University of Southern Indiana

The Immeasurable Impact of "Mama Heidi"

Hiedi Gregori-Gahn with USI students

by Erin Meyer

Welcoming others, whether at an airport or around a table for a meal, would become the blueprint of Heidi Gregori-Gahan, Associate Provost Emerita for International Programs, when she arrived at USI in 1998 and settled into a basement cubicle. The first step would be getting to know USI’s 33 international students as the University’s newest office took shape. “Little by little, we grew the study abroad programs [which now encompass more than 60 countries], international enrollments [more than 200 students on average each semester] and the Intensive English Program,” said Gregori-Gahan. 

Each success conquered challenges—from cultural differences and language barriers to political roadblocks and funding shortages. Few triumphs happened quickly. But no matter how complex or lengthy, all involved a fundamental concept. “You’ve got to be genuine, because even if people don’t speak your language, they’re going to know,” said Gregori-Gahan. “People know if you’re not genuine.”

Early in her career, Gregori-Gahan relished students’ view of her as a trusted older sister. It was the ultimate compliment—until she morphed into the role of loving mother, complete with a nickname known across campus and continents: “Mama Heidi.”

“She truly became [students’] family abroad as they navigate their experiences during their stay with us,” said Dr. Emilija Zlatkovska, Director of USI’s Intensive English Department and interim Executive Director for International Programs and Services. “Heidi is one of those people who approaches you with her heart and arms open, ready to welcome you, listen to you and uplift you in every possible way.”

“She led with compassion and an ethic of care, pushing us all to strive for the best, ensuring that we kept up with best practices and always assessed what we did, thinking of student needs first,” said Melissa Gonnerman, Assistant Director of the Center for International Programs.

Her unwavering dedication to international education prompted NAFSA: Association of International Educators to name Gregori- Gahan a recipient of the NAFSA Life Membership Award last spring, in the midst of a global pandemic that changed every aspect of the job she loved for 22 years, retiring from in June.

But her greatest honor was to be in the front-row seat students joyfully offered as they enrich their lives—and hers—both on campus and around the world. After 40 years in international education, she says the last quarter of her career has been the best.

“I learned so much from our students,” she said. “I just loved hearing their stories and what their dreams and goals were, knowing USI was playing a huge role in making those dreams happen.” It’s hard to imagine how many dreams may have never been realized if not for a passionate advocate named “Mama Heidi.”

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