Favorite cities: Kyoto, Siena, Amsterdam, London, Cape Town; Best UB memory: Going to The Library, a bar/restaurant on Bailey Avenue, with other international students; Languages: Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia), French, English (photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89)
When giving a tour of the sunny World Education Services (WES) headquarters at Manhattan’s southernmost tip, Mariam Assefa, EdM ’79, enjoys pointing out that the Statue of Liberty is clearly visible in the distance from the office’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
As the organization’s executive director, Assefa, who was born and raised in Ethiopia, helps international citizens study and work in the United States by overseeing the complicated process of evaluating their educational credentials.
“There’s an acknowledgment now that there are strong educational institutions worldwide. Our greatest challenge is the amount of information we have to handle on a daily basis,” says Assefa, who began processing files 26 years ago at what is now considered the world’s leading credential-evaluation service. “The number of people traveling, moving and pursuing international study has grown exponentially in recent years.”
Assefa studied literature in France before arriving at UB’s English Language Institute (ELI) in 1973 to improve her English skills. “When I was growing up, everyone wanted to study in the U.S. because we heard a lot about American culture and became curious. It seemed more youthful and casual compared to Europe.”
Working with international students as a UB resident adviser during her ELI days was an influential experience for Assefa with regard to her future, which she initially thought would involve teaching English as a second language after finishing her master’s degree. “At UB, I discovered there was a professional group of people who pursued careers devoted to improving the international student experience,” she says.
When Assefa arrived at WES in 1981 after a brief teaching stint—assuming it would be a part-time, temporary stop for her—the organization had only three full-time employees. When the person running it left a few months later, Assefa was asked to stay and run the place.
Today, WES has more than 100 employees in New York City and Toronto. “The growth and increased visibility of the organization has been extraordinary,” notes Assefa, whose duties now consist primarily of general management and travel 25 percent of the time. “There is much more of a need for what we do, and people have a much greater chance of getting their credentials recognized than they did 20 years ago.”
When asked if many of her employees are from other nations, Assefa smiles and replies: “This is New York.”
Story by Mara McGinnis, BA ’97