Global Experiences Celebrates 20 Years

Emily Merson

Global Experiences started with the goal of helping US students gain professional experiences abroad.

In 2001, the birth of the internet made it possible for young and unfunded entrepreneurs to create a storefront in a totally new way.

The Global Experiences Story

When my husband, Stephen Reilly, and I returned to the US after graduate school in Sweden to start our careers, we knew that working for someone else wasn’t going to last very long. We had seen the young tech start-ups build something from scratch and we thought, why not us?

We also longed to share our experiences of living, interning, working, and studying abroad with students in the US who didn’t think it was possible for them. I had done a gap year in Europe after high school and interned at the United Nations in Jakarta, Indonesia. Stephen had traveled across Asia and Europe and taught English in Hong Kong before we met each other in Uppsala, Sweden where we did our master’s degrees in Peace and Conflict Research in 1998.

The post-Cold War world was bright with the idea of global cooperation and we were confident that we could make the world a better place by helping more US students have immersive experiences around the world. While I may be jaded 20 years later, I remain inspired that the more people who can truly experience another culture the more peaceful and secure the world will be.

Driven by more passion than experience, Stephen jumped into learning how to build a website (or two) and I took on program development and the one-person sales operation, promoting a range of programs, Teaching English abroad, TEFL training programs, Volunteer programs, Language immersion, and our own internships in Italy. Pre-Google, we posted our programs on this new start-up called Goabroad.com and on the search engines of Alta-Vista and Yahoo.

We were thrilled to have our first cohort of nine participants start their TEFL program in Thailand in August 2001, right before 9/11. Suddenly our degrees in Peace and Conflict research were very applicable to our new roles as international education entrepreneurs and we had our first of many challenges to overcome. But we persevered through the first few years, while Stephen worked in a tech startup and I slogged through a Ph.D., with our first child, Jared, on my lap.

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Like most of the best things in life, it started in Italy. A chance conversation with some US companies in Rome opened up our first internship location in 2002 and internships quickly became the focus, growing to six Italian cities in mainly the creative industries of Fashion, Design, Marketing, Photography, and Journalism.

It was hard at the time for young American college students to get work experience in Italy, and suddenly we had a huge demand for our programs. We developed a matching system and over many years a range of support systems like housing, staff, and emergency management, to ensure students had more than just a placement with a company or organization.

In 2004 we opened our first real office in Alexandria, Virginia with a small team, while Stephen and I moved to Sydney, Australia to open a new office there. We expanded our internship programs to Sydney, London, and Paris. Global Experiences started to find its focus, being ‘somebody’s something’ became our mantra and we were committed to being the best global internship program in the world.

Our next challenge was to not just build a program but to build an organization, and in 2007 we moved ourselves and our team to Annapolis, Maryland, and focused on building a team and a culture that would represent our values and help us expand.

We refined our approach by introducing new technologies, new team systems, and core values that governed how we hired people and how we saw ourselves. Our team grew from 10 to 20 to 50 as we moved offices in Annapolis and expanded our team around the world, growing our programs to new cities, including Washington DC, Dublin, Barcelona, and New York.

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In 2012 we developed an innovative partnership with Gallup Education to use the Clifton StrengthsFinder with our participants and this became a signature differentiator for the Global Experiences program. It also refocused our approach to be participant-centric, we wanted to help our participants find a career they loved.

As our participant numbers grew, we knew that our most important new partner would be universities. A surge in interest in an international internship had meant that study abroad and career offices across the US were now being asked to support a totally new program.

Unlike study abroad, an internship does not have a foreign university partner or a natural academic framework. Slowly we built a network of innovative universities willing to take a risk on this new program model. Early adopters like the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, Salisbury University, Arizona State University, and Muhlenberg College all helped us refine the models and what would be a credit-worthy experience.

The need for global skills and the pressure on universities to deliver career-ready graduates dovetailed with what we could do and began to open some new doors in the higher education community. Our team became active in industry organizations, leading working groups at NAFSA, NSEE, and joining the Forum, but for a decade or more internships did not receive a warm welcome. Thankfully that has changed, so much so that in 2016 we began our own school of record partnership with Fairfield University in Connecticut, and now work with hundreds of US and international universities.

As we look back on 20 years of Global Experiences, the most important thing has always been the people: our team, our alumni, and our community. I always say we are the most people business. We are ‘people-people’ working with people to help them meet other people in another country.

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For the first 10 years, I could almost remember every participant’s name and where they interned. Now it is my greatest pleasure to hear the stories from the transformative experiences they have had interning for an HR company in Dublin, going to a fashion show in Paris and seeing their designs walk down the catwalk, or interning at a marine biology institute in Sydney.

None of this would be possible without the hundreds of people who have worked at Global Experiences in the last 20 years, many of them alumni of the program themselves. My greatest pleasure has been working with so many talented individuals and seeing them go from new hire to seasoned professional. Just like our participants, each of them is known and valued, and GE is always a great place to work.

We have become an innovation-focused Strengths-based culture. We move and change quickly, and it has been an extraordinary ride. With special thanks to just a few former GE’ers: Michael Greto, Lisa Ackerson, Jessica Burns, Amy Schaffer, Joe Guerndl, Alex Paisner, Emily Oliver, and Chrissie Dailey. And to our current amazing team too many to mention, and our two longest-serving teammates: Amy Wilson in many capacities since 2003, and Anna Fornabaio since 2007, our fearless internship guru in Italy.

We also wouldn’t be here without the friendship and kindness of our colleagues in International Education. Our friends Dan, Ed, and Rachael at CRCC Asia, Steve and Lea at Connect 123, Rich at Barcelona SAE, our former GE board of advisors, Brian Stiegler, Jen Ewald, the godfather of internships Mike True, and Tom Bowling who introduced us to Gallup, and to Bob Shannon who knows us so well. Our community has grown so much throughout the years and we are indebted to so many who have believed in our vision and the many ‘great new ideas’ we have regularly.

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In April of 2019, Global Experiences took its next great leap forward joining the AIFS family of programs. It was the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. We have found a happy home for GE within one of the most treasured international education organizations.

While the American Institute for Foreign Study charted new territory in 1963, Global Experiences did the same some 40 years later.

While no one would have predicted 2020, our entrepreneurial team has risen to the challenge and launched a virtual program that is again pushing the bounds of what is possible. In the last six months, we have also reimagined GE by combining into a new team with AIFS Study Abroad and AIFS Customized programs becoming a new larger group called AIFS Abroad.

Having served over 8,000 participants to date we are still always looking ahead to what’s next. The post-pandemic world will be different, but the need for people to experience other cultures in person, and to live abroad, will not be replaced by Zoom.

I am grateful for the privilege to have had this career and for the meaning it has given to my life. The world needs international education more than ever and I look forward to building the next big thing to come and hope to make the world a better place as a result.

Written by Emily Merson, Executive Director, AIFS Abroad, and CEO and Co-founder, Global Experiences

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