“I felt truly blessed to have the opportunity to be ISKL’s first female Head of School following in the footsteps of a number of wonderful and well-respected previous Heads of School. It was a culminating highlight of my career.”
After more than three decades of teaching and administration of schools in the Middle East, Dr. Norma Hudson embarked on what could be called a “jungle change”, becoming ISKL’s twelfth Head of School, overseeing one of our great milestones: the move to our new Ampang Hilir campus.
Originally from Missouri, Norma attended Southwest Baptist University (Missouri) and gained a Bachelor of Music Education with certification in both vocal and instrumental music. She taught music for many years and also gained a Master’s degree with a concentration in Elementary Technology and Administration from Plymouth State University (New Hampshire), and obtained her Doctorate degree in Educational Policy and Administration from the University of Minnesota.
With her late husband Bruce, Norma initially applied for jobs around the world and was offered her first international posting in the remote city of Abha in Saudi Arabia. She recalls, “We immediately accepted and told our parents that we would be gone only for two years. Little did I know that those initial two years of living overseas would turn into a career spanning 39 years and two distinct countries: Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.”
Norma and Bruce adopted their two children, Carrie, now a teacher in Korea, and Ryan, a Major in the US Airforce, both from Taiwan, during their time in Saudi Arabia. It was not until several years after her husband’s passing, and children’s graduation, that Norma decided to again move on. By that time, she was Superintendent of a group of seven schools with 4,500 students! Next destination - ISKL!
Dr Norma Hudson briefly retired to Dillon, Colorado, following six years at ISKL, but that retirement was short lived and she now works as an international education recruitment specialist. Norma shared more of her story with Lynette MacDonald, ISKL Director of Development and Alumni Engagement.
LM: Take us back to your first day at ISKL. Who was the first person you met and how did you feel walking into the school given you had spent so many years - decades indeed - in Saudi Arabia?
NH: My welcome to ISKL was wonderful. Because I was hired almost 1.5 years ahead of when I actually began, I was able to visit a few times for transition work with the Board, the Admin Team, and Paul Chemlik (the Head of School at the time). A few Board members were very instrumental in my early transition and subsequent arrival. Valerie Scane, Board Chair, spent a great amount of time introducing me to the community, the Board, and onboarding. Gary Foulis was very knowledgeable about the new campus and the agreements that we were about to enter into to secure the land. Dave Thomas was extremely informative about the budget and where the school stood financially, as well as future projections.
And, there were others who I met in those early days - Rami Madani who was Director of Teaching and Learning at the time, Kelly O’Hale who joined the Board as I joined ISKL and would later become Board Chair, and Rob Thompson who was the Assistant Head of School for Business Operations and had a wonderful rich history of ISKL. And, then…Katie Milton. Wow! She is truly Ms. ISKL! I remember when I came to interview at ISKL Katie was the one who volunteered to show me around some of her personal highlights of the city - Chinatown, Peter Hoe, etc. She was a wealth of information about the city and represented ISKL in such a positive way.
As to the first day at ISKL, I was thrilled! I knew that this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. My time in Saudi Arabia was focused on school and family. With the passing of my husband several years earlier, and with my children Ryan and Carrie grown, I was now ready to “be on my own” - so to speak. I was at a stage in life where it felt comfortable to begin a new chapter - an exciting one! And, ISKL had so many opportunities ahead of itself. With the previous leaders, it had an extremely strong foundation: one built on excellent high-quality education, a robust co-curricular program, faculty and staff who were extremely hard-working and dedicated, and a future that included building a new campus on 26 acres of land and for the first time in years combining the Ampang and Melawati campuses. There was so much to be thankful for and at the same time - to look forward to at ISKL!
LM: You were previously the superintendent of a school group, overseeing seven schools. What drew you to ISKL and Malaysia? How was the move to a smaller school, albeit on two campuses?
NH: I was drawn to ISKL for several reasons...the positive and engaged culture of ISKL; the fact that the school was the heart of the community (you could find the campus being used almost 24/7 every day of the year); the reputation of ISKL for academics, arts, sports, etc.; the faculty and staff who were extremely engaging, dedicated, and committed to student learning and their own professional growth; the Board members who were strategic in nature and wanting to ensure that our mission was met; and finally, the future of ISKL knowing that at the heart of the new position was the opportunity to help guide and facilitate the development of a new, purpose-built, beautiful campus close to the city center.
