Refugee service internship gels career path for ESL administrator

Gates (front row, far right) in the village of Kolokani, Mali

Serving refugees from all over the world as an intern at St. Vincent Catholic Charities Refugee Services in Lansing, Mich., was a key factor in Christie Gates’ decision to prepare for a career in international education.

“The internship helped me discover that I really enjoyed meeting people from other countries and that I wanted to pursue a career with an international focus,” said Gates, assistant director of WMU’s ESL program, the Center for English Language and Culture for International Students. “At the same time, I was also working at Lansing Community College in the admissions and registrar’s office, which provided me an introduction to working in a higher education environment. When a position opened up at the college’s international center I jumped on it.”

A 2004 study abroad experience in Mali, a landlocked country in northeast Africa, completed while  she was working on her undergraduate degree, followed by two, six-week trips—one backpacking around Europe and a tour of southeast Asia—provided Gates with a broader worldview and understanding of what it feels like to be away from home in a foreign land and culture. With all these experiences under her belt and a WMU master’s degree in public administration/nonprofit leadership in hand, Gates was well prepared to join WMU’s CELCIS staff in August 2011.

Gates’ primary responsibilities in the CELCIS program are advising students on academic and adjustment issues, developing class schedules, managing the administrative support staff, managing data collected and assisting with program development.

“The international student population at WMU is quite different from what I was used to at LCC, which was mainly students from South Korea,” she said. “At WMU, the majority of students are from Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern countries—about 60-70 percent. I greatly enjoy the cultural and ethnic diversity of the students, faculty and staff I get to interact with in the CELCIS office and across campus.I am always learning something new.”

After graduating from Dewitt High School in Dewitt, Mich. in 2002, Gates completed a bachelor’s degree in social work and peace and justice studies at Michigan State University. She left the United States for the first time during her sophomore year to study abroad in Mali.

Christie Gates, WMU CELCIS assistant director

Gates learned to dye cloth in Mali

“Mali faces a number of challenges as they try to reduce hunger, improve education, and maintain their relatively new democracy, but it has an incredibly rich history of art and music that is admired across the world,” she said. “I chose a program that would take me someplace that I wouldn’t likely travel to on my own. I studied ethics and development for six weeks. Part of the program was based in the capital city of Bamako at the University of Bamako. The other part of the program was spent visiting other parts of the country, including Ségu, Mopti, Djenne, and Dogon Country. The experience was incredible.”

Just 19 years old when she entered this pilot program that enrolled only 8 students, Gates said she learned some basic phrases of the native language, Bambara, interacted with local students, and slept in mud huts when she toured the country. That tour included a visit to the Great Mosque of Djenné, the largest mud-brick building in the world.

Nakunte Diarra

“That trip offered me such a broad range of experiences,” she said. “I had the honor of meeting Nakunte Diarra in the village of Kolokani. She is well known for creating bogolan, a mud-dyed cloth; her work is on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution. We had the opportunity to create our own pieces under her instruction. We also met with and heard the perspectives of female activists who have been shunned by their villages for speaking out about female genital mutilation.”

Gates picked up experience in a new region of the world on her first recruitment trip for CELCIS, when she visited Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in spring 2012 to meet with prospective students at a recruitment fair.

“It was evident that education is extremely valued there,” she said. “The people I met were wonderful and eager to share their culture. Meeting students in their home country helped me to understand them a little better. Once they get to WMU, I really enjoy helping students navigate the new culture and to accomplish their educational goals.”