Students looking to study abroad have a new ally as Catherine Hutchison Winnie takes the reins of the Office of International Programs (OIP) this month. No stranger to Harvard, Winnie spent two years of her childhood in Winthrop House as the daughter of former House masters William Hutchison and Virginia Quay Hutchison, and returned as assistant director of study abroad in the early 1990s. She’s back at Harvard after a 13-year absence during which she developed study abroad programs as an associate dean at Smith College, assistant dean at Yale University, and founding director of academic enhancement programs at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
When she last left Harvard in 1994, Winnie recalls a study abroad program that sometimes made international study difficult for undergraduates. “When I worked here in the early ’90s, I think I personally knew every student that went abroad,” she said. “Since then, the number of students spending time away from Harvard has grown significantly as the college has placed importance on this aspect of undergraduate education.”
Although more undergraduates are going abroad than ever before, Winnie sees a distinct challenge in ensuring that each student’s experience is valuable.
“In addition to the goal of providing every student with the opportunity and resources he or she needs to go abroad, we want to increase the quality and significance of these experiences,” said Winnie. “Right now we know that last year 519 students studied abroad, but what was the nature of that experience? Was it only for a week doing research, or was it longer and more intense? Did they experience full cultural immersion, or were they isolated in an American bubble? Part of a Harvard education should be a heightened awareness of the individual as a member of a global community. Living abroad often provides the most profound experience of this phenomenon.”
Winnie’s own path to her career in study abroad has been somewhat unorthodox. While writing her dissertation for a Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Michigan, she began working at Harvard, advising undergraduates in study abroad options. She said, “I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I wanted to advise students about international programs. Over the years I’ve found that helping students fashion their own international experiences serves my interests in teaching and exploring different cultures.”
Winnie’s cultural curiosity was first piqued when her father was named a Fulbright Scholar and relocated the family to Berlin. While there, she moved in with a German host family and attended a German school.
“It was unlike anything I experienced before,” she said. “Here I was, a girl from an academic, progressive family from Cambridge living with an archconservative German family. Living there opened my eyes to a world that only existed in books. I got to see cities, cathedrals, works of art, and ancestral graveyards that I couldn’t access from home.”
Since her initial year in Germany, Winnie has traveled throughout six continents and studied several languages, including French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Amharic. She has taught at the University of Mainz in Germany as well as at a language institute in Bogotá, Colombia. In 2005, she and husband Larry Winnie traveled to Ethiopia where they adopted their two daughters, Lidya and Samerawit.
Winnie’s personal effort to turn her own study abroad situation into a meaningful experience most informs her work advising students. During her junior year at Swarthmore College, she returned to Europe for a year to study in Strasbourg, where she personally refashioned a program to better suit her needs.
“That year abroad lies near the heart of what makes this job so important to me. It gives me the opportunity to help students pursue independent, individually tailored international experiences where they will learn to interact with different cultures and take responsibility for their own education as global citizens.”