ResEdChat Ep 52: Working Abroad in Student Affairs, Housing, and Residence Life

In this episode of Roompact’s ResEdChat, guest host Stewart Robinette chats with two professionals who are currently working outside the United States at NYU Shanghai. They discuss how their careers took them there, what the differences are when operating a residence life program outside the United States, and the learning, experiences, and skills they gained along the way.


  • David Pe (he/him), Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, NYU Shanghai
  • Nupur Goyal (she/her/hers), Director for Residential Education, Housing, and University Community Standards, NYU Shanghai

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Stewart Robinette:
Welcome back to Roompact’s ResEdChat podcast. This is a platform to showcase people doing great work and talk about hot topics in residence life in college student housing. I’m your guest host today, Stewart Robinette. I use he/him pronouns. After almost 20 years in housing and residence, I recently stepped away to work on some broader learning, talent development, organizational design. However, I’ve stayed active in the profession, and I’m really excited about today’s guests that we’re going to be having. Today’s guests are going to be focusing on experiences outside of the U.S.
I was very fortunate in my early career with them. Even in my own master’s program, I was fortunate to get to have some higher education experiences outside the U.S. that really formed the foundation for how I understood what it meant to be centered on student learning. In that vein, we’re going to be speaking to two professionals that I greatly admire and look up to that have had many experiences outside of the continental U.S. and in specifically residence life and housing. We’re going to be talking to Dr. David Pe and also Dr. Nupur Goyal about their experiences transitioning to and working in countries outside the continental us. So to start things off, I wanted to kick it off to both of you all so that you could do a little introduction about…

David Pe:
Sure. I guess I’ll go first. Hi, everyone. Thank you for having me, Stewart, today. My name is David Pe. I’m currently the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the NYU Shanghai Campus out here in China. I’ve been with NYU as an institution all throughout my career, so I started in 2004, and I’ve stayed with them working in different capacities, first starting off in residential life in the New York campus and then moving over to Shanghai to take on broader student affairs areas. I currently serve as a chief student affairs officer. I’ve been with the University in Shanghai now for 11 going on 12 years.

Stewart Robinette:
Awesome. Thank you so much, David, and Nupur?

Nupur Goyal:
Yeah. Hi, everyone. I’m Nupur Goyle. I am the Director for Residential Education, Housing and University Community Standards at NYU Shanghai. I’ve been here for four years. I’m originally from India. I went to the U.S. to study, did my bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in the U.S. and then the last few years have worked… started my career at NYU New York, then worked a little bit with NYU Abu Dhabi and four years ago came to NYU Shanghai. So very happy to be here.

Stewart Robinette:
Awesome. I can’t wait to learn more about y’all’s journeys and share that with our audience today. I guess to start things off, one of the questions that I always had in my mind, especially after I did one of my study abroads was, “What would it be like to actually work outside the U.S.?” I’m curious, early in your career, and I know these answers may vary especially with you being from India, Nupur, but early in your career, when did you first even think about, “You know what? Maybe I could work in higher education in a system that’s outside of the U.S.?”

Nupur Goyal:
So my journey started off as a student. I basically went to the U.S. to study as an international student and just really fell in love with the U.S. system of higher education. I enjoyed the flexibility of curriculum/ I enjoyed the campus atmosphere. I got very involved as a student. I was orientation ambassador. RA, president of the International Student Association, and then the dean for International Student Affairs, just put in a good word for the field of higher education administration. I was on my way to being a speech therapist.
That was my major in undergrad, and I was going to do it, but something wasn’t quite right and she was a mentor, her name is Karen Edwards, she’s now at Grinnell. She said, “Why don’t you look at higher education administration?” I clicked on the websites and started reading up about it, and I said, “You know what? This is exactly what I want to do.” So from my plans for going to graduate school for speech therapy, changed over and went to Virginia Tech for higher education administration program and then the rest is history. So it started from there and started as a student and then went on to just becoming my career path.

Stewart Robinette:
Fascinating. David, I know in our past conversations you grew up in California and coming to the East Coast for some of your studies was a big leap, but when did you even envision or think that doing higher ed overseas was a possibility?

