Faculty Profile: Michael A. Brzezinski
Posted: 19-Aug-03
Michael A. Brzezinski
Michael A. Brzezinski
Director of the Office of International Students and Scholars

Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Studies

In his two positions at Purdue as director of the Office of International Students and Scholars (ISS) and as assistant professor of education at the Department of Educational Studies, Michael Brzezinski successfully combines two long standing interests: his passion for education and his curiosity about things international. Although he may not have envisioned this when he dreamed of becoming a track and field/cross country coach as a young boy, in retrospect it appears as though all his educational and career choices have naturally led to his current position at ISS, a position he has held since June 1993.

Brzezinski credits his many good teachers and his interest in working with children for his initial decision to study physical education. He obtained his bachelor's degree in physical education from the State University of New York College at Cortland and became a women's cross country team coach and a physical education instructor there. As a graduate student at the same institution, he decided to go to China to work on his master's degree. Why did he choose China? 'I think some of it was the newness,' recalls Brzezinski. 'It was 1981 and China was just opening to the West. People were interested to know more about China and I was as well. And as a Christian I thought I could contribute to the society. At that time China was engaged in its Four Modernization Drives and education was one of the four targeted areas. I really believed it was a perfect opportunity.'

What was meant to be a one year study abroad trip ended up being a life-long commitment. During the two years that Brzezinski spent in China as an exchange student, he finished his master's degree and studied the Chinese language. He was the only American student in his school. The other seven international students came from seven different countries. In this situation, Chinese was their common language and Brzezinski studied very hard to improve his conversational Chinese skills to catch up with the other students. 'That was very hard work, but very fulfilling,' says Brzezinski. 'I could see myself grow in the language as I studied it in the morning and participated in the different activities with the track and field team in the afternoon. I was really using what I was learning. I had the environment to begin to take what was in the classroom to the real world. That's how one learns a language.'

His language learning experience gave Brzezinski's educational interests a new focus. He went back to the US to study the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) and returned to China to teach conversational English. At the same time, following his initial desire to contribute to educational reform in China, he became the chief representative of Educational Services Exchange with China (ESEC), Inc. in Beijing. While working for this American educational company, Brzezinski negotiated educational contracts around the country with universities and state and municipal governments. In the five years that he worked in this capacity, the company increased the number of locations in which it offered training programs from five to twenty four. At the same time, the number of teachers climbed to ninety, and the course offerings were expanded to include international trade in addition to English language courses.

Working as a teacher and administrator in China, Brzezinski had ample opportunities to observe and become adept at the subtleties of the Chinese language and culture. The Chinese culture, which is a source of continuous fascination for him, has a much more indirect communication style and a variety of indirect means of dealing with conflict and difficult issues than the West.

One of the more difficult things was learning how to say 'no' in a polite indirect way to his Chinese students who tended to be far more persistent than American students. 'In Chinese society persistence is a virtue' Brzezinski explains. 'Even though there are rules and regulations, there is usually a back door. As an outsider I had to learn to be friendly but firm and develop the ability to say 'No' without actually stating the word, 'No.' That is difficult, but I can do it,' he laughs. In his negotiations with local government officials, for example, Brzezinski learned that instead of directly saying 'No' to a request that he knew he could not grant, it was more acceptable for him to say: 'I'll have to check with the president of our company.' In Chinese, if you say that you have to raise the issue to the next level in the hierarchy, this is an indirect signal that the answer is 'No.'

His Chinese experiences made such an indelible impression on Brzezinski that he decided to maintain his interest and involvement with Chinese students after he returned to the United States. He was able to do that by working first as an intern and later as an international student counselor in the Office of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of Houston. During the five years he worked in that office, his interests grew to encompass all international students in the United States.

While he was at the University of Houston, Brzezinski also further pursued his interest in education by becoming a doctoral student at the University of Houston's College of Education. His focus within the field of education changed yet again, this time to the sociological foundations of education. His doctoral research addressed the Chinese brain drain phenomenon. He traced Chinese students' educational migration from elementary school, middle school, high school to their aspirations of coming to the United States. The ultimate goal of the research was to establish what variables determined Chinese students' decision to go home, or to stay in the United States more permanently after graduating from an American university.

In 1993, Brzezinski received his educational doctorate in educational leadership and cultural studies and, with all his previous experience, proved to be the ideal candidate for the position of the director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at Purdue. He came to Purdue at a time when the university was changing its view of international students and was ready to take steps to increase the number of undergraduate students from abroad. This was prompted by predictions that the number of Indiana high school graduates was expected to steadily decline until 2004. In order to be able to keep its enrollment at the same level, the university needed to increase the number of nonresident undergraduates and, therefore, became interested in recruiting international students.

