Washington People: Amy Suelzer

Preparing students for their study-abroad experience

Amy Suelzer, director of Overseas Programs, meets in her office Sept. 30 with students (from left) Jeff Schwartz, a senior majoring in international and area studies and in Spanish, and Caroline Buhse, a senior majoring in Latin American Studies and in Spanish, all in Arts & Sciences.
(Credit: Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos)

If Amy Suelzer, PhD, director of Overseas Programs in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote a memoir, a likely title might be “My Serendipitous Life.” Many of her life-changing decisions seem to have been guided by moments when an opportunity presented itself, and Suelzer seized it.

She seized it even as a child. “I was about 10 or 11 years old, and we went to a Mexican restaurant,” Suelzer recalled. “I ordered something, and the waitress said, ‘You pronounced that really well!’ So when I had to choose a language in middle school, I remembered that incident, and so I chose Spanish.”

But for that offhand remark by a stranger, Suelzer might have gone down a completely different path. But her trajectory, propelled by a love of the Spanish language, led to Washington University and to countless students who have benefited from her special blend of professionalism, personal attention and genuine care.

“Amy Suelzer has been an incredible resource for me,” said Jeff Schwartz, a senior majoring in international and area studies in Arts & Sciences who studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. “She is efficient, kind and remarkably knowledgeable, but it’s her willingness to help at a moment’s notice that sets her apart.”

Caroline Buhse, a senior majoring in Latin American studies and in Spanish, both in Arts & Sciences, echoes this sentiment: “Amy has been a huge support for me since freshman year, when I started considering study-abroad programs,” Buhse said. “Now that I’m a senior, Amy continues to be an invaluable resource, helping me to apply to postgraduation fellowships abroad and figure out my plans after graduation.”

A student’s decision to spend a semester in another country, immersed in a different culture, can be a life-changing opportunity. It certainly was for Suelzer, who spent a year in Madrid while a student at Indiana University Bloomington, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and in English.

To prepare Arts & Sciences students to get the most out of living for 12 weeks or more immersed in a new culture represents a monumental task, especially considering that Overseas Programs coordinates 100 different study-abroad programs in 50 countries. But in that process of guiding each individual, Suelzer and her staff turn it into a valuable learning experience.

Serendipity strikes again

Suelzer arrived on the Washingtin University campus in 1990 in the Olin Fellowship Program in Arts & Sciences for women in graduate studies. She enjoyed being an Olin Fellow, but at the end of her first year found herself underemployed. Looking back, Suelzer remembers with gratitude how Maggie Watkins, who at the time ran the program in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, offered her a job, which later helped crystalize her decision to switch from teaching to administration.

“Maggie suggested I work in the grad school office, and I not only took the job, I found the administrative side of higher education so interesting that I continued working there until I graduated,” Suelzer said. “I got an insight into academic administration I would never have received otherwise. This work was totally different from scholarship, yet important to the academic enterprise.”

After earning her doctorate in comparative literature from Washington University in 1997, she was faced with a difficult decision.

“I loved the student contact and I loved being a part of the academic community, but I was no longer sure I wanted to teach,” she said. “Because I had been exposed to the rewards of administration, I had another option for a career in higher education.”

What followed was a series of opportunities — more serendipitous moments — presented to Suelzer by Robert Thach, PhD, then dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and Jim McLeod, the late dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, beginning with an appointment as a postdoctoral fellow.

“I came to Arts & Sciences at a fortuitous moment, when Dean McLeod was expanding the college and needed a cohort of people dedicated to achieving his vision,” Suelzer said.

When that position ended, she found herself yet again in the right place at the right time. Suelzer’s cumulative knowledge of living overseas, foreign language skill, academic qualifications and administrative work converged just when the International and Area Studies and Overseas programs were growing and needed an influx of professionals to guide that growth.

In 1999, Suelzer was named assistant director of International Studies, charged with developing and implementing a growing number of study-abroad programs offered, and becoming the adviser for programs in Germany, Chile and Spain.

In addition, Suelzer took on the advising role for students applying for selective international scholarships and fellowships, such as the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Washington University regularly has a strong showing in the Fulbright, boasting 10 or more awards in nine of the past 15 years, Suelzer said. In all, 155 students have received scholarships since the 2000-2001 competition year, she said.

Although McLeod was the first dean to recognize her potential, his successor, Jennifer R. Smith, PhD, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, shares his enthusiasm.

“Amy has a rare balance of traits that makes her a great administrator,” Smith said. “She is detail oriented, yet always keeps sight of the big picture, and she is adept at working with programs and structures without ever losing touch with the unique needs of the individuals involved. I’m grateful to have her as a colleague.”

Last year, Suelzer became the director of Overseas Programs.

Perhaps no one at the university is better equipped to describe all the qualities that make Suelzer exemplary in this role than Nina Davis, PhD, associate professor of Spanish and a member of the Study Abroad Advisory Board as well as faculty liaison for Madrid programs.

“I have known Amy since directing her doctoral dissertation,” Davis said. “I have watched with deep admiration the level of care and engagement she has brought to her extensive work, and in her multiple and tireless roles with Overseas Programs.

“Through its years of growth, Amy has provided Overseas Programs with the unparalleled knowledge base and understanding of procedures necessary to help it transition to its significant role in the academic formation of undergraduates today. Because she is an academic herself, has studied and taught here, is a seasoned adviser of ArtSci undergraduates, and has studied abroad herself, she is without a doubt best poised to make study abroad an integral aspect of the ArtSci academic experience,” Davis said.

But Davis is quick to point out that, aside from her deep knowledge and experience in the work itself, “what I really admire most about Amy is that, despite the intensive number of daily contacts her work entails, she focuses on students and colleagues as individuals, never forgets a name, and understands their concerns, always taking the time to help others.”

A life-changing journey

Suelzer continues to find enormous fulfillment in preparing students for their journeys, and she insists that students, upon returning to campus, have much to teach her.

“Each student, and each student’s experience abroad, widens my perspective and makes me better at my job,” Suelzer said.

Given her innate ability to recognize a great opportunity when it presents itself, Suelzer will continue to find ways to make the study-abroad experience richer for her students, and for herself.