ISKL was much more than this, as well. It truly is a special place. I could tell when I visited for my initial interview and had the opportunity to observe classes, faculty/staff, parents, the interactions, the culture, etc. I remember walking out behind the school on the Ampang Campus far behind the tennis courts, just prior to my final interview which was with the faculty, and listening to the sounds of nature - animals, running water, and seeing monkeys. This was a pivotal moment. It felt comfortable and it felt like there was so much promise and potential to build upon a truly solid foundation and reputation that already existed. I also felt that if I were fortunate to be offered the position, that this should be my home for the coming years.
Malaysia offered much of the same diversity that Saudi Arabia did. Essentially, we had as many nationalities. I value diversity! But, Malaysia offered the opportunity and was far more open-minded to celebrating the diversity of other’s holidays, so I was amazed when our calendar included holidays honoring several nationalities and religions. As well, our schools were even decorated to celebrate those holidays. That was heartwarming to know that here I was in a country that was open-minded enough to honor and respect the special days of people from around the world. It was reassuring to believe that I was in a country that demonstrated respect for others.
I was absolutely thrilled at this new found acceptance and perspective.
LM: You had prior experience in the physical building of schools. Was the job of overseeing the building of the new campus for ISKL part of the attraction?
NH: Absolutely! This was an exciting (and daunting) part of the job. ISKL was on the precipice of a new chapter in its rich history, and one that would carry it forward for years to come. To be able to have the opportunity to participate in this project was an honor...and a challenge. When we actually moved in and had our first Open House along with the first day of school with students, faculty and staff, it was extremely rewarding and memorable.
LM: Building a new combined campus must have thrown up wonderful potential for making the most of spaces. How did you work with administrators and faculty to ensure that the outcome would be the best possible learning spaces for students? How important was it that we truly live up to our “green school” aspirations in this project?
NH: First, input was key to the project, as well as having Dave Perrau lead the project. On one of my early visits to ISKL, HOK, the lead architects from London, were conducting Focus Groups with various stakeholders. During those sessions, the wishes and ideas were endless. From there, priorities were established and continual input was gathered from students, parents, faculty/staff, the Board, and the Administrative team. Dave Perrau was excellent at listening, distilling the information, providing feedback as to what was practical and what was not, and in the end was instrumental in making some hard decisions about spaces and designs so that we could achieve our targeted budget and opening day.
Being a “Green School” and being sustainable was key to our design. It was extremely important. We were designated a Platinum Green Building Index (Leed status) school - the first in Malaysia. Knowing our world will be a better place if we all committed to sustainability and also knowing that this was an important element in ISKL’s culture, this was really a non-negotiable factor in our design. It was the right thing to do.
LM: Throughout the process, how important was your relationship with the ISKL Board? Were there particular people whose contributions you would like to note? Were there any unexpected obstacles that had to be tackled, and how did you work with the Board to ensure the project was successful?
NH: The ISKL Board was absolutely key to making the new campus a reality. Without a doubt, they gave an inordinate amount of time during regular whole Board and Board Committee meetings, as well as support in meeting with Government officials, when needed. Additionally, they used their skills in their specific areas, such as Human Resources, construction, and finance to add to the project and ensure that we were on track. They also formed an additional special committee specifically devoted to overseeing the project. Oftentimes, there were meetings well into the late evening with the Project Management team and the contractors. As well, when needed, other members of the community with special expertise were added to the committees.
The major obstacle, of course, was the budget. Initially, the project was a bit larger in some areas (i.e. parking, playing fields, performance areas) and was coming in significantly over budget. That’s when the hard decisions were made, as to the priorities as discussions took place about spaces that were “musts” as opposed to “nice to have.” These decisions were not made lightly.
I believe that all of the Board members played a key role in the success of the project, and wish to thank them, again, for their diligence and commitment. As a result of their strategic oversight and leadership, we moved in on time to an amazing new facility on 26 acres of land with spectacular views of the Kuala Lumpur cityscape.
LM: Katie Milton shared this great photo on her Facebook recently - How did you feel at that moment? And then, on the first day at the new campus?
NH: Ecstatic! I still remember this moment! Katie Milton and Dave Perrau were on the campus late at night ensuring that the lights were properly working. They called me about 10.30 pm to say that the electricians had finished and they thought everything was “a go”, so I came to the campus, and together we “flipped the switch” which lit up our new campus entrance sign. It was emotional and a tearful moment.
Then for about an hour the three of us sat on the curb in front of the entrance and the sign and reminisced about the journey that our community had been through over the past many years in order to get us to this point. It was a beautiful time together.
We were now ready for our new chapter and for the school year to begin.
