Amid a series of departures of staff members of color, Akeem Burgess vacated his position as the Assistant Director of the Office of International Student Affairs (OISA) at the end of September 2022. He served in the newly created role for only a month and a half and has now returned to working at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, which specializes in teaching chaplaincy and religious studies.
According to OISA Director Morgan Keller, Burgess started his work about a week before this year’s International Student Orientation (ISO) started on Aug. 29. During his time in the Office, Burgess was primarily in charge of community engagement with international students on campus. He helped organize events and managed the International Buddy Program (IBP) with IBP Student Coordinator James Chen ’23. Burgess also came up with the idea of taking students in the IBP on a trip to the Durham County Fair on Sept. 24, which was a success.
“Students related to him and connected to him,” Keller said.
Indeed, international students interviewed by The Argus all spoke fondly of Burgess.
“Akeem was one of the staff I always looked forward to meeting in every ISO meeting,” Ugochukwu Osondu ’26 wrote in a message to The Argus. “His ever-smiling demeanor and ability to relate with college students made him a natural person to want to be with every time. I remember going to the [Durham Fair] with him [where] he spent his time making sure my friend and I had the best time, being unfamiliar with the setting. I can genuinely say he made that day one of the best so far [since] coming to Wesleyan.”
Keller himself also recalled positive experiences working with Burgess.
“He struck me as a very thoughtful person,” Keller said. “He asked a lot of good questions, and I thought that he took good initiative. He brought a kind of fun lightheartedness and had a nice sense of humor, but also a very kind of genuine warmth toward us as colleagues [and] students. I’d like to think, even though he was only here for a month and a half, students who had interactions with him found him to be approachable, friendly and comfortable. I think he was student-centered in the way he approached the work, so I really thought he was a great fit for our office.”
According to Keller, Burgess left for personal reasons and not on account of any interpersonal issues within the team at OISA.
“From my communication with Akeem, I think he enjoyed the work and there were no interpersonal issues in our office,” Keller said. “He liked working with my colleague, [Assistant Director Janice Watson], and I. He liked the students here. He liked our mission as an office. But I think ultimately, he had a better opportunity back at his previous institution in Hartford. And he also mentioned to me that he wanted to be back in a theological space. So I think that the…actual kind of mission of the institution where he was previously working was also appealing to him and ultimately inspired him to go back there.”
Wesleyan has no theology program, and some students have previously commented on a lack of spaces and support for practicing faith. Support for faith communities has also fluctuated in recent years: There is currently no Catholic chaplain, and the Muslim and Protestant chaplain positions were both vacant from summer 2020 to October 2022.
The position that Burgess previously held in OISA was new. According to International Student Advisory Board (ISAB) Co-Chair Robyn Wong ’23, ISAB had been advocating for years for more full-time staff in OISA.
Keller stressed that the purpose of this new role was to support international students beyond issues with immigration.
“Part of my vision [for OISA] was to…do a lot more in the way of orientation and student engagement,” Keller said. “To do…programs and events which really bring the community together and ideally even create more relationship building across identities, including with U.S. domestic students. ISO is a perfect example of transitional support for international students, but programs like IBP—that’s also a more extended transitional support program. But for us to really do some of those great things, I think we really need the support of a third staff member whose primary focus is that work.”
When Keller became OISA Director in September 2021, the only other full-time staff member in the Office was Watson, whose title has recently been specified as Assistant Director of International Student Compliance to better reflect the focus of her work. The gap in staffing led Keller to submit a proposal to fund a new, permanent position in OISA. In 2021, Keller chaired the search committee for the newly created position. The committee hired Burgess during its second search, after a failed first attempt.
“I really saw a need from the beginning to create a position in which the main focus would be the non-immigration pieces,” Keller said. “Of course, we need to hire someone who has competency or experience with the immigration aspects of the job. But what we’re really looking for is someone who…brings a passion for working with students and helping build on and innovate new programs and events to enhance intercultural learning and help us move toward Wesleyan’s goal of campus internationalization.”