Along with the Office of Admissions coupled with all of the academic schools of the university, Brzezinski's office spearheaded this effort. Brzezinski and Doug Christiansen, now the assistant vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions, devised the first ever international undergraduate admissions recruitment plan, which led to an increase from approximately 600 international undergraduate students in 1993 to over 2,000 students in 2003. In addition to using the World Wide Web and direct mailings to advertise Purdue around the world, the university became a member of the European Council of International Schools (ECIS), which organizes targeted trips to high schools in Asia, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. During these recruitment trips, high school students in other countries have the opportunity to listen to presentations about Purdue and other schools and to learn about academic programs first-hand.

The alliance with ECIS proved to be extremely fruitful and soon yielded a significant increase in the number of foreign applications. However, in order for the entire operation to be successful, the ISS office had to be prepared to handle the increased number of applications. 'You need to have first and foremost your own house in order, so that your procedures and processes are efficient and capable of handling an increase in the volume of applications,' says Brzezinski. 'If you are successful you are going to receive more applications. And we did. During some years we increased the number of applications by fifty percent. You may say "Well, the difference between 1,400 and 2,000 applications isn't a lot." Well, it is when you only have six staff. This kind of work is very labor intensive, much more so than domestic admissions.' Thus, in addition to recruitment trips, the overall plan involved the improvement of internal processes and procedures, collaboration with the Office of Admissions and obtaining additional staff, as well as securing additional funds to support the program.

Proud as he is of the increase in numbers, Brzezinski is equally intent on maintaining the high quality of services his office offers to the students. It is important to him that his office be viewed as both friendly and efficient. 'These are the two key words,' he explains. 'Friendly, because if students don't see that you really care, it doesn't matter how much you know or how much you help them. But also efficient, because if you are friendly and not helpful, if you have erroneous information and do things incorrectly, that doesn't help either. So, the winning combination is friendly and efficient.'

How does Brzezinski achieve this winning combination? He tries to hire the right personnel and then create a friendly but firm accountable system in which people have both the responsibility and the authority to do their jobs. Above all, he tries to be knowledgeable about what is going on in the office so that he can provide guidance to his employees. 'In a sense a director is like a coach,' he explains. 'You're there to encourage and to refine and to help people to improve. If you expect people to be friendly and efficient with the clientele, you need to be friendly and efficient with them.'

In addition to admissions and immigration counseling, Brzezinski wants his office to play a major role in helping international students have a well-rounded and interesting experience beyond the academic work they naturally focus on while they are at Purdue. The ISS office now offers a variety of cultural and educational programs which allow international students to make friends with local community residents (International Friendship Program), speak in public schools about their home country and their culture (GO Purdue), and become introduced to Purdue and Lafayette/West Lafayette during an ongoing weekly orientation series. Both Brzezinski and his family have found Purdue and the area to be very welcoming and have enjoyed living here. Through the programming his office provides, Brzezinski shows international students that they are welcome at Purdue.

In addition to his busy schedule at the ISS office, Brzezinski also holds an assistant professor position in Purdue's Department of Educational Studies and teaches two classes every year. In the fall, he teaches a seminar course for freshmen that focuses on international issues. The students in this class are members of the Global Village Learning Community. Brzezinski enjoys watching them bond together and develop a common perspective during their first semester at Purdue. His spring class in Intercultural Education attracts master's students in curriculum instruction or educational studies. This class explores various international educational issues on college campuses, such as study abroad, intercultural communication, the history of international education and the definition of international education. The class is frequently attended by international students and it typically has seven or eight different countries represented.

Between the two positions, Brzezinski clearly enjoys being able to pursue his two life-long interests: education and international issues. He also enjoys the variety involved in his job. Each day is an unknown: in addition to his scheduled appointments, he may have to answer a variety of inquiries and requests from other offices, counselors, colleagues and students; he may need to meet his staff to discuss various issues; he may have to deal with crisis situations such as visa denials, or meet with students or faculty one-on-one. He enjoys this variety as well as 'the ability to help shape a bigger picture point of view with the direction of the office and to continue to try to make it better,' he says. 'We've had so many changes: the number of staff, the number of applications that we receive, the number of programs that we offer. So there's always change. And I like that challenge to try and make things better and to have more offerings and still maintain the essential services and an efficient service along with a friendly smile. I enjoy that.'

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