David Pe:
I definitely did not think I would be out in China and out in China for this long. I again grew up in California and LA. I went to UCLA for my undergrad, which was just 20 miles away from home, and so I was definitely under that much more wanting to be closer to home. I was the first in my family to go to college and so really going to college in itself was just completely foreign. I didn’t have anyone to role model or look up to. Again, it was the experiences with my having a great RA and having a great residential life program at UCLA that really gave me the opportunity to find mentors to help me learn more about the profession and start to create my pathway into student affairs and higher education. I decided that I needed to leave LA because like all good student affairs professionals, you want to gain those different experiences.
So I decided to take a chance and fly to the East Coast and did my master’s at NYU in the higher education program there. NYU’s higher education program, it was nice because they had components where you could go study abroad as part of the program, so you could choose one or two of your classes during maybe the January term or the summer term. So I took that chance and opportunity and did a class in London for a couple of weeks. That was the first time I had gone out of the country, and so it was the first time that I had ever left the U.S. and left home. From there, the travel bug kicked in.
In 2008, I had a opportunity to serve as a resident director on Semester at Sea. So that experience really was the turning point in giving me that sense that the world was bigger outside and that I needed to see it and that there was something about that force that took me on that journey. So after I came back from Semester at Sea, NYU started expanding and building their Abu Dhabi campus and having a much more global footprint. Then Shanghai came along and I said, “I’m Chinese American. I was born and raised, but I’m still missing a piece of my own identity.” So coming to China was partially a personal identity development journey and really trying to get to know myself but also just wanting to have a very different experience.

Stewart Robinette:
It’s so powerful hearing how early experiences shaped you all making your decisions of before this could be a possibility. I know for me, even getting involved in my studies in international higher education, it was also a study abroad program like you, David, that I had at Ohio State. When we’re thinking about a professional, and I’m trying to put myself back in the shoes of some of the professionals that are watching this right now, that are thinking, “How could I ever do this? What would it be like?” I wanted to tunnel a little bit more into the actual experiences that you’ve had working with housing and residence life overseas and think about what was surprising? What’s been different, and also what was similar, even surprisingly similar about those experiences? ‘Cause for many of our listeners, they maybe haven’t had the opportunity to be overseas before that I think all of us three had had before. So any insights on that?

David Pe:
I’ll go first I guess. So the experience in China is definitely different than other places in the world, and so largely because housing and residential life doesn’t exist in the form that we’re used to from the U.S. So it is much more of a place where you just sleep and eat and there’s not really that emphasis on having RAs and having this aspect of the living learning components that has been widely developed in Western educational institutions. So you’re showing up to a place where you’re really building and training people and finding talent within the spaces here, finding people who maybe had studied abroad themselves and can put themselves in the shoes of seeing positive experiences as well.
A lot of the housing and residential experiences that we’ve built in Shanghai is largely modeled after the U.S. system. Over the last few years we’ve had lots of other universities in China come meet with us to learn more about what we’ve done and start to develop similar type of programs. So we are still one of the few institutions in China that have RAs and the student leader aspect of that development, but it is starting to grow. Some schools now have residential colleges and have models where they have similar like positions, but largely, they’re still dependent on full-time professionals to fulfill a lot of the roles with mediation and putting on programming and crisis response and all the good stuff that comes with housing residential program. But it’s definitely a shift that we’re seeing in the environment here.

Nupur Goyal:
I’ll add on to that. Even though our housing and residential life program is very much modeled after a U.S. style residential program, it is unique, and this was something for me to learn. Most of my work in residence life has been in the U.S., and so I moved to China four years ago to be the director for residential life, but I’ll talk a little bit about the differences. So our student population is unique in the fact that it’s very diverse. We have about 50% Chinese students and 50% international students on campus. The group of international students also has a lot of diversity within that. It’s a very multicultural group. They benefit from all the student support and all the student services that we offer and, of course, there’s a little bit of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
We need a nice room, get them situated, get them comfortable, and then we move on to programming and things like that. So we have the diversity. We also have the diversity within our student staff, our RA staff, and we embrace that diversity. We want to leverage that rather than just saying we’ll follow the U.S. style and do exactly that, we’ve actually created an adapted version that leverages the strengths of having Chinese RAs, international RAs from various backgrounds, and the same thing with the staff. We have a lot of our professional staff are majority local Chinese and then a few international staff members. So again, we are complimenting each other in a lot of ways. It’s also one of the most talented staff groups that I’ve worked with. It’s probably my favorite part of the job is just working with a very, very talented, organized and hardworking team. So those are some differences or the better word is adaptation.

