Meet the Women Making a Difference in Study Abroad

An “Equal World is an Enabled World” is this year’s International Women’s Day theme. As individuals, we can actively choose to broaden perceptions, fight bias, challenge stereotypes, improve situations, and celebrate women’s achievements. Here at USAC we think these ideals are pretty important. And of course, they can (and should!) be practiced both here at home and abroad.

Last year we chose to highlight the women of USAC. This year, in honor of International Women’s Day, we interviewed a few women who are actively investing in student success around the world by being a USAC donor. We got the inside scoop on their background, what inspired them to invest in international education, and of course, empowering women globally.

Dr. Marianne Cooley

Dr. Marianne Cooley

“USAC is a first-rate, educational, and sociocultural experience that everyone should have. I also claim that it may be the best study abroad program – standalone – in the country.” – Marianne Cooley

When Marianne Cooley was in the sixth grade she couldn’t wait to go to her geography class, where each lesson would focus on different countries around the world. Fast forward forty-five years to when she was touring down the Nile River. She instantly recalled the scenes in the photos from that same geography book. “It’s just different seeing something with your own eyes, than to see reproduced pictures in a book.”

Though a proud native Oklahomian and Texan (which she claims as one sociocultural area), Marianne is a seasoned traveler. Later in life her adventures have taken her to Egypt, Poland, Turkey, Morocco, Panama, and to China as a USAC Visiting Professor (for two different terms because she loved the city of Chengdu, and the people there, so much).

Marianne is a lifelong educator with her doctorate in English Language and Linguistics and is now retired as a professor emeritus from the University of Houston.

She was inspired to give back by her grandmother, Elsie Adams Mclean. And with no children, she wanted to make sure her money would go to furthering education for students. Marianne established a generous USAC scholarship benefiting students studying abroad in China. Her hope is that her scholarship awardees will actively work to make connections inside and outside of the classroom. She believes that even though China and the US may have a difficult international relationship, that students who have immersed in the Chinese culture may act as a bridge to close that gap. Or at the very least, answer questions from Americans about what China is really like close-up.

Marianne also holds a strong belief in encouraging more women to study abroad. “If women have been enabled, then their home country will be enabled. And in turn, internationally. The effects of empowering women only compounds, stemming from one woman to many women around the world.”


About the Dr. Marianne Cooley Study Abroad Scholarship: Reserved for degree-seeking students attending the Chengdu or Shanghai, China programs with a minimum 2.5 GPA are eligible for this scholarship, which will be awarded each semester.

Jade Wright

Jade Wright USAC donor

“You don’t have to give up your career or dedicate yourself entirely to a cause – just find out how you can support in other ways. For me, that was setting up a scholarship for the organization that has given so much to my life.” – Jade Wright

Meaningful, immersive experiences. Academic prestige through cultural exposure. Rigorous curriculum. Outstanding professors. Academically accredited and challenging courses. The speed at which students can learn language. Affordable and diverse locations …. Jade Wright had just a couple things to share when we asked her about USAC.

Jade is a young professional and recently established an annual $1,000 USAC scholarship to ensure people who would otherwise think that they could not afford study abroad to have an opportunity for a life changing experience. She credits her 2013 study abroad experience in Haifa, Israel to changing her life, but her love of cultural affairs, political science, and international education started at a much younger age.

Her mother, Betsy Long, made sure to introduce Jade to different perspectives through articles, books, websites online. It was part of their regular communication. They would delve into discussions about religions, cultural affairs, and women’s rights. In particular, women fighting for their rights and experiencing political oppression. In high school, she took a cultural affairs class and was first introduced to the Middle Eastern culture. This immensely piqued her interest.

“International education is pivotal to understanding women’s equality. You read about the issue of equality in the Middle East. But until you are there experiencing it, there is just no way to put reality into perspective. For example, a man won’t sit next to you on a bus. Women can’t work at certain times of the day. A woman can be arrested for accidentally bumping into or brushing up against a man. People can’t truly understand without firsthand experience – especially the concept of ‘less rights than America’.” Jade believes that the more people can go, learn, experience, and bring back knowledge – the more people who can advocate for policy change, broaden perspective, and change the mindset of their community.

Jade also shared that she thinks more men should be considering study abroad opportunities. The statistics show that nearly 75% of all study abroad participants are women. “I celebrate the women who are actively studying abroad and getting out of their comfort zone. My hope is that more men are able to study abroad, and that they will pay attention to how women are treated in other countries.”


About the Discover Middle East Scholarship: Reserved for degree-seeking students with a minimum 3.0 GPA attending the Haifa, Israel program are eligible for this scholarship, which will be awarded each summer, fall, and spring semester. Preference will be given to students with little to no previous background and exposure to the Middle East.

Elizabeth “Liz” Shields

Liz Shields USAC donor

“We’ve led lucky lives and have had the means to give back financially, but that’s not everything. People can use their time, energy and connections to give back in a way that is meaningful. In fact, I think that’s the secret: be both a donor and a fundraiser.” – Liz Shields

The first thing you’ll notice when you talk to Liz Shields is her wonderful Irish accent. She grew up on a farm in northern Ireland where her mother was a primary school teacher and encouraged Liz to be a lifelong learner. She’s always had a natural curiosity to experience other cultures and firmly believes it was built into her heritage.

“Ireland had many emigrants and because of that, I think as a people, there was always a collective wanderlust.” Liz’s wanderlust brought her to the US in 1970.

She met her late husband, John Shields, when they were teachers in the Peace Corps in Botswana, Africa. They married in Turkey and then traveled together through India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Japan, Russia, and Scandinavia.

The Shields family recently established a $500,000 endowment with Fresno State to benefit students studying abroad through USAC. Their hope is that the fund will build a legacy of helping low-income students experience and appreciate international travel while learning a foreign language, developing cultural competence and independence.

Their scholarship was inspired both by their love of travel and their daughter, Kat, who studied abroad through USAC in Chengdu, China. Liz was amazed at Kat’s level of confidence when she returned home. “You could tell just in the way she walked,” she said. Seven years after her study abroad experience, Kat returned to Chengdu with her husband. “Wouldn’t you know it? The same Resident Director was still there all those years later, and to my knowledge – is still there supporting students. I call that brilliant continuity. USAC’s programs are just tremendous.”

Liz also shared her excitement for International Women’s Day. “Equal representation means more expertise and life experience is brought to the table.” She thinks it’s especially important to recognize this year as the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment where women won their right to vote. “Our great, great grandmothers didn’t have much of a voice. They had to push for it. Women need to be represented.”


About the Shields Family Grant: Reserved for Fresno State undergraduate students of limited financial means to pursue academic studies abroad that have a strong language component. Qualified students receive full USAC Program Fees and up to $1,500 to reimburse their travel expenses in the form of a CGE Travel Grant.

Dr. Alyssa Nota

“I love that USAC encourages students to take that leap of faith and never look back.  I truly believe- and want to help all students believe – that we all CAN achieve so much more than we might think or expect!” – Alyssa Nota 

Growing up in Narragansett, Rhode Island, a little New England town perched on the Atlantic coast,  Alyssa Nota spent many days looking to the horizon line, across the ocean. “My curiosity to explore was a driving force that led me to study languages and cultures, and thanks to my encouraging parents and teachers, to study abroad in high school, college, and graduate school. Those experiences – of learning, traveling, and growing – formed who I am today.”

Alyssa is the CEO and President of USAC and is inspired daily to help students have transformative international experiences. For her, that includes directly supporting students financially. In honor of her parents, she established an annual study abroad scholarship. Frank and Carol Nota were educators for more than 35 years – touching the lives of thousands of students—and both deeply committed to education, travel, family and their Italian heritage. They embodied and instilled in their three children the development of integrity and character that come from education – at home, abroad and in every part of one’s life.

When remembering her family, Alyssa talked about an image of a black and white photo of her great grandmother with her two young sons (one being Alyssa’s grandfather) as they journeyed alone on a boat from Italy to the U.S. in the early 1900s. “Her young face reflects a level of bravery and strength that I can’t even imagine replicating,” explained Alyssa. “My accomplishments are extremely minor compared to her immense courage. Nevertheless, that gene must have found its way into my DNA.” Alyssa’s childhood was filled with photo albums and stories of travel adventures of family members, so it was imprinted in an early age how exciting the world could be. She loves that she now gets to be able to support and share that excitement with students as they take their own journeys abroad.

For Alyssa, International Women’s Day is a special opportunity to recognize women’s accomplishments — personal, professional, academic and of all kinds.

“I experienced this years ago when I was given a man’s necktie as a gift (the gift-givers had expected the “director” they had a meeting appointment with to be male.) At the time, I took it as an innocent error or cross-cultural mishap – but over the years it stayed in the back of my mind. In a way it also grew into a symbolic motivator for me. However, even before that experience, I had always felt the drive to keep learning and propelling myself forward — and I love to see and encourage that same drive in all students. Supporting a scholarship is just one way to do that.”

Alyssa whole heartedly stands by the many short- and long-term benefits that USAC – and USAC scholarships – provide to students. “It’s an endless (and endlessly positive) ripple effect on the lives of thousands of people around the world.”


About the Frank and Carol Nota Scholarship: Reserved for degree-seeking students with a declared major in English, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, Italian language/cultural studies, or education and a minimum 3.0 GPA attending a Summer or Spring program are eligible. Two $500 awards will be given in Summer and one $1,000 award will be given in Spring.  

Happy International Women’s Day 2020! Today and every day, strive to be #EachForEqual.