Uliana Gabara has effected greater interest in international education

Published: October 31, 2012, 11:58 pm ET
Photo courtesy of Laura Saltzer
Dean of International Education Uliana Gabara moved from Poland to Uzbekistan to escape Stalin's influence after World War II.
Collegian Staff

It was 120 degrees in a little town in central India. Sweat poured down their faces and splashed into their eyes. Clothes clung to their bodies like an extra layer of sticky skin. The air smelled of cow manure and rotting garbage. Still, Uliana Gabara pressed on, tugging the other members of the University of Richmond faculty seminar forward. She had four more meetings organized for the group that day, and she wasn’t about to miss one of them because it was hot.

“When Uliana encounters a hurdle, she finds her way over or around it,” said David Leary, University of Richmond’s former dean of arts and sciences and current psychology professor. And Gabara encountered hurdles well before she became Richmond’s dean of international education.

As a young child, Gabara moved to Poland from Uzbekistan to escape Stalin’s influence after the World War II. After growing up there, her family pushed her to get an undergraduate education elsewhere. In 1957, she came to the U.S. for the first time to attend Bennington College as a Ford Scholar – the first in her family to move to America.

“I could only go somewhere where I got a grant, because the Polish currency wasn’t valid anywhere else besides Poland,” Gabara said. “The only other savings I had was some babysitting money, which at that time paid 25 cents an hour.”

After graduating, she returned to Poland for six years, but soon decided to move back to the U.S. permanently with her husband because the anti-Semitist movement had become so prevalent at home. Her breaking point, she said, was in March of 1968 when the government – the Communist party – spread false propaganda in the press and on television blaming student demonstrations on the very small Jewish community remaining in Poland after the war.

“On one hand the government was pushing us out,” she said, “but in order to allow us to leave they demanded that we ask for permission to be stripped of our citizenship.”

Although she goes back occasionally now to visit friends, for 20 years Gabara couldn’t return, she said. The government made it impossible for her to secure a re-entry visa because of her American citizenship, which meant that she could not visit her parents, who had stayed in Poland. Each parent was able to visit her just once in the states before they died, she said.

“It was like punishment for the fact that I’d left as a Jew, even though I was forced to leave as a Jew,” she said. Time seemed to have eroded the emotion in her voice.

After teaching at University of Virginia for several years, Gabara moved to Richmond with her husband and two daughters — who now teach at Duke and the University of Georgia — when her husband secured a job at Dupont hospital. She was soon hired by the University of Richmond in 1984 as an adjunct professor of Russian. Hugh West, a history professor who was on the committee that hired her, said that with her background and international experience, Gabara had seemed overqualified for the job.

“She was already full of ideas and had notions of how the internationalization of the school could work,” he said. “Her office used to be over in Keller Hall … so it looked right over the field hockey field. We used to tease her when we’d come in for a meeting that she was ‘looking over her empire.’”
But that empire quickly became a reality.

When a group of faculty raised the idea of internationalizing the campus, Gabara was one of the first to volunteer to spearhead the initiative, and was soon designated the head of the new Office of International Education, which at the time comprised four people: her, Michele Cox, who is the current director of study abroad, and two student assistants.

Cox, who suspects she was hired because she had studied abroad in Poland, and who has since worked with Gabara for 21 years, remarked that Gabara was a private, but loyal person.

“When I asked for two extra months of maternity leave after giving birth to my daughter, she was so supportive of it,” she said. “We agreed that parental leave in the U.S. was much to be desired in comparison with other countries – she’s incredibly understanding with her employees.”

One of Gabara’s first major initiatives as dean was the faculty seminars. These trips were first organized to give faculty a greater sense of the world outside of Richmond and the U.S. and to allow them to travel to places they wouldn’t have the chance to normally, but they now serve as opportunities for them to meet and form relationships with professors from Richmond’s partner universities abroad. The professors can then pass on these relationships to students looking to study abroad or do research in that country, Gabara said.

She led the first seminars in 1988 and 1989 to central and eastern Europe, because she was familiar with those places and wanted faculty to examine the turmoil there, she said. Later, Gabara designated places based on areas that were not covered in the university’s curriculum. The seminars are now held every other year, and the next location has not yet been announced.

John Gordon, a professor of history and international studies, attended two seminars led by Gabara – to India and Turkey/Cyprus – and then led two of his own, to India and Australia/New Zealand.

“On the tours that I participated in, we had extremely full schedules that included meeting with academic people, government people, locals and seeing historical sites and museums – Uliana certainly wanted to be sure that we had a full experience,” Gordon said.

Besides the introduction of the faculty seminars, Gabara had been working hard to internationalize Richmond students: when she started, Richmond had about six students had been working hard to internationalize Richmond students: when she started, Richmond had about six students studying abroad and 10 international students; this year, there are 236 four-year international students, 76 here for a semester, 28 for a year and 306 American students who studied abroad this past fall. The university has connections with 75 institutions all over the world.

Gabara’s office certainly reflects that breadth of culture. The little room is littered with trinkets she’s gathered from across the globe, from an Australian farm hat, to an Indian watercolor tapestry, to a Nigerian sculpture to a photo of her riding an elephant in Thailand. Gabara herself wears a simple, sand-colored leather jacket, a white shirt and khakis as she sits upright in her chair.

As a woman who speaks three languages fluently and two proficiently, Gabara said that her familiarity with adapting to different countries and their cultures was a great advantage in her line of work. She said her goal was to assist American students studying abroad and international students studying at Richmond to experience that same cross-cultural adaptation she did – but it could only happen if they deliberately and completely immersed themselves, she said, if they traveled “right.”

“Doing it ‘right’ means not looking for McDonald’s, but eating whatever people eat in the country you’re in, even if it doesn’t seem appealing,” she said. “It’s getting to know your peers in their language, and talking to them long enough to understand what are the different ways in which they live.”

As for her future at Richmond, Gabara said she did not have plans to retire yet, but she hoped to do so before people thought she ought to. Right now, the internationalization of Richmond is still a goal – a purpose that has allowed her to compartmentalize the past and adapt to a completely foreign place – that will perpetually dangle on the horizon.

A glass disk etched with, “Outstanding Woman Award: Uliana Gabara” sits on Gabara’s windowsill. The accolade was given to her in 1994 by the Young Women’s Christian Association. It is often considered tilted toward families who had lived in Richmond for generations. As a Jewish woman from Poland, Gabara held the piece proudly, explaining how her favorite aspect of America was its ability to change and adapt so quickly.

When she set it down again, she gazed at it for a moment, reflective, and then turned and said, “To be an outstanding woman in Richmond, one doesn’t have to come from generations of Richmonders.”

Contact staff writer Abby Kloppenburg at abby.kloppenburg@richmond.edu

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  • thecollegianur

    This is a subtle thing of beauty! Thank you for revealing a story that does not involve silly soccer and whatnot – Richmond, like Ulian Gabara, is bigger than any soccer or field track team!