David Pe:
I think I want to add just another thought too. I think a lot of times the way you select RAs, also the way we do it here in Shanghai had to be changed. I think at first when we started, we were applying very similar selection processes that we had seen in the U.S. and we realized that it just wasn’t going to work here because of again, needing to think about the cultural context in terms of what communication actually looks like, what leadership looks like and how it’s defined. So I think oftentimes schools have used similar models time after time.
An advice that I would give is as we embrace a larger global population on our campuses, how important it is to really think about is the processes limiting you from hiring those international RAs that can add to the diversity or is it that we haven’t even considered it? So I think that that’s a good first step to really start to change the culture and how that then allows for your professional staff to then consider or want to potentially work abroad in the future themselves. So how do you create the global exposure within your local context? I think that’s an important piece to do as our own commitment to higher education and global higher education.

Stewart Robinette:
That’s what I’ve always appreciated about professions, the way that we’re always thinking about how we can take things that we’re learning or that we’ve done at our own institutions and plot more broadly. I guess to go on a little further into your last comment, David and Nupur, I invite you also to add, are there other aspects from the time that you’ve been able to spend overseas in these roles that you’re now going to be able to take back if you ever do go back to a U.S. institution and really apply it other than what David just highlighted a second ago where you’re like, “This is something that I didn’t even think was a possibility or could work, but I saw how it worked here, and this would inform the way that I would want to do something if I went back to one of the institutions on the continental U.S.?”

Nupur Goyal:
I’m always thinking about ways that I could share this experience, use it to benefit student services. I read when I was doing my PhD, there was a concept called internationalization at home. So it’s basically those who are fortunate enough to have the privilege to go abroad and travel and have that opportunity to go to different places and get that experience. But then we as our higher education professionals should be creating opportunities for students on the home campus to get those international experiences without having to travel. So it helps if you have programming that provides conversations around international topics. It helps to have a diverse student body. It helps to have student leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds, so I keep thinking about it.
I also think that our personal journeys as professionals are greatly enhanced by exposure to a U.S. style higher education system in a different country. So for me, I’d say the last four years have been probably the biggest learning experience and growth experience other than probably my PhD just in terms of exposure, in terms of learning and just the privilege and the opportunity to be in a totally different country but have the U.S. style education system that I’m very familiar with to blend in. So I highly recommend people to seek out these opportunities even if they’re short term, even if they’re… or maybe something on your campus that allows you to partner with somebody international, I think it’s a very worthwhile professional development.

David Pe:
I think that oftentimes when we do a lot of benchmarking, we look at our peer institutions and those peer institutions oftentimes, again, if we’re looking at it from U.S. context, it’s generally other U.S. universities, if we’re looking at it from a Chinese context, it’s in other Chinese universities, again, I think what I’ve learned because of being in this joint hybrid both/and experience of being both a Chinese university and a U.S. university together is to be able to ask more questions that take into consideration those perspectives. So when I look at benchmarking or peer institutions, I’m comparing to lots of different places in different countries and different systems of higher education now. So I’m always saying, “Well, how is it done here? How’s it done in that other place?”
Because we have students from this other country in large numbers, but if we’re only looking at it from both the U.S. perspective or the China perspective, we’re then potentially missing out on understanding how to understand their development and how do we integrate that into our larger planning and our larger strategy. So I think that if I were to go back to the U.S. or any other place to work, that’s definitely something that I would carry on because it’s so much of my day-to-day now it’s embedded in my decision-making and my thought processes. I never make decisions without having to process how would others perceive that decision to be and needing to think about it in a lens that I think oftentimes you wouldn’t necessarily need to think about in a much more domestic or homogeneous environment.

Stewart Robinette:
It’s amazing the experiences and how you both are talking about how that would inform you going forward, even going back to one of your earlier answers that I’m thinking about, David, before you talked about how you got to explore your identity more and how that’s impacted you as a professional. I wanted to switch gears a little bit because I know we very much have focused on the work and the job and the profession here, but there’s also a certain part of this is your new life when you’re living there just like when any of us have moved to our first institution or taken a job at another institution. Could both share maybe what your favorite part outside of the work or maybe work adjacent since work pervades a lot of what we do, but what’s been the favorite part of these experiences for you?

David Pe:
For me, it’s definitely the traveling and the access to traveling more. So I would say that the way I define myself now is a global urban educator. I’m attracted to big cities. I’m attracted to spaces in which you’re seeing a lot of things happening. I always think about my first time in New York City standing in the metro in Times Square during rush hour and having that moment where I just was seeing people moving in all sorts of directions. That has been the case as I’m in Shanghai in any of the busy parts of the city here or any other parts of China or standing in Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo or out in Singapore or Thailand.
I have been able to travel to at least 20 or 30 countries in the past 10 years that I don’t think I would have done because of the distance. Being able to base myself in China and travel regionally to all these places has definitely been my thing. Granted, I was restricted during COVID and that’s something we won’t talk about on this podcast because that’s of the past in all our lives. But I definitely would say that that has been my work adjacent is to when I can pick up a bag and jet set off to some other part of the world.

