Meet Dean Jessica Sarles-Dinsick

A stalwart advocate for international education at GS and beyond, Dean Sarles-Dinsick shares what fuels her passion for facilitating global opportunities, plus her top tips for GS’s international student community.

October 31, 2023

As Associate Dean for International Programs and Special Projects, Jessica Sarles-Dinsick has played a critical role in building and facilitating GS’s innovative International Dual Degree Programs since their very inception. Within the broader Columbia community and higher education scene, Dean Sarles-Dinsick also stands out as a passionate researcher and advocate for global opportunities. We asked Dean Sarles-Dinsick to share her GS story, top tips for international GSers to make the most of Columbia and New York City, and how as part of the GS team she’s worked to push the boundaries of accessibility and innovation in international education for 15-plus years. 

How did you come to be part of the GS community?

Like for many of our students, my GS story started before GS. I did my undergraduate studies in music performance and wanted to be a jazz singer. After graduating, I worked in arts and performance management for a few years before I started to kind of burn out: it’s really difficult to maintain a performance career alongside supporting other people’s performance careers. One of my dearest friends, she worked here on campus for the Department of Classics, and she said I should apply for a job at Columbia; we could have lunch together and see each other all the time. And so, I applied for a single, solitary job at the front desk of Lewisohn Hall, Suite 408 as an administrative assistant. That’s how my GS story began, in 2008, and I’ve been here for 15 years and counting! 

From administrative assistant, I eventually moved into the Operations Coordinator position. This was when we were starting to build the infrastructure for the Dual Degree Programs, and since I had actually majored in French alongside music in college and was a part-time French teacher, I helped with translations and integration in our database systems for the Dual BA Program with Sciences Po. I learned about the Program organically as it was being built from the ground up, and as the Program came into its own and was ready for serious recruitment, I joined the Admissions Team for about two and a half years. When we started adding on additional international partnerships, I moved into the role I’m currently in, first as Senior Assistant Dean and now the Associate Dean for International Programs and Special Projects.

What is your specific role at GS, and what does it consist of?

Dean Jessica Sarles-Dinsick and other GS team members at a visit to Sciences Po

I describe it in two ways, the fancy way and the functional way. The fancy way to think about my role is as an institutional diplomat, where my job is to make sure that our international partnerships are healthy and working the way we want for our students in their day-to-day experiences. Taylor Grace Cook ‘18TC, Assistant Director of International Programs, and myself serve as the hub for all the different teams to interact and coordinate, internally at GS, and externally with our partners. And then the functional description of the role is a lot of spreadsheets and emails! 

Having been part of building the International Dual Degree Programs since their inception, how do you feel they’ve evolved in the last decade and a half? 

The thing that's been so amazing about the programs is how they continue to surprise us, and in the best possible ways. At the start, we grossly underestimated the number of students who would be interested in an experience like this. With the Sciences Po Dual BA, for example, we thought it would maybe have 100 students enrolled in the program across all four years in a steady state. Instead, we have around 100 students in each individual year. 

I think we’ve also learned that while it’s good to have expectations and goals for each program, it’s important to step back and let each program breathe and take on their own personality. There is a template, but each partnership is different because each institution we work with is different, and the groups of students we serve are different. It’s been really lovely to see each program grow, and personally, to work with so many colleagues from around the world who have quickly gone from being professional contacts on the other end of an email to really dear friends.

At Columbia and beyond, you’re a champion of international education, both as a researcher and as an advocate. What are some projects you’ve worked on that stand out to you?

Dean Jessica Sarles-Dinsick NAFSA Association of International Educators presentation

In terms of research, one that comes to mind is “Tracking the ‘Humanitarian Impact’ of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) July 6 Broadcast Message,” a 2020 paper. It came from an online group of international educators that I’m a part of that sprung up during COVID-19, a space for people to congregate and talk about all the different impacts the pandemic was having on international education as a field. A colleague named Molly McSweeney, now Assistant Director for Student and Community Engagement at the University of Pittsburgh’s Global Hub, put a question in the chat of what it would mean for students on an F-1 visa, who need to be enrolled full-time in in-person classes, who were attending schools going fully remote for the fall? I had time that day and decided to crunch some numbers to really understand what that could look like, for universities, for students, and for local economies. 

That got picked up by USA Today, which was wild, but it came from just trying to wrap our heads around what was happening and putting tangible numbers to it. There’s a similar goal behind other research I’ve worked on, especially looking at how to make higher education more accessible for refugee and asylum seeker students. 

As an advocate, something I’m proud of is being on the Board of Directors of First Trip, an organization I was actually introduced to by Sciences Po Dual BA alumnus Michael Rovner ‘18GS. First Trip is a D.C.-based nonprofit that supports students of color studying abroad for the first time. We offer passport workshops, fee waivers or fee funding, scholarships, and mentorship before and after the study abroad experience. We also prioritize travel to nontraditional countries, helping students take their first trip somewhere a bit off the beaten path. 

What fuels your passion for global education?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a kind of internationalist. I’ve always been interested in how people live in different areas of the world, and how it differs from the way I live. For me, education doesn’t just teach functional skills, it teaches citizenship for wherever a student is studying in at that moment. You’re being trained as a citizen of that place. Something that’s important to us as Columbia and GS in our international partnerships is not necessarily exporting a Columbia education to another country, but partnering with local expertise and institutions that already know what they’re doing, know their communities, and know and care for the public good of their places. What creates such meaningful opportunities is the chance to understand the varied priorities that come with different countries, universities, and educational citizenships. 

"The undergraduate experience is like a trampoline. It’s not an endpoint, it’s a starting point."

What advice would you give to current GS students? 

The undergraduate experience is like a trampoline. It’s not an endpoint, it’s a starting point. Applying this especially to your major, I’m very much in favor of studying something you’re really passionate about at the undergraduate level and then going in whatever direction life takes you. And I say this as someone who majored in music and thought I was going to do this one thing my whole life, and then pivoted to something totally different that my music studies still really set me up for. Earning and acquiring knowledge is never wasted.

As a longtime GS community member and New Yorker: what’s something you recommend to GS’s international students to make the most of their time in New York City?

Everyone says this all the time, but I will echo it: Get out of the Columbia and Upper West Side bubble. I think getting to every borough is a good goal because each has so many rich experiences to offer. For me, I like to create themes each summer. This past summer, I organized a pastry crawl. I created a rubric, got really scientific with it! But I truly recommend finding something you love and getting a little bit silly with it. It’s a great way to frame exploration of the city without just wandering around, and you get to do something fun while learning about a new neighborhood or area of town you may not have seen before.