John Christian has lived in London since 1989. His fascination with this city as well as his career in international education started with a semester abroad during his undergraduate years at SUNY Oswego in New York. He is now the President /CEO of CAPA International Education, which brings American students to London and other global cities around the world.
Below, John talks about how CAPA students connect to Londoners, how London has changed since his own study abroad experience in 1986 and how he fights the stress of being a CEO of an international organisation in such a fast-paced city.
LLO: Where are you from originally, how long have you been in London and what brought you here?
JC: I am originally from Troy, New York (which is Upstate NY). I first came to London in Spring 1986 on the SUNY Oswego London program where I studied abroad. After that, I did what a lot of people do and started researching ways that I could come back. My first time back was in November 1989 when I returned to London to be the director of the SUNY Oswego London program – the same programme that got me started in this field. I have lived here ever since.
LLO: As President / CEO of CAPA International Education, tell us – what is CAPA?
JC: CAPA International Education is an international education organization, or IEO as we call it. As an IEO, CAPA hosts academic programs for students from American institutions to learn abroad. All of our programs are located in global cities and focus on the exploration and analysis of the many layers of complex social, political, economic and cultural issues that exist in these unique environments. We currently bring about 2,000 students abroad every year.
Not everyone wants to do a full semester program or join a CAPA program, so we also create programs that align with an institutional or departmental identity. These are called specialized programs. They are unique because each one has its own academic identity. An institution or department can draft a different curriculum based on a program like theatre or business and create a program around that. Then CAPA helps them to identify the location, cost, academic opportunities, internships and all of those things that make it a program designed by the institution but hosted by CAPA.
LLO: How many students does your organization bring to London each year?
JC: Out of our 2,000 students, 60% actually go to London. It’s our largest destination and Open Doors will tell you that it is THE largest destination for learning abroad – at least the UK as a whole, but the primary location there is, of course, London.
LLO: You have programme sites in eight global cities around the world. Where are the others and what makes London so popular?
JC: London is popular because it is, in terms of global recognition, one of the world’s top cities. When you take that global recognition and add that it’s English-speaking, and to many American students appears to have cultural similarities to the US, it is a great option for a learning abroad experience. Of course once they are here they soon discover the many differences in values, politics, culture and so much more that makes Britain what it is. The other CAPA program locations are Beijing, Buenos Aires, Dublin, Florence, Istanbul, Shanghai and Sydney.
LLO: You’ve recently given a generous gift of $200,000 in scholarship money to your alma matar, SUNY Oswego in New York. Tell us about this donation which will bring students to our wonderful city who may not have had the chance to come otherwise.
JC: It’s a gift I have wanted to present to SUNY Oswego for some time. My experience there as a student and later a member of the professional staff at the study abroad office shaped my career and life work in learning abroad.
The gift serves both the institution and the student community. The Office of International Education and the Institute for Global Engagement out of the President’s Office can actually use $100,000 of this money to look at how they can take some of their curricular strategies and internationalize them, therefore getting faculty and administrators abroad. The second part of the gift is for students who are financially challenged to a point where study abroad is not something they’d think about because they do not believe that they would ever come up with the resources to do so. So, that’s the other $100,000 in full fee scholarships bring students to our London and Beijing programs. Two students each year for the next three years will have access to these funds. The funds are in honour of Dr. José Ramon Pérez who was my director at SUNY Oswego and very much a mentor to me, not only for his understanding of how to build and manage sustainable academically rigorous programs, but for his belief that every student should have access to these programs. This commitment to accessibility remains a focus of my work and certainly is a core value of CAPA International Education.
LLO: In such a technologically interconnected world, why is study abroad still important and how is CAPA keeping up with the changes in the field of international education that such interconnectedness has brought about?
JC: That’s a really good question and it’s scary how technology has enabled us to live and connect globally at an instant. I think that the problem is that we communicate less thoroughly and less intimately. Study abroad still has a role in the understanding of people in human terms that cannot be satisfied by technology. However, it does have a strategic place in how we enable students to connect to each other while abroad and to reflect on their experiences through blogs and other social media forums.
At CAPA, we are actually building our own system called MyCAPA which allows students to get involved in the decision making and planning of their own experience by choosing how and what they will learn on our programs. This forms a planner which reflects their choices and helps them maximise their time abroad. IT also gets them involved in discussion groups both on and off line that serve as a reflective tool for them to process their experience with faculty and students throughout their program. We are rolling our new system out this term and look forward to the feedback the current student body will give us on the development of this technology.
LLO: How do American students studying with CAPA integrate into London life and interact with Londoners?
JC: This is a difficult question to answer as it is unique to each individual based on their interests, comfort zones and choices. What I do know is that CAPA presents every student opportunities to engage with Londoners through internships, clubs and community events through our MyEducation strategy. We encourage our students to go out and engage with people and definitely create pathways for them to meet Londoners and build relationships. In the end, they also do this in so many other ways – when they’re on the tube, when they’re walking in the street, at the grocery shop, etc.
LLO: In which ways has London changed since your own study abroad experience here in 1986?
JC: A lot. That’s a really tough one. It is really different in 2013 from when I landed here in January 1986. I know I had a very romantic view of London when I was a study abroad student. We all did, right? It was my first time out of the United States, so I was dumbstruck. I was one of those student who really had never lived in an urban environment before so I had that going on, I had the big city around me going on, busses and trains and planes and hustle and bustle. I had what I would say was a much more English city experience, but I wonder if that’s because I was in a romantic study abroad bubble. I had a lot of English friends, went to pubs with English people and really made an effort to learn from locals what London meant to them. It was also a smaller city in 1986. It was as commercial as it is today but it wasn’t as obvious because advertising, marketing and technology have all risen to a new degree in 2013. London seemed more intimate than now where it’s more anonymous. Many people actually prefer this anonymity I think. Back then, no one spoke on the tube and there were much more strict urban codes about queuing, and street side manners. There are always references to these things when people refer to “English London”, but they are less and less an expectation of the many tourists and people who live here.
LLO: I only have one night in London and want to go somewhere nice, away from the tourist trail, for dinner and drinks. Where would you recommend ?
JC: The East End, definitely – a walk down Brick Lane. There’s so many different restaurants so it depends what kind of food you like, but there’s amazing locally-run curry houses there. You’ll meet some Bangladeshi, Indian or Pakistani local cooks and get some unique food. The whole area has developed like London has, so it has a commercial side to it, but still very much has the East End edge and history.
LLO: One of your favourite activities outside of CAPA is keeping fit. Do you have any tips for Londoners? How do you fight the stress of being a CEO of an international organisation in such a fast-paced city?
JC: I use running and weightlifting to make myself feel really for each day – not just physically, but mentally. I think it’s up to the individual what you do. It isn’t even about physical appearance – that’s a nice consequence to it – but actual physical exertion just drains the body enough to replenish itself and like a battery it gets stronger. I think it’s actually really important for the mind. That’s what helps me manage the variety of tasks and challenges I have in this leadership post. That could also be achieved by a long walk, jump roping, some other mental exercise like pottery or yoga. The second part is diet. I don’t think people have to live by a code that discounts anything, but a balance that allows for everything without exaggerating it. My golden rule is to control your ingredients. It’s a big one for me. I like to eat out, but when I can I try to buy healthy things I make my lunch with and certainly cook a lot so I know what I’m putting into my own food. That way I can see the nutrient value, fat content, etc.
LLO: What is your favourite London discovery?
JC: My latest? The Shard. Have you seen it? It’s phenomenal.
For more about CAPA International Education, visit their website.
CAPA also has a blog called CAPA World (which regularly features posts about all CAPA sites including London) and a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn.