This new year we welcomed Malene Torp as the new Executive Director at DIS after an extensive international search and candidate interview process. One month into her new position, we sat down with Malene to find out more about her 12-year history at DIS, ask her about her future plans for the organization, and discuss the current trends in study abroad and where DIS fits into it all.
DIS: Firstly, congratulations on your appointment as the Executive Director of DIS – it is now one month since you started in your new role, how is the transition going?
Malene Torp: Thank you! The first month has been a smooth transition. As you know, I have been with DIS for many years and I have been part of the strategy which has taken DIS to where we are now. In my new role, I feel confident that I have something to bring to the table and that I can be successful in developing DIS further and bringing the organization into the future. One reason I feel confident is because I know DIS is a very strong organization: I am very happy with the quality and competencies of the faculty and staff and their commitment to the mission of DIS. They work exceptionally hard to optimize the student experience.
DIS: You might just be starting out in your role as Executive Director, but your history with DIS goes back 12 years. How did your DIS story begin?
MT: I studied political science at the University of Copenhagen and I was a Fulbright scholar at NYU. That personal, first-hand experience of the American higher education system was the reason I was initially hired by DIS. Since then, I have worked as a faculty member, Program Director for International Business and Global Economics, and then as Academic Director in charge of curriculum development and the pedagogical profile of DIS. In 2008, I became Associate Director before stepping up to Executive Director. So you could say I know DIS quite well!
DIS: What changes can we expect to see at DIS under your leadership?
MT: One of our significant characteristics as an organization is to never sit still – so there will be changes but they will mainly be incremental changes.
One change we have already made is to introduce a sustainable enrollment strategy. Growth in student enrollment over the last few years has made it possible for us to offer more choice in terms of courses, cultural immersion opportunities, and housing options. The size of DIS is now what we want it to be and we can now focus even more on the quality of what we provide – ensuring class sizes are kept small (they are 21 students on average), focusing more on professional development of staff and faculty, and developing cultural engagement programming.
In addition to this continued effort to improve the overall quality of the DIS academic program, I see two other areas of primary focus: strengthening our collaboration with our partner schools in the U.S., and working towards the creation of a more holistic student experience at DIS.
DIS: DIS has always worked closely with partners in the U.S. What developments might we see in this area?
MT: DIS benefits greatly from having very strong relationships with our partners, and I will be looking closely at how we can expand and deepen those relationships. If we can work in closer collaboration, we can create a study abroad program that will really fit the needs of U.S. undergraduate students and the vision of our partners. It is key to DIS that the vision and the strategy of how we want to move forward is always carefully calibrated with what goes on in American higher education – so we have our own vision and our own ideas but we look closely at the strong trends in American higher education and the needs of students academically and beyond college.
Soon, partners in the U.S. will be seeing a lot of me! I will be visiting some campuses in the spring and will also attend the Forum and NAFSA conferences this spring in San Diego with several of my colleagues, including Martin Hogan, Brad Stepan, and Julie Scott. I am also hoping to see a lot of our partners here in Copenhagen this summer (June 23-28) for the DIS 55th Anniversary International Educators Conference (IEC). The IEC will be a great venue for dialog, for people to see what we do, and to get a first-hand impression of experiential learning at DIS.
DIS: The second point of focus that you mentioned earlier was the creation of a more holistic student experience. How might we see this manifested?
MT: Most students are at DIS for one semester and the main reason they choose us is our academics. We need to find ways to see the academic experience not as a separate entity to the cultural, but rather to find ways to merge them – this will be a key area for DIS. For instance, we have found that by establishing Living & Learning Communities at DIS we can create dynamic ways to merge students’ academic interests with their cultural engagement and housing choice. Meanwhile, each of the themes also has a close connection to Danish society.
DIS: What other academic developments can we expect at DIS in the near future?
MT: There are several things that we are looking at. One would be how online learning fits into the study abroad model. I do foresee, at DIS and in study abroad in general, that there will be very exciting ways for online learning components to enhance the study abroad experience. In terms of developing any new programs, I could see more courses around the exciting and complex developments in the Arctic region: a region with global relevance, in which Denmark has both strong interests and expertise. I also expect a growth in what we offer within the sciences.
We are turning more of our attention to the summer, so that we can better serve students that cannot study abroad during the semester. We are committed to expanding our range of summer courses and feel we can create an exciting, dynamic, and flexible program during the summer months. Students already have the opportunity to study at DIS during the summer for three weeks all the way up to 10 weeks (and from three to 12 credits), as courses run in several sessions of varying length. With more academically diverse and engaging courses to be added, we hope this will allow students to meet their academic goals.
DIS: As you mentioned, the study abroad experience is usually just one eighth of a students’ time in undergraduate education. What value does DIS ensure is added by this semester abroad?
MT: DIS students come from excellent schools – so the question is what we can add to their education. We can offer something that plugs in academically with what they do at home – but the DIS experience is different. We take students out of their comfort zone and expose them in this holistic way to a whole new academic experience in a whole new living situation. One factor that is fairly unique to DIS is experiential learning, emphasized through faculty-led, course-integrated study tours and field studies, and also through practicum experience.
Another benefit is that as a Danish organization, and as a Danish study abroad program based in a single location, we have a lot of context and the ability to open a lot of doors to decision makers in Danish politics, the European Union, or the business world, architecture firms, and, of course, academia.
And on a personal level, I also enjoy the advantage of having a really good sense of what’s happening around DIS on a daily basis – the distance from the students to my office, and from the classroom to my office, is extremely short.
And my door is always open.