Nupur Goyal:
I have a very long answer for this because as I mentioned earlier, the last four years have been the biggest growing learning transformative experience for me. So as I mentioned, I grew up in India, went to the U.S. at the age of 18, stayed in the U.S. for a long, long time, about 15, 16 years. I was at the point where I figured it out. That initial culture shock happened during undergrad and then I was maybe a little bit of culture shock when I moved to New York in 2005, but I was pretty set, and I really wanted to stay in my comfort zone. Lo and behold, I never imagined that I would move to Shanghai in 2019, but I just did it. There’s a Robin Sharma saying, he wrote The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, and it’s a quote from his book that, “Change is hard at the beginning, messy in the middle and glorious at the end.” So I’m nowhere near the end, but it was definitely how I felt.
It was hard at the beginning, change, and in particular, I don’t like change. It was messy in the middle. Again, we won’t say the COVID word, but that really got messy in the middle. But I, again, just feel like if I could encourage anybody listening to step out of their comfort zone and just do it. It is daunting. It is messy, but everything has been a pleasant surprise. The kindness of people, the local people in Shanghai have been just so warm, so kind, I would’ve never imagined it. One of your questions for the prep was like, “What did your family think when you were planning to move?” Yeah, my family was like, “Where are you going?” Then add to 2020 January, then they were really like, “What are you doing?” But I cannot underscore this enough that it’s been the most wonderful experience, the very transformative for me personally, professionally, and just something that I highly recommend. So David’s one of those people who likes travel.
I don’t have as much wanderlust as he does. I’m very happy with my routine, but now I see the value and why it’s important as a professional that works with students from around the world and wants to be able to assess student needs and offer appropriate student services it’s really important to give yourself that exposure and put yourself in those… The other thing I’ll say is that moving to Shanghai really gave me an insight to what a student feels like when they move to a new campus. I’d forgotten that since my student days. So I was like, “Oh, my God, I know what you go through as a student that would be here. The adjustment, the getting comfortable with the language, a new place.” So it was a really nice, 15 years into my career, nice opportunity to go back to and re-familiarize myself with those feelings and that transition and that journey.

David Pe:
I’m going to add, I had a big smile on my face ’cause I thought Nupur and I were going to each… I think assumed the other was going to talk about yoga. I think that that was something that I do want to add primarily because I know that this is a hard profession. I know that burnout and all the things that we have to deal with in the crises and the after-hour calls we’re always on. So as student affairs professionals, as much as you tell people, “Here are my office hours,” or, “This is when I’m supposed to be working,” people don’t see that. It’s hard for people to draw the line, and you have to find a way to draw that line. So for me, I was working on my dissertation and I was just hitting such a rut and a low place and I just needed… I was having doubts that I could ever finish my doctorate.
So I ended up walking into a yoga studio, met a really great yoga teacher, and just started coming every… at first two or three times a week just to escape and just have a place to just unwind. Then again, not to mention the C word, during that period of time where things were even harder on the work, I needed a place to be able to put my phone away and not have to answer. As someone who is serving in a leadership position, I’m literally on all the time. So yoga became my escape because it was the only time in the day where I could put my phone away for two hours and if people called and they couldn’t get in touch with me, they knew, “Oh, David’s mobile is likely in yoga, so we’ll call it the next person instead.”
So I was able to then use that as a space to one, disconnect myself, to give me my space that I needed. I know it’s in my personality to want to be helpful. I think it’s all in our personalities. That’s why we chose higher education. We chose the one field where you’re not going to be making glorious money to go do the things that you want compared to some of most likely your friends in finance or IT or some of these other fields and whatnot. But the benefit of higher education needs to get balanced as well. So I think that that’s super, super important to everybody in this profession. Find something that’s going to let you shut off that phone and have a blast with it.

Stewart Robinette:
So many amazing insights that you’re both giving right now and going even into self-care, we could talk so much about that aspect too. We are getting to the close of our podcast, but I can’t leave this podcast without giving a second for both of you all as mentors that I see. I know people have asked you about this, but what would you say to a professional that is coming to you to speak to you about your experiences and, “How do I do this? How do I get past the obstacles? How do I make this jump to actually say, ‘I can do this, I want to do this,'” and then put that idea into place to be able to work outside the U.S. in housing and residence life?

