Penn Abroad director on making study abroad accessible and her first passport stamp

Kristyn Palmiotto was named executive director of Penn Abroad in the fall. Here, she discusses what’s next for the program and her journey to the University.

Kristyn Palmiotto posing among flowers.
Kristyn Palmiotto, executive director of Penn Abroad. (Image: Eric Sucar)

Like any nervous first-time study abroad traveler, Kristyn Palmiotto arrived in Morocco feeling out of her comfort zone, staring perplexedly at her one and only passport stamp in the back of her booklet.

“I thought to myself, ‘I guess I’m doing this,’” she recalls.

Palmiotto, who was named executive director of Penn Abroad in September, first encountered study abroad as an undergraduate at Binghamton University in New York. She’d arrived as an English major but, after taking a course on Middle Eastern history, discovered her interest in Arabic language and was determined to dive deeper. She traveled to Morocco following her sophomore year as part of a summer-long program—a foreign trip that was a doubly foreign concept to her at the time, as she’d not traveled extensively. She was, she says, forced to recalibrate—and she loved it.

“It was extraordinarily challenging, but rewarding,” Palmiotto says. “I came back from Morocco keen to do something else abroad. I got more involved in global opportunities at my home campus and by senior year applied for a Fulbright [in Malta], which felt like a natural next step.”

After attending graduate school at Teachers College at Columbia, she worked with NGO Global Nomads Group, connecting middle and high school students from the U.S. and across the Middle East and North Africa through video conferences to engage in global dialogues and dispel stereotypes.

“To this day, probably one of my most fulfilling roles was being able to see young people learn from one another, despite what was going on in the news,” Palmiotto says. “These students asked questions, received information, and built their own perspectives about each other through humane conversations with peers.”

Looking back, Palmiotto says her journey to director of Penn Abroad appears linear. But she realizes she made many decisions because of support that was both broad and strong, from both her family and institutions.

“I was so well supported, and I don’t think I even realized it. I had a lot of support on the back end if it didn’t work out, but it did,” she says. “And that’s what Penn Abroad is for students interested in pursuing a global opportunity. You can go and try something new, and we are here to support you along the way. It’s fulfilling to know that’s the role I, and the team I lead, get to play for Penn students every day.”

It’s that guidance Palmiotto hopes Penn Abroad can bring to students today, cultivating an environment where study abroad doesn’t feel out of reach.

“When we established Penn Global over a decade ago, and moved Penn Abroad into this new division, our vision was to create a dynamic office imbued with enthusiasm and energy to create new programs that offered rigorous overseas program while meeting the needs of a diverse Penn community,” says Amy Gadsden, associate vice provost for global initiatives. “So much has been accomplished since then, and with Kristyn now at the helm, there is much more that we will achieve.”

A meaningful global experience for all students

From 2016 to 2023, Palmiotto worked in tandem with Penn Abroad staff to grow the office’s portfolio of global opportunities, with an eye toward expanding access to student groups who are historically underrepresented in study abroad programs. This could be for several reasons including financial or resource limitations, curricular or extracurricular conflicts, or lack of information and knowledge about the myriad ways that Penn Abroad supports students throughout a global experience.

“To be a hub for global opportunities, we have to be creative,” she says. “We made changes, for example, to our popular summer research and internship program, partnering with Student Registration and Financial Services to make sure we could support more students at higher levels. We also launched new programs, like Penn Global Research Institutes, to diversify the types of study abroad options available.”

Penn Global Research Institutes prioritize long-term, community-driven research around the world. The program, which launched in 2022, will run four institutes this year, facilitating faculty-led summer research experiences for 23 undergraduate and graduate students.

The team also grew its Penn Global Seminars (PGS) program, through which undergraduates can travel abroad for 8-12 days as part of a course primarily taught on campus. While conventional semester-abroad trips will always be Penn Abroad’s core mission, with Penn sending 439 students abroad this semester alone, PGS has become a new way for students to pack a meaningful global experience in their busy academic and extracurricular lives. Two-hundred and forty-two students are enrolled in PGS courses for the 2023-24 academic year.

Palmiotto says those continue to exceed demand—Penn Abroad is running 18 courses next year, and from academic year 2025 onward, they’ll run 20 annually.

Ruqaiyyah Lucas-Caldwell is a senior studying health and societies and is on a pre-med track. She’s traveled abroad three times during her time at Penn: once for a summer internship in France, a semester at King’s College London, and on a PGS to Chile, where she was able to learn about the Chilean health care system, focusing on the immigrant population and how Haitian women navigate the health care system.

Group photo of Penn students in front of a mural depicting hospital workers embracing.
Students, including Ruqaiyyah Lucas-Caldwell (third from right), visited the Geriatric Institute in Chile as part of a Penn Global Seminar.  (Image: Greta Kazenski)

For that trip, she says, her instructor, Eileen Lake of the School of Nursing, frequently travels to Chile and knew where to go, which was helpful. It also provided an opportunity to use her Spanish language skills.

“All these programs went by really quickly for me, but that two-week session went by fastest and honestly made me want to go back even more, because there are so many other areas I want to explore,” Lucas-Caldwell says. “It encouraged me to want to go back.”

She says her past self would have been stunned to know she traveled three times during her undergraduate career, but that she encourages everyone to consider study abroad no matter what form it comes in.

“And I especially encourage students of color, Black students, to go abroad, because I think that’s such an important experience to live outside the U.S. and see how our identities vary in different spaces,” she says. “I’m a big advocate for that.” 

Increasing accessibility also highlights the importance of keeping students safe, particularly when navigating world events. Among its network of partners that facilitates its programming and supports the hundreds of staff, faculty, and students who participate is Penn’s Office of Risk Management & Insurance (ORMI), with whom Palmiotto closely works all year to mitigate health and safety risks.

“Penn Abroad is excellent at this,” says Jaime Molyneux, director of International Risk Management in the ORMI, whose office supports approximately 6,000 travelers each year, whether through Penn Abroad or the University more broadly. “They are very thorough, and Kristyn is a very thorough person: She’s detail-oriented and understands the business of study abroad from front desk to executive director—she gets it and has a passion for enabling everyone to go abroad.”

Often, she says, their conversations are about finding ways for students to travel while reducing risk.

“How can we get this to happen?’ That’s our perspective,” says Molyneux. “Can we get students their medication abroad? Can a student be their authentic selves? Can we get them refrigeration for insulin? If there is an emergency, are they close to an emergency room? These are the questions we ask … and I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve said, ‘Absolutely not, you can’t go.’”

An itinerary for the future

Penn Abroad, and Penn Global, is currently amid its 2023-28 strategic plan, with two primary aims for Penn Abroad: maintaining a high number of students in an exchange or outbound program and expanding current programming like summer internship placements and global seminars. In addition, Palmiotto and the Penn Abroad team are working to launch a summer study term in 2025 that will open up opportunities for students to earn Penn academic credit in Hong Kong, Seoul, Copenhagen, and Dortumund.

Also on the agenda is continuing to reduce barriers to global experiences. Earlier this year, Penn Abroad partnered with the U.S. Department of State to host a passport drive, through which 45 students, ranging from first- to fourth-years, applied. Given strong interest from students and campus partners alike, Penn Abroad intends to repeat this event on an annual basis moving forward so that more students can look forward to their first-stamp experiences.

“It’s just another example of how we’re trying to make a global opportunity as accessible as possible,” Palmiotto says.