Wong emphasized that Burgess’ personal experience as an international student on an F-1 Visa was a particularly important addition to OISA.
“Akeem was a very promising hire,” Wong wrote in a message to The Argus. “He was an international student himself, and seemed to have great skill and experience with interacting with international students.”
Burgess’ departure meant the loss of the only OISA staff who could personally relate to the experiences of the University’s international students. The news was not publicly communicated to the international student community, and many students who spoke to The Argus expressed their shock. According to Associate Vice President for Human Resources Lisa Brommer, staff departures and new staff members are included in the HR newsletter but may not be announced directly to students.
“I only heard of his departure weeks after he left and was saddened,” Osondu wrote. “I couldn’t imagine that someone so kind had left without warning.”
Wong pointed out that Burgess’ abrupt departure highlights systemic issues at the University.
“His departure after six weeks is incredibly disappointing, but it is also unsurprising.” Wong added. “It speaks to Wesleyan’s persistent problem of poor staff and faculty retention, especially of [people of color] and [women of color].”
Xiran Tan ’23.5, another international student who spoke with The Argus, agreed.
“I do think the school is overworking staff, especially staff of color and women,” Tan said. “For example, the [OISA Director] before Morgan, Chia-Ying [Pan], was doing so much work, and, especially during COVID, she was taking on so much burden. With international students, staff in OISA are oftentimes their only point of contact that really knows their situation and offers emotional support.”
Tan highlighted the importance of OISA’s support in their experience at the start of the pandemic.
“I was hearing that in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, people were literally lining up outside of the office in the basement and crying,” Tan said. “Like in the whole hallway, they were waiting and crying.”
Pan left her position as the former OISA Director in Spring 2021 after accepting a position at Brown University, in a sudden departure similar to Burgess’. At the time, students were already concerned about the University’s retention of staff members of color.
“From my own perspective as an international student, it was rather demoralizing,” Anna Nguyen ’22 wrote in a message to The Argus for an article published on Sept. 20, 2021. “And I can’t pinpoint why we can’t quite retain our staff for a long time…. I think the two issues here are: 1) how do we build a stronger structure for OISA and 2) how can Wesleyan as an institution build a community and work environment that women of color staff feels like they belong to and can take ownership of so they don’t feel like they have to leave to do all the wonderful things they envision for their career in higher education.”
Pan and Burgess were not the only student-facing staff who had recently departed from the University. In the last six months, at least five other staff members who were central in student support have vacated their positions—including former Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Alison Williams ’81, former Catholic Chaplain William J. Wallace, former Support, Healing, Activism, and Prevention Education (SHAPE) Director Johanna Debari, former Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) psychotherapist Alison Burge, and former CAPS Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Tamanna Rahman, APRN.
Staff members of color have been disproportionately represented in recent departures. According to Brommer, the average staff and faculty turnover rate in fiscal year 2022 was approximately 6%, of which staff of color represented approximately 28%. This is slightly higher than the overall percentage of staff members who are people of color, which is currently 23%.
Brommer stated that in fiscal year 2022, there was a slight decrease from previous years in the rate at which staff of color leave the University. She also highlighted the University’s increased attention to recruiting diverse candidates.
“Thus far in [fiscal year 2023], 47% of our new staff are people of color,” Broomer wrote in an email to The Argus. “There is also more racial diversity in our applicant pools—2/3 of our staff searches have more racial diversity in the applicant pool than in previous years. We have hired an additional recruitment specialist to help us focus on direct recruitment and search teams are more focused on increasing diversity in the pools as well.”
As OISA looks to begin its third search for the position, now listed as “Assistant Director of International Student Engagement,” Keller remains optimistic despite the historical staff turnover.
