A long overdue post about my inspiring interview with fellow blogger and travel addict, Melissa Parks. An American currently pursuing a PhD in Spain (where she’s lived for over 6 years now!), Melissa shares her experiences living a global life in Europe and how it’s impacted all parts of her life.
What inspired you to take an extended trip overseas?
Back when I visited Madrid for the first time in 2005, I promised myself that at some point I would come back to live there. I wasn´t sure when or how it would happen, but four years later I was able to make it a dream come true by applying for the ¨Auxiliares de Conversacion¨ (English teaching assistant) program offered by the Spanish government. What was originally supposed to be one year of fun, travel and adventure, has led my life to take a completely different turn. While I decided English teaching wasn´t for me, I was able to pursue a master´s degree in psychology and am now working in a field I´m truly passionate about.
What were your concerns prior to leaving home?
I had plenty of concerns! Where would I live? What would work be like? Who would my friends be? Would I be able to navigate life in Spain with my limited Spanish? Thankfully, the dreamer in me won out the worry wart side of me and I continued to make plans to head to Madrid. I did however have a panic attack at the airport and briefly consider staying home forever, but I have my little sister to thank for talking me into getting on the plane. It would sound so nice to be able to say ¨and I never looked back¨, but I absolutely did, many times, but I know that these ups and downs have helped me to empathize with my clients.
What has been the most challenging part of being overseas for an extended period of time?
There are many challenges! With the exception of a couple of short 3-month long trips abroad, I´d never lived farther than 30 miles away from the home I grew up in. And I learned something that many people realize when they go abroad after study abroad: living abroad is absolutely nothing like studying abroad. I had to create a social circle from scratch, and this is something you more or less something I need to constantly do even now because each year at least one of my friends goes home or off to somewhere else. I had to create a sense of home for myself that was independent of my surroundings, which required facing some hard truths about myself. Not to mention that I´ve missed out on really important moments at home: weddings, deaths, births and celebrations.
What has been the most rewarding part of being overseas for an extended period of time?
While there´s definitely been challenging parts, I would never trade in the experience I’ve had while living abroad. I have met so many incredible people during my years here, have learned a great deal about myself and about the country and culture that I´ve been immersed in. What´s more, I´ve become fluent in another language, have been able to travel to many incredible destinations and have grown in a way that I don´t know would have been possible back at home. One of my favorite quotes about life abroad is the following:
¨You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” -Miriam Adeney
Living abroad is bittersweet, but the richness it offers is priceless.
How do you fund your overseas experiences?
I´ve always worked while living abroad. At first it was through working as an English teaching assistant and teaching private classes. In Spain there is a never ending demand for English teachers and they pay good money just for being a native speaker. I was able to pay for grad school here because the cost of higher education is significantly cheaper. I pay 200 euros a year to pursue my PhD!
Now that I work as a psychologist full time, my economic situation is pretty similar to what it would be like back at home with the exception of the fact that cost of living, and thus pay, is lower here in Spain. Plus I need an extra accountant to help me through the red tape of being self-employed overseas.
What skills have you gained from your overseas experience(s) and how have they impacted your career and/or professional development?
I´ve been able to greatly improve my language skills as well as my awareness of cultural diversity. I also found that being a freelance English teacher and now a psychologist has helped me to improve my entrepreneurial skills as well.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to go abroad for 3+ months, but doesn’t know where to start?
I would recommend asking yourself WHY you want to go abroad. Once you do that then the how and the where are things that you can easily research on the internet.
What are some resources everyone should know about before embarking on a 3+ month experience overseas?
I think that getting yourself a social support system is one of the most important things to do while planning a trip abroad. I¨d suggest checking out the Facebook groups available to expats in the city or country where you´re headed. In Madrid the ¨Auxiliares de Conversacion¨ group is the go-to spot for finding apartments, visa help and even to find someone to grab tapas with. Meet-up and Internations are also great ways to meet people and conversationexchange.com is a great way to meet a language exchange partner and learn about the local culture.
Originally from the rainy Pacific Northwest of the United States, Melissa traded in cloudy skies for Madrid´s (almost) year round sunshine back in 2009. After trying her hand at English teaching and discovering that she was often accidentally providing therapy to her students she decided to commit herself full-time to working as a therapist. She currently works as a bilingual psychologist, specializing in providing individual, couples and group therapy to people who are living abroad, as well as online therapy to those seeking an English therapist, but who live outside of Madrid. In her spare time she enjoys dancing, writing, traveling and taking small strides towards finishing her PhD. You can find her on her website dedicated to helping individuals navigate the ups and downs of life abroad at IntentionalExpat.com, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.