That first day of school was so exciting! Even though there were areas of the school that were blocked off with further construction taking place in some areas not accessible to our community, it was thrilling to see students, parents, faculty and staff walking up and down the hallways...and trying to find their way. We all were on a quest!
Thank goodness Dave Neudorf, Director of Technology, spearheaded the effort to get us our very own app, Panther Pathways. This was vital in our early months on the campus in helping our community find their way.
My memories of that first day are full of joy, and include parents and students finding their way to classrooms, meeting our faculty and staff, learning where to eat, where the new coffee shop was located, how to find the buses, congregating in the Panther Hut to purchase school supplies, and community members asking lots and lots of questions. What I treasure the most is how everyone...no matter what their role was at the school...wanted to help and make this day most successful! They did whatever it took to answer questions, to help give directions, to walk people around, and to make our community feel comfortable in our brand new home!
LM: I recall (almost like it was yesterday) my son Charlie’s graduation in 2018. You spoke so beautifully about the importance of love, encouraging our graduates to make that a guiding force in their lives. Please elaborate on the values that have guided you, first as a teacher and then as an administrator.
NH: My values and guiding principles have evolved over the years and became more solidified as a result of dealing with the loss of my husband, mother, and brother within a span of three years. Their deaths made me realize the importance of family, the importance of each day being the best it can possibly be, and ensuring that each day was meaningful and significant in the lives of others.
Our time is limited with students and our school community. As a leader, it was important that everyone felt valued…because they were and they are. I always felt that it didn’t matter where we were from or how we looked or our various abilities and talents…every single person is equal and every single person is important. And, every single person can make a difference in our world.
ISKL provided so many opportunities for our students, our faculty/staff, and our parents to be involved in reaching out to others less fortunate or in making our community better. It was just something that we did that was inherently part of who we were as a school. I know that will continue to be a part of ISKL’s DNA.
LM: You were always a very visible leader at ISKL events (how many people have your jewelry pieces from Celebrates silent auctions over the years?). What were your favorite events and what made them special for you?
NH: There were so many favorite events! I think two of the ISKL PTA organized events that were highlights were the International Festival and Celebrates. International Festival was always a time of wonderful food, beautiful home country costumes, family pride, and entertainment from around the world. I still have very, very fond memories of the Malaysian drums played by parents and students from all over the world, and the amazing Bollywood type dances, again, with parents from all over the world. It was a time of celebrating our diversity and what makes us unique, and also a time of celebrating ISKL and what brings us together - our community.
And, then towards the end of each year “Celebrates” was always a highlight. It was a wonderful opportunity to “dress up” with a theme (Diamonds and Denims, Black and White, a Masked Ball, etc.) and to enjoy dinner, dancing, entertainment, and an absolutely superb auction which would usually raised thousands of ringgit which was dedicated to enhancing the educational experience for our students. Our community was extremely generous, and this was greatly appreciated. The organization behind these two events by our PTA members was monumental. I will always, always be grateful for everyone who participated, from attending, to participating in special events, to organizing and chairing the events. Not many communities would come together with the same spirit and enthusiasm as ISKL demonstrated. It truly is a special culture!
And, then our student events were always wonderful to attend: to name a few - IASAS sporting events, Culture Conventions, Forensics Tournaments, drama and musical productions, art exhibitions, music concerts, dance events, Night of the Notables, and the MS Agency demonstrations. There were so many exciting events that demonstrated student learning in a variety of ways. And, of course, one of the highlights was the first IASAS tournament after we moved into the new campus, and hosted Boys Rugby and Girls Touch Rugby. And, then both teams dominated and won the GOLD medal. I still remember standing across the field and seeing for the first time, our elementary students loudly cheering on our high school athletes, signs and banners hanging from the end of the teaching wings, the PAC Shack open serving amazing food, and the joy experienced by the students and spectators as both teams celebrated their victories. As well, the comments made by the visiting teams and parents were warm and enthusiastic about our new home. This was an awesome way to inaugurate our new campus!
LM: You “inherited” a school that already had an almost 50-year history. Other than the successful completion of the new campus, what are you most proud of during your time at ISKL?
NH: You are right that our school had a rich and robust 50-year history and was led by some extremely talented and dedicated Heads. I am most proud that we moved into the new campus essentially very close to budget, and on time. This was a process several years in the making with the combined efforts of many. It was truly a collaborative team effort throughout the past several years.
