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Q&A: New International Division Dean Frances Vavrus

September 12, 2023

Frances Vavrus joined the International Division as vice provost and dean on July 31, bringing with her a wealth of experience as a leader, scholar, and global citizen.

Vavrus is no stranger to UW–Madison nor to the division, having completed her PhD at the university while taking part in global programming available to students and scholars.  Her research, teaching, and service are in the fields of international education and African studies.

She shared her perspectives on returning to UW–Madison, the qualifications she brings to the role, and plans for growing the university’s global reputation.

International Division: Welcome! Or should we say welcome back! How does it feel to be returning to UW–Madison in this leadership role?

Frances Vavrus, Dean and Vice Provost of the International Division at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is pictured in a studio portrait on July 31, 2023. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison) Photo: Bryce Richter

Vavrus: When I graduated from UW–Madison in 1998 with my PhD, I could not have imagined that I would be returning 25 years later in a leadership role, and in this role in particular. Most of my doctoral coursework was in comparative and international education and African studies, so I benefited personally from the excellent faculty and staff in the International Division. I received helpful mentoring from the division when I was applying for a Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, which allowed me to spend a year in Tanzania conducting fieldwork for my dissertation. I also gained valuable teaching experience as a lecturer in the International Studies major and expanded my understanding of different world regions by attending events hosted by area studies centers. I owe a great debt of gratitude to these and other units in the International Division, and I now have the chance to support those working closely with the next generation of Wisconsin students to ensure they, too, have such opportunities.

International Division: How do you see your role as vice provost and dean of the International Division?

Vavrus: I see these two roles as distinct but complementary, and they illustrate the wide purview of the International Division in our work across campus and the world. As vice provost, I serve as the senior international officer for UW–Madison, which means I help to represent the university when we have international visitors on campus and am the ‘Badger abroad,’ one could say, for the university at events hosted by our international partners. I also oversee certain types of international agreements for the university and represent the campus in organizations, such as the Big Ten Academic Alliance, where senior international officers meet to learn from one another and advocate on behalf of international higher education.

As dean of the division, I’m responsible for the academic programs offered by our various units. We have tremendous strength in these areas, from our renowned study abroad and international internship programs to the courses in international studies and foreign languages offered by our nine area studies centers. We have unparalleled expertise in area studies owing to faculty, staff and students in the division and in departments across campus who work together to create learning opportunities not found elsewhere.

In fact, we recently concluded the 2023 Wisconsin Intensive Summer Language Institutes (WISLI) program, which hosts students from across the U.S. who want to study one of more than 30 less commonly taught languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese. It is a remarkable achievement, and, as dean, I seek to support and strengthen our national and international reputation in area studies and languages while also exploring new avenues for trans-regional research, teaching, and engagement.

International Division: How has your background and experience prepared you for this role?

Vavrus: Both of my parents were language teachers: My father was a professor of Russian at Purdue University, and my mother taught Spanish and English as a Second Language (ESL). Russian was, in fact, the fifth or sixth language he learned to speak fluently, with Slovak being his first language as he was an immigrant to the US from Czechoslovakia. My parents’ love of languages and international travel affected me profoundly, and I, too, taught ESL during my master’s program at the University of Illinois and as a doctoral student at Wisconsin.

I had opportunities to study Swahili through the very programs we support in the International Division, including Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships and Fulbright fellowships. In addition to the two student-focused Fulbright programs, I was a Fulbright Scholar in Tanzania when I was professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. I want to sustain UW–Madison’s position as one of the top institutions sending students and professors abroad through Fulbright programs and hosting Fulbrighters on our campus, and we are in a similarly enviable position as a top producer of Peace Corps volunteers. We have Fulbright and Peace Corps coordinators in the division, and we have an IRIS awards office that manages and coordinates many other fellowships to support international research, internships, and coursework. One of my most important roles is to promote these critically important programs on campus, across Wisconsin, and beyond, and to help departments, schools, and colleges utilize them as part of our common goal of deepening cultural understanding and global engagement among our students.

International Division: What will you be focused on in your first months/year?

Vavrus: There are more than 130 people in the International Division, and I set myself the goal of meeting as many of them as possible as fast as possible! Therefore, we invited everyone in the division to an ice cream social on my first day in the office, and I stopped in to say hello to our teams in the Pyle Center, Red Gym, and Ingraham Hall during my first week. I have held individual meetings with every member of the division’s leadership team during my first month and have begun developing clearer channels of communication and opportunities for community building as these are challenges for an organization as large as ours.

As we strengthen communication and community, we will initiate a strategic planning process where we will collectively identify overarching principles and develop goals to help orient our work and determine priorities for the next five years. With this clarity in our common purpose, we will be well positioned to move in new, exciting directions on collaborative initiatives that tap the strengths of multiple units in the division and enable us to build even stronger partnerships across campus, the state, the nation, and the world.

International Division: When you reflect on your own experiences abroad, which ones stand out?

Vavrus: I have had the good fortune of traveling widely and meeting warm, engaging people wherever I have gone. Thus, it would be difficult to select a favorite international experience, but I believe the most influential experience was the Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad to Kenya and Tanzania in which I participated in 1990. It was co-led by UW Professor Emerita Madelena Hauner, whose approach to teaching Swahili has stayed with me as she skillfully nudged us beyond our comfort zone while ensuring that we had the requisite support when we were struggling with language learning. I have many stories from this trip and from decades of subsequent ones to East and Southern Africa to share with those who stop by my office in Bascom Hall to say karibu (welcome) to this new dean!

International Division: We will look forward to hearing those stories! Final question—as Badgers look to plan their own adventures abroad, what one tip would you give them as a seasoned traveler?

When you arrive in a new location, find a coffee shop, café, or a favorite local gathering place, and just sit, watch, and listen. It will give you the chance to learn about the daily rhythm of the people who live there. One example from my travels is that when I first traveled to Spain in the late 1980s, I had no idea what churros were. I went to a café daily and saw locals ordering these along with cups of warm chocolate. I finally mustered the courage in my limited Spanish to ask what they were and ordered my first churros y chocolate. They were wonderful! It became a part of my Saturday morning routine in Madrid, and it provided the perfect opportunity to observe, listen, learn, and enjoy this international experience.