It is an absolute pleasure to introduce this week’s featured guest, Lesa Sexton. She is my dear friend, a former colleague and a true travel addict! Keep reading to learn how a pen pal exchange program in middle school led her to working in Malaysia and the Dominican Republic for 3 years!
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What inspired you to take an extended trip overseas?
I first fell in love with the idea of travel when I participated in a pen pal exchange program in middle school. One summer my pen pal came to visit me in the US, and the following year I visited her where she lived in Compienge, France. At the time I wasn’t able to appreciate that cultural experience the way I can now, but I still remember returning and feeling giddy at the notion that I had traveled so far and seen so much.
In college I had the opportunity to study abroad in France, and that only fueled my desire to become a world traveler. As a senior I applied to a program run by the French government that brings native English speakers to France to teach. With graduation quickly approaching and still having no acceptance letter in hand to show, I got nervous at the prospect of being unemployed and in a somewhat random turn of events ended up taking a job in the Dominican Republic. Of course that’s not to say I didn’t put any thought into my decision. I did plenty of research beforehand and spoke to as many people as possible before I was finally assured this was a good thing.
I moved to Santiago, Dominican Republic a few months after graduation and ended up living there for two years teaching at a bilingual school. I fell in love with the language, the food, the people, and the country. I still consider it one of the best decisions of my life.
What were your concerns prior to leaving home?
Prior to leaving home my main concern was how to teach English. I had never actually taught anything before, and I had absolutely no clue where to start. Sure, I had worked with children in various capacities volunteering and babysitting, but I had never taught any sort of lesson. I had friends who had spent their entire college careers studying education in hopes of becoming a teacher, and here I was trying to learn everything in a week of training. That seemed unrealistic at best. I had to be patient with myself as I overcame the sharp learning curve I was facing, but with a lot of trial-and-error it ultimately turned out just fine.
I was also concerned about how to just do life in another country. When I studied abroad in college everything was pretty much taken care of for me-I was set up with a host family that provided food and housing, I had no real bills to pay, and I had a program director holding my hand as I figured everything else out. This was completely different. I had to figure out insurance and utility bills, how to open a bank account, where to buy groceries, etc. I was very fortunate in having a supportive school that provided most of my needs (housing, insurance) and worked with me on the remaining pieces.
What was the most challenging part of being overseas for an extended period of time?
For me the most challenging part of being overseas is trying to keep in touch with friends and family back home. You want to stay caught up on all that’s happening in everyone’s life but you don’t realize just how much work that requires. There are time zone differences and technology mishaps that make even a simple conversation difficult. Plus, living abroad is so vastly different from living at home that it can be hard for friends and family to understand all that you’re experiencing and going through.
So how to deal? For me, those relationships are important enough that I’m willing to put in the effort. I write postcards, schedule Skype dates, and text as often as possible. And of course, I try to convince everyone to come visit me wherever I am!
What has been the most rewarding part of being overseas for an extended period of time?
The most rewarding part of being overseas has been all the amazing adventures I’ve been blessed to have and all the wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Knowing that I’m only there for a limited amount of time, I make a very concerted effort to experience everything I can. I travel on the weekends, I attend cultural events, I take classes, and I (somewhat) bravely try new foods.
By putting myself out there I’ve also met some of the warmest, kindest individuals. I’ve celebrated holidays with newly made friends, been invited to family outings, and had thought-provoking conversations with strangers. Each interaction has made an impact and has made me a more worldly, well-rounded individual.
How did you fund your overseas experiences?
Ah, the million dollar question…
I’ve lived in both the Dominican Republic and Malaysia, but in each of those instances I was also working. Having a job enabled me to afford the necessities as well as some vacations and weekend travel.
“Having a job enabled me to afford the necessities as well as some vacations and weekend travel.”
In addition, I’m also very aware of cost and spend my money wisely (some might say frugally). Instead of taxis, I take the bus or some other form of public transportation. Instead of eating in nice 5 star restaurants, I eat street food. Instead of paying outrageous prices for tours, I create my own experiences.
And when it just so happens that my money does run out, I look for fun, free activities right where I am. So often people never take the time to explore the city where they live, choosing instead to always be traveling. That’s a shame though, because then they miss out on all that their city has to offer. Stick around every now and then and you just might discover something amazing!
What skills have you gained from your overseas experiences and how have they impacted your career and/or professional development?
I’ve learned a lot from my time overseas, but the most valuable skills I’ve developed have been those of flexibility, preparedness, and ingenuity.
I’ve learned to roll with the punches. It’s not often that something turns out exactly as you had planned, but you can either complain about it or adapt and move on. There were plenty of times where I’d be in a new city excited to visit a famous temple or museum, only to find that it was closed the one day I visited. There was no sense in moping about it; nothing I could do or say was going to make it magically open.
Which brings me to the skill of preparedness! Always have a back-up plan. When teaching, when traveling, for anything and everything. If you’ve thought it through thoroughly, you should have no trouble adjusting as necessary to accommodate for any unexpected glitch or twist in plans.
And lastly, when all else fails, be ingenious. Learn to work with what you have and make do. I would often plan interactive lessons that didn’t always pan out because I didn’t know where to buy colored dye or how to find pipe cleaners. I learned to be quick on my feet, ready and able to modify my plans as necessary.
These skills are valuable in any work environment, not just overseas. Managers want employees who are prepared for everything and able to adapt to anything. Being able to creatively solve problems is just icing on the cake.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to go abroad for 3+ months, but doesn’t know where to start?
Don’t over complicate it! Living and working abroad is not nearly as hard as it might seem. If you want to go, make it happen! So many people get hung up on the particulars like how to find the perfect job or the perfect apartment before they arrive, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experience it’s to trust that everything will fall into place. It may not work out in quite the way you had intended, but it will work out.
It’s also a lot easier to make connections when you’re already in the area as opposed to via online searches and posts. Instead of waiting until you have everything worked out just so, head on down there and start meeting people! If that’s too daunting, arrange a trip to the area ahead of time (if your funds allow) and start networking. Personal connections are much more effective than faceless emails.
In the end though, you have to take a leap of faith and go. It’s always going to be a little scary but the longer you put it off, the longer it is until your adventure can begin!
Lesa is currently a graduate student at North Carolina State University, pursuing her masters in international studies with a focus on international education. She is passionate about cultural exchange, youth development, and service learning. She is also a linguaphile, bookworm, and a total travel fiend with an insatiable appetite for desserts.
Learn more about Lesa’s global career here.
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