What makes me equally proud is the fact that in addition to the many meetings that we had during this time, and the time and dedication needed by our Board and Administrative Leadership team, that our faculty and staff and our Administrators continued the focus on improving student learning, our course offerings, beginning and expanding our new inclusive program, our student enrollment increased while other schools experienced some enrollment challenges, our teacher retention continued to increase, and our external IB academic results continued to improve and be well above the world average. In other words, at the same time that everyone was involved in contributing in their own unique way to the new campus build, the focus on our mission and student learning continued to remain our primary goal…as it should.
LM: You were back in the region last year and made a surprise trip to ISKL which coincided with Cultural Convention. I took the photo below on February 28, 2020, just weeks before our ISKL world changed when the first KL lockdown came into force. How did you feel sitting next to our current Head of School, Rami Madani, watching our students perform?
NH: That’s easy. I felt an enormous sense of pride. A few years earlier we began using the hashtag #ISKLproud, and that’s exactly how I felt. I was proud of the students as they performed, I was proud to see the interest our community had in the productions and the support of our students, and I was extremely proud of Rami and his leadership during a difficult time. At that point, he had led through challenging times with haze, and shortly after my visit the school would be faced with the worldwide pandemic. I continue to be very proud of Rami as a leader.
LM: How has Covid-19 impacted you personally - your priorities both professional and personal?
NH: Professionally, after I left ISKL and returned to the US, I began a position as a Senior Consultant working with Search Associates on leadership searches around the world. Since living in the US, I’ve facilitated searches in Thailand, China, Indonesia, Oman, Egypt, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and India. Pre-Covid, there was much international travel to these countries.
During Covid, travel totally halted and everything is conducted now using Zoom. I’ve enjoyed the use of technology with the interviewing, with conducting Focus Groups, and with meetings with various Boards. It has taken some adjustments, but with the world all in the same place, this has become the “new normal.”
Personally, during any free time in the past I would travel or attend concerts and musical theater. Now, traveling has halted and my hobbies have focused on things that I can do social distancing and outdoors, such as hiking in the mountains, walking around the lake, and playing golf. It has actually become quite enjoyable.
Covid has also affected my immediate family - just as it has for every other family in the world. For the first time, I was unable to see my daughter, Carrie, who teaches in South Korea for 1.5 years. It was simply impossible for her to leave Korea because of Covid, so we missed a summer together, and a Christmas together. In one way it was easier to accept because every other person was experiencing the same thing. Having said that, when we were able to see each other this summer for a month, it was obvious that the absence had made us appreciate and love each other even more. And, now I am prepared that given the way Covid continues to thrive, likely we will not be together again until next summer. It is simply the way of our world.
LM: What do you most miss about ISKL, KL, and Malaysia?
NH: I miss so very much about ISKL, KL, and Malaysia.
First, Malaysia was “Truly Asia” - a wonderful country in which to experience and value diversity and see people live in harmony regardless of faith, ethnicity, or nationality; experience amazing sights whether they were the jungles, mountains, beaches, or cities; eat food ranging from Malaysian to Chinese to Thai to Indian to Western; shop at local interesting markets and large modern malls; and meet people from various countries around the world.
Second, I found Kuala Lumpur to be fascinating. When time permitted, I loved exploring the city- Chinatown, KLCC, Little India, Batu Caves, and historical buildings. The sights, sounds, and food were all absolutely wonderful.
Finally, ISKL…well, that’s easy. People. I miss the students, faculty and staff, parents, the Board…and the friendships and relationships that were formed over the six years. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the people…the community…this is what makes ISKL so very very special. And, this is why when so many leave ISKL, we continue to be friends and stay in touch on social media.
I valued the time that we had together. I appreciated the experiences and learning opportunities that our students had both in school and out of schools, how they participated in so many activities while still focusing on their studies, and how they knew that our world will be better if they cared about others and our planet. I treasured our parent volunteers who were actively engaged in the PTA, Panther Hut, PAC Shack, and special events that brought our community together throughout the year. I admired our faculty and staff who worked so very hard to make each and every day important for our students and who willingly gave of their time before school, after school, and on weekends to support our students. I appreciated our Board of Directors who made decisions based on our mission and worked extremely hard to ensure that the new campus became a reality. And, I respected our Administrative Team who were absolutely phenomenal, student learning focused, and dedicated so much time and energy to make our move into the new campus successful.
We had a very special community. When I reflect upon my international career, I smile when I think of the years that I spent at ISKL. They were the highlight of my career. Unquestionably.
What do I miss most? The ISKL people.
I am so very thankful and eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to be the ISKL Head of School for six years. And, it’s true - “Once a Panther; Always a Panther.”
Yes, in my heart…always.