Photo of Kay ThomasKay Thomas

A world of learning, one to one

Cross-cultural counseling leader Kay Thomas

It was through a chance encounter in 1968 that Kay Thomas, ’85, heard about a temporary job opening at the campus international student adviser’s office. Energetic and outgoing, she got the job and worked with student exchange programs and orientation for incoming international students and scholars. At the end of the year, the office kept her on.

“I really, really loved it,” she remembers. “And it was through that work that I was drawn more and more toward one-to-one advising.”

Thomas built on her own experience as an international student in Greece and Germany, where she’d discovered her drive for people-to-people connection. At her new job, she discovered the career that would lead her to become one of the world’s pioneering cross-cultural counselors.

About the time she arrived, the office director had recognized that international students who were struggling, academically or personally, never went to the campus counseling center. He hired a psychologist from the educational psychology faculty in a joint appointment. The psychologist noticed Thomas’s gift and recommended she enroll in the program in counseling and student personnel psychology (CSPP). Thomas eventually followed his advice.

“It was an infinitely practical program,” she says, where she learned with peers from around the world while continuing to work full-time. She conducted a pilot study assessing cross-cultural counselor training outcomes. She researched cross-cultural counseling strategies, including a model she developed based on one introduced to her by a student from India years earlier. She completed her practicum and internship at Boynton Health Service and the campus counseling service. 

Thomas loved working with and learning from students. She helped them deal with academic difficulties and decisions, depression, family crises from far away, and political crises—from currency collapse to revolution—that impacted their ability to return home.

“I learned how resilient people are,” she says. “I could encourage people to use their resources. But ultimately, they do the changing. I don’t change them.”

Thomas followed in the footsteps of two nationally known directors of what is now the University’s International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS)—Forrest Moore and Josef Mestenhauser. In 1991, she was named director and went on to serve for 20 years, making her own mark not only in Minnesota but in the field of international education nationally and around the world.

Teaching in the CSPP program, Thomas mentored another generation of cross-cultural counselors. She was invited as a lecturer and consultant around the world and won Fulbright grants to Korea and Japan.

Thomas rose to leadership of NAFSA, the largest professional organization for international educators. As national president in 2000–01, she worked closely with executive director and former Minnesota lieutenant governor Marlene Johnson on international education policy and advocacy. In the wake of 9/11, she advocated tirelessly for international students and helped the University navigate the changed landscape for international education.

Since retiring in 2011, Thomas remains engaged in NAFSA leadership. And on campus, her innovations live on. The focus on cross-cultural counseling continues, as does the focus on students. Small World Coffee Hour, which began in ISSS as a way to get people together to talk in an informal environment, now draws between 100 and 200 U.S. and international students to its biweekly events.

“It’s just based on the simple fact,” says Thomas with a smile, “that we can learn from everyone.”

Learn more about counseling and student personnel psychology in the Department of Educational Psychology.

See also International Student and Scholar Services in the University’s Global Programs and Strategy Alliance.

Story by Gayla Marty | Photo by Greg Helgeson | Spring/summer 2019