story Anna Evtushenko
With Anastasia Vrachnos, Dean of the Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE), you never know what to expect.
I came to speak to her for a feature profile before she leaves Yale-NUS College, and was suddenly invited along to pick up her kids from preschool. Ms. Vrachnos leaves at the end of March to join Princeton University as Vice Provost for International Affairs and Operations. As the inaugural Dean of CIPE, she led a team committed to providing local and international academic, research and professional opportunities for students. In an email to students, she explained that she was leaving to live closer to extended family and serve her alma mater.
“How are you feeling right now?” I asked.
She laughed and said, “That’s a hard one. I’m thrilled for the adventure ahead. At the same time, I’m leaving feeling like I will never have an environment that suits me as well as this one: working with students who are so pioneering, and faculty who are so entrepreneurial and willing to work collaboratively … This will always remain a most special time in my life. Both personally and professionally, two and a half years of Yale-NUS equals a decade-worth of things I have learned and experienced.
“I have to say that another amazing thing about Yale-NUS is the level of appreciation and intimacy with the students and the amount of handwritten notes I’ve gotten … For those of us who have worked in different educational institutions, having a relationship like that with students, between students and between colleagues—it’s irreplaceable. I hope we continue to work on it at Yale-NUS—making more explicit the habits of our best selves.”
As we picked up Kiki and Zoe, three and one respectively, from preschool, she said, half-jokingly:
“Parenting is experiential learning to the nth degree. It just takes it to a whole new level. Living in Singapore has been so incredible for our young family: the safety, but more importantly the multiculturalism–that’s something I will really miss in Princeton. Ask my daughter what her favorite food is and it’s satay, Chinese noodles and sushi. And she insists on eating sushi with chopsticks, a three-and-a-half-year-old!”
Ms. Vrachnos has previously worked as a teacher, investment banker and photojournalist, so I asked how she got into the international experience sphere.
She said, “[I was] teaching [English] in the Bronx, which was a high-needs district of New York City … And then [Princeton in Asia] started looking for an executive director and I was thinking ‘what a great job that would be’… and then ‘Could I?.. Nooo.’ And then I was like ‘Oh well, what the heck, my name rhymes with Asia, I should try’.
“My background for that was very nontraditional, though investment banking really helped. I’d recommend that your path is non-linear—with experiences that help you grow but which people also recognize as valuable. Because when you go and do something that they don’t recognize, you have something to fall back on that’s a common currency, and that’s really helpful,” she said.
When we stopped at Kent Vale to drop off her children, I noticed that her apartment was almost empty. “We’ve been living like this for three weeks … Basically camping, because all our stuff is already on the boat going back to Princeton. This sort of mental and physical paring down to things that actually mean something to you is a great human exercise. And you guys will have that opportunity soon,” Ms. Vrachnos said.
As we were about to return to campus, she added: “I’d like to say two things. Firstly, about the CIPE team: the measure of success in a role like mine is how quickly you make yourself obsolete. You build a team with diversity and different points of view and see what ideas they bring to the table. And then you can leave and let them run free. I feel like leaving now is the best, because CIPE is in an incredible place and will be able to sustain itself.
“I’d also like to bring up what one of the students sent to me: ‘In a way it’s good that you’re leaving, because a lot of us have come to rely on you to push us out of our comfort zones, and now we need to step up and do it ourselves’.”
Quotes have been edited for clarity and concision.