“While it is true that the first director before me, Chia-Ying Pan, departed for a position at Brown last year and we recently lost Akeem to an opportunity back at his previous institution, the truth is that just four years ago OISA was an office of one professional staff member,” Keller wrote. “I think if you consider that since then we have grown to a staff of two and obtained funding to grow our team to three professionals, which should happen before the end of the spring semester, our staffing has improved in a relatively short period of time and looks promising moving forward.”
Keller explained that the search committee will develop a shortlist of candidates. Then, key campus stakeholders will conduct individual interviews with the finalists.
“[Some individual interviews will be conducted by] a mix of different staff members that we collaborate closely with—campus partners,” Keller said. “Then there’s always a group that is only students—that are oftentimes members of the International Student Advisory Board and sometimes OISA student employees. We even try to get one or two international graduate students to also ask questions related to the international grad student experience.”
Keller stressed that he values student input, and it played a substantial role in Burgess’ hiring.
“In…leading the search for this position and making that ultimate recommendation to Human Resources, I very much value what students say about candidates,” Keller said. “And I look really closely at a lot of their points, especially related to the international student experience, which can be very diverse.”
Keller added that it would be ideal to hire a new staff member who is a person of color and has previous experience as an international student in the U.S.
“Hearing about a feeling amongst international students about the importance of seeing someone of color—even ideally a former international student—work in the office that is there to support them, it totally resonates with me,” Keller said. “I totally see that and agree with that. And so if it can work out, I’m definitely supportive of it.”
Keller explained that the position does not require candidates to have been international students, but for such roles in international student services offices, candidates who have studied, lived, volunteered, or worked abroad are often preferred.
“Without a doubt, if we can find someone who has all the qualifications—the talent, passion, experience, and knowledge—and that extra unique aspect of [being a former international student], [if] when students look at our office or even just go to our webpage, they see a person of color and read that this person was once an international student, they might be more inclined to…talk with that person or just feel even more welcome in our space,” Keller said.
Going forward, Tan also said they hope the University will dedicate greater effort to supporting international students.
“I think the school does need to put more resources on issues [related to international students], considering how much money they’re gaining from international students,” Tan said. “And also, I think awareness training for international[-students]-related issues needs to be [improved]. Because a lot of the professors don’t even know about CPT and OPT [Curricular Practical Training and Optional Practical Training, two types of work international students are allowed to perform in the U.S.]. Also just microaggressions like, ‘Oh, you speak English really well,’ and stuff like that.”
Chen, the IBP Student Coordinator who used to work closely with Burgess, expressed his hope for greater emphasis on student voices in OISA.
“I hope in the future OISA can do more recruiting for on-campus students,” Chen wrote in an email to The Argus. “Because Wes students may be the ones who actually want to and know how to contribute to the Wes community.”
Keller is confident that OISA will fill the vacant position before the end of the spring semester.
“I won’t lie, [the search has] been challenging,” Keller confessed. “But I want that new person to feel supported and have trust with me that they’ll know I’ll listen, and that I’ll do my best to help them, with the hope that they’ll stay here for a long time, so we can have continuity of the work we do [instead of developing] a reputation as a revolving door.”
Keller has envisioned what he intends to do to improve his workplace, in order to ensure that the new member will stay in the long term.
“I’m gonna continue trying to put even more effort into really successfully onboarding someone and having very regular communication with them, regular check-ins,” Keller said. “[To build] that trust so that they can come to me as their supervisor with any issues they have, especially if it’s something that’s affecting them in terms of their outlook on working at OISA or at Wesleyan.”
In the meantime, Keller said he hopes international students on campus will continue to feel welcomed and supported by OISA, despite Burgess’ departure.
“I really think that as far as the culture in our office, we’re…hardworking,” Keller said. “OISA genuinely cares about Wesleyan’s remarkable international student community and continues to sedulously and earnestly support it in various ways. We are determined to soon grow into a dynamic team of three who will provide even more holistic support for students.”
Anne Kiely contributed reporting.
Sida Chu can be reached at email@example.com.