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Legacy Spotlight: Dr. Janet Ellzey

janet ellzey

Editor's note: Legacy Spotlight is a new series celebrating individuals who have left a lasting impact on the International Office through years of dedicated service. The World & UT will proudly highlight the accomplishments of these special leaders and the ways they've affected the past, present and future of the International Office and its role at The University of Texas at Austin.

14 February 2013

After graduating from the University of Texas, Janet Ellzey took the next logical step. With $1,500 in her pocket, the future Vice Provost of International Programs and professor of mechanical engineering booked a one-way flight to Paris to embark on a 2-month long adventure across Europe. The year was 1978. A wall still divided Berlin, disco was the popular music du jour, and gas was sixty cents a gallon.

Armed with a travel guide and a couple semesters of French under her belt, Ellzey longed to see the world outside of the Forty Acres. The world outside of Austin, Texas. The world outside of the United States.

She had no formal itinerary. Her plan? See as much of Europe as possible, then go back home. While her mother joined her for two weeks in the beginning, she explored the continent by herself for the next six weeks, reflecting on what her role in the world would eventually be. With her last $100, she booked a flight from London to Dallas, showing up unexpectedly at her residence in Austin.

Ellzey’s post-graduation excursion to Europe was atypical for young Americans at the time. Few Longhorns studied or traveled abroad. “When I was a student, study abroad was seen as an extracurricular activity. I didn’t know a single student who studied abroad,” she said. But her experience taught her the importance of engaging with the world outside. It became a turning point for her, and she knew it was vital for others to have similar experiences.

Beyond students in the language departments, there were few opportunities for other students to combine their studies with international travel. But the world was changing and becoming more interconnected. In the 1980s, more international students began enrolling at The University of Texas at Austin, many seeking degrees in engineering and the other sciences.

Ellzey enrolled in the graduate engineering program at the university in 1978. In need of a job, she applied to work at the newly-opened International Office. She began working as a student advisor in addition to teaching classes for international students. Adjusting to cultural differences and the obvious language barriers were a challenge, but Ellzey said she realized that globalization would define the future of education.

After Ellzey finished her master’s degree, she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, where she received her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. In 1990, she returned to The University of Texas at Austin as a professor in the field. Over the next nine years, she proved herself to be an instrumental fixture at the school. The desire to travel and work abroad still remained, though.

In 1999, Dr. Ellzey took a sabbatical in Poitiers, France, where she conducted research at a combustion laboratory. The lab paid for her to take classes to improve her French, which benefitted her greatly, she said. As she grew into la vie francaise, her passions for engineering and international travel became one. The sabbatical had a profound impact on Ellzey. “It taught me that happiness was my own responsibility,” she said.

After the sabbatical, she made it her goal to further develop the international programs in the engineering school. In 2004, she was put in charge of managing all of the international programs there. Her leadership cannot be understated: She not only expanded the study abroad options by over a dozen countries for students, she oversaw a tremendous increase in study abroad participation.

Her propensity and passion for developing the university’s international programs did not go unnoticed. In 2009, Ellzey got a cold call from Provost Steve Leslie. He asked her to be the Vice Provost of International Programs — a position that oversees the programs and activities of the International Office. “It was the job I dreamed of,” she said.

Later in 2009, she launched Projects for Under-served Communities, a collaborative program between the International Office, the Cockrell School of Engineering and School of Social Work. The program takes students to developing areas across the world to do hands-on projects that benefit local communities.

Since then, Dr. Ellzey has been instrumental in further developing the university’s international programs. She said she is also working to expand and solidify the university’s relationships with other universities across the world, particularly in the Middle East and Latin America.

Over Ellzey’s long and accomplished career, there has been one lesson that she has found to be the most important of them all. “Despite all of the differences in culture and language, we really are all the same in a certain way,” she said.

By Forrest Burnson
Photograph by Darcy McGillicuddy