From Seeing the World as a U.S. Ambassador to Joining CU Denver

From Seeing the World as a U.S. Ambassador to Joining CU Denver

Director of Global Education Catherine Ebert-Gray Uses Personal and Professional Travels to Help Students

March 21, 2023

It might be impossible to calculate exactly how many miles Catherine Ebert-Gray has traveled during her three-decade career in the U.S. Foreign Service. In Mali, West Africa, she helped stand up the country’s first democratic government. In Papua New Guinea, an island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, she swam in some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs. And during six years spent working in Egypt, she even learned to love the tranquility of desert.  

After visiting 70 countries, though, one of her favorite places is CU Denver. Three years ago, she joined the university as the director of global education, where she oversees a team that helps students and faculty plan for international travel and study abroad. “The more I heard about this campus, the more I thought that it checks all the boxes of my interests,” said Ebert-Gray. “I wanted a very diverse campus. I wanted one where there was still a lot of potential for growing interest in the global workforce and global opportunities. I wanted something in an urban area.”  

She found that—and more—on our downtown campus. She relishes opportunities to help students achieve their study abroad dreams. She appreciates the wide array of knowledge that faculty bring to the university. And she finds enjoyment in the small stuff, like visiting a new place on campus or striking up a conversation with a stranger. “Every day, I feel like I have found my mission,” she said. 

From Girl Scouts to Government  

As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, Ebert-Gray discovered what would be her career calling when she received a Girl Scouts’ government badge, which taught her to examine laws, report on civil issues, and learn what it means to be an active citizen. When she was 12 years old, she took a trip with her family to tour the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., and enjoyed how it brought to life the history lessons she learned in school. Her interest only grew, and she went on to earn a degree in international relations and political science from the University of Wisconsin Madison.  

Though she was the first person in her family to pursue a career in government, her family always had an appreciation for travel that sparked her interest in international topics. “My sister was an exchange student in Turkey, and we frequently had international guests to the house for a meal or went to international activities,” Ebert-Gray said. “It just became part of my sphere, and the more that I got exposed to it, the more I wanted to learn.” 

Ebert-Gray carried that attitude throughout her robust, 45-year career in government affairs, which began in college, when she was a student worker in the mayor’s office. She then moved into political staff positions at the city, state, and federal level, before joining the U.S. Department of State and the Foreign Service. There, she completed several assignments for the United States Embassy, including work in Australia, Mali, Germany, and Morocco.  

Each destination taught her something new. In Mali, she appreciated the people she encountered, along with the region’s rich Islamic roots and archaeological history. It rained a lot during her time in Germany, which, as one who loves the outdoors, she didn’t always enjoy. In Papua New Guinea, she learned about the rich and unique culture, which includes more than 800 languages.  

During her tenure at the Department of State, she served as the deputy assistant secretary in Washington and supported operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the director of overseas employment, she oversaw employment policies, hiring, and compensation. Most recently, she served as an ambassador for Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. Along the way, Ebert-Gray developed a keen understanding about the importance of global connection, because she’s lived it.  

In 2020, Ebert-Gray began thinking about her family and future, so she consulted an expert in career planning, who suggested she consider transitioning to higher education. Around that time, she moved to Denver to be closer to her family. (Though she was based out of Washington, D.C., for much of her career, her parents moved to Colorado 40 years ago to be closer to her brother, who had started a business in Summit County.)  

Ebert-Gray researched universities in the area and had her heart set on one: CU Denver. She wrote a personal letter to the then-Chancellor Dorothy Horrell. “I told her what my aspiration was, and what my interests were, and she got right back to me,” Ebert-Gray said. “We started dialogue about the different opportunities, and, of course, it was a really good fit.”  

Helping CU Denver Students See the World 

At CU Denver, Ebert-Gray oversees a team of three full-time employees and two student workers. Their mission is to assist students who are interested in international travel or a clinical rotation abroad. Not only do students gain a diverse perspective when they travel abroad, Ebert-Gray said, but they also have an opportunity to be more engaged in the global economy. Ebert-Gray’s team also helps faculty members who want to teach a course abroad. “We assist in identifying locations for them to go while helping meet our objectives as a university,” Ebert-Gray said.  

Ebert-Gray’s team stays busy behind the scenes working with insurance companies, helping students and faculty obtain the right documentation for international travel, and coordinating with the Office of the Registrar and Financial Aid to ensure students receive credits and financial help or scholarships, even if a course is completed halfway across the globe. “That’s the excitement of what we do, along with attempting to meet the strategic goals of the university itself,” Ebert-Gray said. “We’re very much involved in the diversity, equity, and inclusion goals (and) finding opportunities for all of our students to be able to have this transformational experience.” 

It’s those opportunities, and the potential for more global connections on CU Denver’s campus, that keep Ebert-Gray excited about her role. Although her current role marks a shift in her career, she says government and higher education, and the people they attract, are more similar than one would think. Both require knowledge, determination, and a people-first attitude. “And of course, here on campus, we’ve got so much intelligence,” she said. “Every student is different, and I just love that.”