Nupur Goyal:
So there’s a lot of universities, joint collaborations across various parts of the world and staff that from the U.S. or different parts of the world that are working internationally. So just so you know, there’s communities, you can connect with ACPA, has a commission for global student development. I believe there’s a counterpart in NASPA and other large professional organizations to just network and meet people. I actually met some of the staff when I started working just as a way to connect. In addition to higher education, there’s also school teachers and lots of educational education professionals around the world.
So if you want to do it, there’s tons of opportunities around the world, actually. It takes a little bit of research online and then do some networking and connect with people. The actual process differs country to country. It’s a little bit of paperwork, I will admit, and sometimes takes a good amount of time. It could take up to three months for your visa to get processed, and so you do have to work a little ahead of schedule because the transition can take time. But I highly recommend it, and just my international work has been in Shanghai, but I’ve met people from the Middle East, from all parts of Europe, from other countries in Asia, so tons of opportunities.

David Pe:
I would recommend that you first start off at your own institution in terms of learning about what is the global footprint of your university and where they may have collaborations or opportunities. That’s definitely a first step. Many of your universities will most likely have some study abroad exchange program with another university in another country. It doesn’t have to be China. I know for the two of us that we’re talking, we’ve been very Shanghai or China specific, but schools and universities have these exchanges throughout the world. So you need to either blindfold yourself and stick a pin to a map to see where you’re going to go or spin the globe and see where your finger lands and then you pick a place, and you start there. Then as you look at your own career, if your university doesn’t offer an opportunity, it may mean that when you are ready for your next job search that you’re going to align yourself to a university that has that opportunity or that experience. So when I came to Shanghai, it was actually only supposed to have been a three month assignment.
There was an opportunity back in 2012 that says, “We’re starting things. We need someone with a background like yours where you could speak Chinese and understand student affairs, and we just need you to go set things up a little bit.” That turned into a year, and the year turned into three and three turned into six, six turned to nine, and now I’m going on 12. So again, it was definitely not something I had anticipated, but it doesn’t mean that you have to look so far in advance. You definitely would want to think about it being at least a commitment for a year or two at the start because that’s the easiest, ’cause if you think about it too short or think about it too long, I think you start to give yourself some cold feet in terms of that decision process. But once you start actually spending more time learning about higher education abroad even from the colleagues in your institution, you’ll get a good beginning.
I think that that was the piece that I learned the most was the reason why I came was because another colleague actually passed on the opportunity, and sometimes it’s the right time, right place, right moment. Nupur and I were having a conversation in, I think, 2018 or something. I said, “Nupur I’ve asked you to come to Shanghai for years now, and you’ve said no to me three times already, but this time I’m saying, ‘Come, apply, I have an opening for a position that I think is the right fit for you,'” and she did it. So again, it’s keeping these networks and relationships strong with the people around you. It’s a small community. Generally, people working in abroad generally know each other because again, you have shared goals in that sense, but there’s lots of opportunities. You could also volunteer with your schools to take people on abroad trips to just get more exposure to those as alternative breaks, trips start up. So just again, you need to just get yourself into that space and once you go from there, you just don’t know which door will open next.

Stewart Robinette:
I can’t think of a better place to end than the advice that both David and Nupur shared there. What I find really motivating and invigorating from it is that there is a process to be able to do it, but that’s like with anything. But you just have to keep your eyes and ears open for the opportunities and take advantage of it when it comes and those opportunities do come. Don’t be scared and don’t potentially miss one of those opportunities, but we’re getting near the end of our time. It’s a perfect place to end. I wanted to really take a moment to thank both… Nupur for chatting with us today about their experiences, sharing their advice, sharing how it’s changed them, and how they believe that they are able to make the profession better because of it.
I have some things to reflect on now, and I’m sure that those that are listening will also be reflecting on many of the comments made today. I also want to take a moment to thank Roompact for giving me an opportunity to guest host this edition. Finally, I want to thank all of you all that are listening out there. Thanks for joining us on this episode of ResEdChat. If you have an idea of a topic or a person that you’d like to have on the show or hear more about, please feel free to reach out to us at Roompact, and we will make sure to see how we can get that on here. Have a great day, everybody, or night or morning, wherever you may be.

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