For more than two decades, Sue McDougal, director of international student programs and associate director of the Pugh Center, has been a pillar of support for Colby’s international students, hailing from all around the globe. Now, after 23 years on Mayflower Hill, McDougal is retiring from the College Aug. 21. Colby Magazine Staff Writer Kardelen Koldas ’15 sat down with McDougal for a conversation about her times at Colby and post-retirement plans.
So, Sue, how did your Colby journey begin?
First, I was hired part time by the Admissions Office from September until February, which I absolutely loved. Then Colby had an interim position open from February until summer in the Dean of Students Office. And so I applied for that and was hired. And then in June, they advertised for both that job as a permanent position and also for the international affairs position. They offered me a choice, and I accepted the one working with international students.
Because I found it fascinating. It just sounded like something new, something exciting, and something that continued my love of travel and living in other countries. And I have to say, it was the best choice I made. I have met so many great individuals and really have lifelong friends. I met Bruce [McDougal, husband] here. He was part of our host family program. It was a great start.
Sounds like it! How did your work evolve?
When I started, the number of international students entering each fall was in the mid-20s. The UWC program started shortly after I was here, and Colby went from approximately 65 international students in all four class years to about 260, where we’re at now. In the beginning, a lot of my job was programming—meeting with students, helping students individually, setting up the host family program and the International Extravaganza. As time went by, it’s almost switched because of the amount of time spent on immigration documents and updates. That’s pulled me away a bit from time spent with individual students. It’s really important to speak with students, know about their families, and know if somebody is struggling at home or on campus.
You were a one-person team, helping with visas, taxes, and OPTs while running so many programs. Why did you emphasize programming?
I think you need to have those things because they’re part of the Colby experience. It’s part of helping students learn about a different culture, become part of the Colby community, and feel like it’s their school and their life. It’s part of becoming who they are.
Tell me how the host family program got started.
There was a small existing host family program when I came. I ran with it and said, “Maybe we need to make this a really cool program that not only benefits Colby students but Maine families that want to learn about another country or have their children experience somebody from another country.” The host family program—I’m very proud of it.
How did you work with such a diverse group of students?
When you’re dealing with students from 56 different countries, there are huge differences in who they are. The similarity is they’re all experiencing being away from home, not having families nearby, dealing with things on their own. They have to figure these things out, and I’m one of their connections to help them with those things.
How has your work impacted you and the way you live your life?
It has really made me who I am. The students are more than students. They’re family. I don’t think my life would be anywhere near as fulfilling if I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with students from all over the world.
Any fun memories to share?
Some of the very first winters, when it snowed, we would email everybody and say, “OK, we’re going sliding by the chapel or on Runnals Hill.” And everybody would come out, go sliding, and get totally soaked. And we would come back to the office. I used to have three coffeemakers and piles of chocolate that students brought me from their home countries. Students would peel off all these wet clothes, pile them in the hallway, and sit on the floor. This whole place smelled like a wet dog. We would share coffee and chocolates—and the conversations were amazing.
Students also turned to you at difficult times. What were those like?
Really difficult times were dealing with students when they lost somebody at home and couldn’t travel back to be with family. When students make the choice to study far from their home, they understand that loss is a real possibility while they are away, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it happens.
You had some really tough times to navigate as well. What tops the list?
Hurricane Irene [in 2011]. The students were stuck everywhere, not just at home in their home country, but on their connecting flights. I had students stuck in the Atlanta airport and students in the Boston airport, and we were trying to pick up students in Waterville who came by bus. I remember the very last student was from Afghanistan. We got him here at three in the morning only to wake him up a couple of hours later so that he would make his COOT.
You wrote messages about your retirement to former and current students. What was writing those like?
I thought it would be great fun, but it was incredibly tough. There were a lot of tears because the memories just kept flooding back. And I wanted to say so many things. I didn’t want it to sound like a goodbye. I wanted it to sound like, “I’m retiring, but it’s just a new step in my life, and I’m so excited.” The responses I’ve gotten have been so rewarding.
In your messages, you mentioned wanting to travel around the world.
So many students have said, “You have to come to my country. I want you to see where I live.” And then every year, we’d have the international seniors reception, where families came and were always inviting me, always. It would be the one piece that would complete my understanding of my students. I would love to have that final piece to make a whole picture of who that person was.
Any last words to your students?
Oh, I’m coming! You just wait!
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