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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

East Germany Native Building a Career in Study-Abroad Programs

By Sherry DiBari

Heidi Fischer's journey to earning her doctorate in higher education at Old Dominion University might have well been decided in middle school.

In the fifth grade, Fischer had to choose a second language to study, Russian or English.

Fischer grew up in Stradtroda, East Germany, a small town two hours south of Berlin, which at that time was under Communist rule.

"We had pictures of Marx and Lenin at the front of our classrooms," Fischer said. "And then (after reunification) Marx and Lenin came down and the teachers hung up other things that weren't Communist affiliated."

Fischer, who chose English, eventually ended up as a high school exchange student at Eastern Randolph High School in North Carolina. "It was an All-American high school experience," she said. "I even joined the marching band."

After earning an associate degree from Randolph Community College, she went on to earn two bachelor's degrees; one in French and another in International Business from High Point University.

"By that point, I had really fallen in love with the culture here," she said. "And I liked the idea that I could be independent. I was 18 when I first arrived and lived most of my adult years here."

Fischer added a master's in international affairs from American University, then spent 13 years working with international programs at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and High Point University.

For her doctorate, Fischer chose ODU's Darden College of Education and Professional Studies. "What sold me was the admissions interview and conversation with Dr. (Dennis) Gregory," she said. "He did a really good job explaining the program, the structure of the program, and the support and sense of community."

That support system, particularly from her peers, helped Fischer transition from the workplace to student life.

"We just supported each other," she said. "Even now, we share job ads with each other. I really wasn't expecting that. I thought it would be much more cutthroat, everyone out for themselves in terms of publishing or conferences. And it's just been much more of a family feel."

At ODU, Fischer continued her focus on study-abroad programs. As a member of the Future Faculty Fellows program, she worked directly with faculty mentor Laura Smithers, assistant professor in educational foundations and leadership, on research related to virtual exchange programs on community college campuses.

In March, Fischer defended her dissertation virtually. "The nice thing about defending on Zoom was that I had 25 people at my defense in a room that normally holds six," she said. "Folks and friends that lived in other states were able to join and be part of that moment."

"All of the faculty in the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership are proud of Heidi and her academic work," said Mitchell Williams, Fischer's dissertation chair and associate professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership. "I am very confident that she will have an outstanding career in higher education."

Fischer now has time to spend on her other passions - singing and animal welfare.

She sang with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus before the pandemic hit. "I have been in church choirs all my life," she said. "Lately, I've just been singing at my home."

Her three cats, Theo, Sammie and Foster, will also get a little more attention.

Fischer, who is searching for a higher education position, will continue to be a strong advocate for in-person, study-abroad programs.

"For me, I don't know that it would have had the impact had I just done a virtual exchange," she said. "It's important to see in person and learn how we think differently in different countries.

"Given all the social unrest and difficulties and tensions that we're experiencing, and certainly we have experienced, because of COVID, we could all do well with understanding each other a little better. And I just think studying abroad, works toward that."


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