed Barclay Hamir. Ultimately, as would happen time and time again, it was Thompson’s devotion to the work that drove her to accept the responsibility.
“People like me are dedicated to legacy,” Thompson explained. “I'm a guardian. And guardians aren't just looking out for themselves; they’re looking out for the institution.”
She accepted the job and in 2015 became UT Austin’s fourth director of Education Abroad.
In the ensuing years, the guiding principle that has informed Thompson’s actions at every level—her “north star”—has been the welfare of the students.
“As long as every single thing you do is for the students … all else will fall into place,” she asserted. “If you build programs, advocate for support and manage your team, all from the primary lens of serving the student, then making plans and decisions is easier than you think.”
She’s spent decades debunking common myths in the field of education abroad: That students can’t earn academic credit while studying abroad. That the costs are prohibitive. That financial aid is hard to come by. None are necessarily true, Thompson maintains, and none should pose a sufficient obstacle to keep anyone from studying abroad.
“We have hundreds of programs whose costs are equal to the cost of living in Austin for a semester or summer, and we have many programs that cost less than Austin,” she said. “There are absolutely ways to do it that meet any person's budget.”
Addressing Student Needs
Thompson is an expert at understanding the needs of students, which she said have remained remarkably steady over the decades. “Their goals might change as the university changes academics,” she said, "but basically … What students want has pretty much been the same since the very beginning: They want a program that matches their academic and personal needs, and they want a program they can afford.”
If she has made it her business to anticipate students’ needs, the position of director has also required her to accommodate the needs of the university, the state of Texas, the field of international education and the partners in countries across the world. Colleagues agree that Thompson consistently proved herself equipped to handle multiple layers of demands.
Richard Flores, now in the President’s Office, formerly served as associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts, making him the college’s point person for international education. “During this time,” Flores recalled, “I had the good fortune of working with Heather as we developed new programs, tracked students as they traversed the globe, assured the quality of programs abroad, and, at times, determined our best options when crisis hit. Through all these times, I found no one more committed, passionate and knowledgeable about UT policy, academic credentialing and student needs.”
The Unthinkable and the Unforgettable
Thompson has a lot to reflect on, moments both difficult and rewarding, from her long and accomplished career. When asked about the most difficult experience she faced, tears sprang to her eyes as she recalled bringing home more than 500 students from their study abroad assignments in Spring 2020, when quarantines closed borders worldwide.
“March 12 was the worst day of my career,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine that access to the world was closed. I am thankful that I didn’t have to make the decision on my own, and that UT has a very strong leadership team and partner network that navigated that turbulent time together.”
Thompson’s smile replaced the tears when she switched to the topic of high points in her career: “I am very proud that so many education abroad program coordinators who started at UT have gone on to become international education leaders in their own right around the nation.”
This sentiment is not surprising, given Thompson’s professional reputation for generosity and accessibility. Barclay Hamir said, “Heather is a natural mentor, and to this day helps others in her network, including newcomers to the campus or state. When I look back on the wonderful years I spent at UT, the opportunity to work with and become friends with Heather Thompson is one of the best parts of that experience.”
Lynda Gonzales, director for student programs at the College of Natural Sciences, agreed: “Heather is so even-keeled and solid, and has always been very approachable as a colleague. Her automatic response was never to put up barriers, but instead to always calmly entertain new ideas and engage in conversations. When someone has solid information and shares it easily as she does, everybody wins.”
Perfect Time for a Transition
Speculating on the future of Education Abroad, Thompson enthused, “It's a great time for the transition. The unit’s doing really well; the university is in a good place. Coming out of COVID feels a little bit like a rebirth, so it's a great time to have a new director come in. The momentum is rising, and they're building it with the strategic plan. I think the timing is going to be perfect for Tommy, and he's totally the right person to do it.”
Thomas “Tommy” Ward begins work Aug. 1 as the new director of Education Abroad at Texas Global. He has 18 years of experience in international education, first in UT Austin’s International Office and then at the McCombs School of Business. Thompson expressed every confidence in Ward as her successor.
“The relationships we’ve benefited from were built over time, year in and year out. And it's very lucky for us that Tommy has those types of relationships, as well, because he has been a constant. People know him. Those relationships are really paramount.”
After years of striving to see into the future, Thompson now thinks she knows what’s coming: Sleep. Lots of it. “I don't think I've slept in three years,” she laughed. She also plans to spend time with her family, play golf, and “read a book that doesn’t have to do with human resource management.”
And finally, Thompson offered these words of farewell to UT Austin: “I’ll miss everybody. I’ll miss the work. I'll miss the university. But I'll stay connected with people.”