As graduation neared and after 2 study abroad experiences in college, I wanted nothing more than to live abroad again…specifically in Europe. I yearned for the architecture, the food… EasyJet! I loathed having a car or the idea that I needed to ‘get a real job’. It was as if my family and friends thought that having global experiences was detrimental to my future/career and that all it was was a vacation. They didn’t understand how it transformed me, pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me grow.
MY FAIL-PROOF PLAN
I knew I had to do “the right thing” and launch my career after my years of hard work during my university years. So I updated my resume and began applying for jobs in Spain. Any kind of job. Au Pair/nanny jobs. Corporate jobs. Teaching jobs. Jobs in the hospitality and tourism industry. I applied to any and all jobs without discrimination. But the harsh reality set in that no one was going to hire someone without a work visa. No one was going to sponsor a recent college grad with very little work experience and no real expertise.
Quickly I learned that I couldn’t get hired to work in (any) field, which put a screeching halt to my plans of living abroad. So instead, following the advice of mentors, family, and society, I drove head first into my first job (in the USA) and what everyone expected would be the beginning of a long career.
Essentially, I was told that I “couldn’t have my cake and eat it too”.
I was 22, working at what I thought was my dream job and then it hit me: I’m not ready to give up my dream of travel. But I felt trapped. I felt like my global adventures were over. I mean, how did they expect me to see the world without any paid vacation in my first year (or only two weeks a year thereafter!?!?). I knew I should “suck it up” and that probably (hopefully!) I’d “get over it”. But deep down, I felt torn. I felt torn choosing between my heart’s desire (travel) and that nagging voice in my head (don’t forget about your career!). For too long, so many people told me that in order to have a thriving career, I’d have to put my dreams of seeing the world on hold. Essentially, I was told that I “couldn’t have my cake and eat it too”. I believed this idea for longer than I’d like to admit, and maybe you still do too. You might even feel just like I did back then: caught between a rock and a hard place. As you stare at the map and scroll through your Instagram feed, your heart tells you to buy a plane ticket, but your head tells you:
- “It’s time to ‘grow up and get a real job”;
- “I can’t afford to travel at the expense of my career”; or
- “Recruiters will never take my resume seriously with a 3, 6 or 12-month employment gap”.
And within a few short weeks, I began to panic. I NEEDED to get out and see the world….but how? I had heard an endless number of lectures about paying off debt, putting money into a 401K and saving up for my first home. Leaving my well paying corporate job seemed near impossible. How could I pay for my time abroad? How could I spend time having fun after years of working my butt off to earn my bachelor’s degree? Some of you may even believe in the ultimate lie that recruiters and hiring managers will “frown at the sight of a 6-12+ month gap between school/jobs”. (They don’t.)
After a month or two at the same job, I made a decision. I was going to move abroad one way or another. And so it began…the hours and hours of endless Google-ing. To appease my parents and keep my heart from breaking, I chose to attend graduate school in Europe (instead of what I really wanted to do — travel). About 7 months later, I moved to Denmark where I lived for nearly 4 years. It seemed like the responsible thing to do and I figured that:
- I’d get to live in Europe for another 2 years,
- I’d leave with a master’s degree; and
- I’d get to live in multiple countries (it was a multi-site master’s program).
Win-win, right? While my motives for enrolling in the master’s program were far from calculated at first, it ended up putting me on the professional trajectory I’m on now. One that I love and am so grateful for. But that wasn’t the end of my love affair with living abroad.
GETTING HIRED ABROAD IS ROUGH
After getting a short-term contract abroad post-graduate school, I made the decision to return to the USA for love…and because my contract ended and I couldn’t find another job. In December 2010, I gave up, packed my bags and returned to the US. It was one of the worst days of my life. I felt like a failure.
…and within a few short months, I was longing to travel…again.
1 YEAR ABROAD GUARANTEED
Anyway, after grad school in Europe, a short professional gig in Europe and a few years back in the USA, and getting married, my husband and I yearned for a global adventure. But how could we at age 29 and with debt, an already growing career and the social judgment we knew would be inevitable? The answer: get certified to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL). It took us just a few short months to realize all the career benefits of taking a year (or more) abroad to teach, including:
- economic, cultural and geographic knowledge (specialized knowledge),
- ability to adapt to a new environment,
- ability to live and work with people from different cultural backgrounds (practical experience),
- experience working in a multicultural team (practical experience),
- ability to communicate across cultures (practical experience),
- writing and analytical skills,
- business skills (especially if you work as a freelancer),
- management skills, and
- using leadership skills to conduct classes.
Once we committed to getting certified, immediately, all the doors that used to be closed were now open. Even before we finished our certification, we were offered jobs in Turkey! The difference between the job hunt was night and day.
My husband and I had never been teachers, nor did we have a particular passion for teaching English. But what we saw was an opportunity to live in another country for 1+ years, lower our cost of living (resulting in saving money), increase our quality of living (I’ve said before that we lived like the 1% in Turkey) and add to our global, professional profiles. This is the easiest way to obtain a visa to live abroad for 1 or more years. And if you’re wondering how hard it is to find a job abroad, we were hired before we even finished our certification course!
GRAD SCHOOL IN EUROPE + A CAREER BREAK = A MARRIED COUPLE ABROAD AGAIN
During our time teaching English in Turkey, my husband and I leveraged our flexible work schedule and low cost of living to save up our money and prepare for our next move: Sweden. My husband was accepted to a grad school program and I agreed to take a career break.
While his next two years were clear, I had no idea what would come from my two years in Sweden. Luckily, I had employed what I call The 4 Pillars of Professional Development While Abroad (#ProfDevAbroad) during my time abroad — from grad school in Europe to teaching in Turkey–and it ultimately led me to a professional profile that landed me my dream job, in my industry, without knowing the local language.
THE STRATEGY BEHIND OUR SUCCESS: #ProfDevAbroad
Everything I’ve/we’ve done over the last 10+ years has been intentional. I never made a choice to study, work or travel abroad without considering how it would affect my professional profile. Professional development while abroad (#ProfDevAbroad) is the idea that you can use your time abroad (like a gap year, career break or even a vacation), no matter how short or long, to launch and grow your career in any field. We’ve all learned about the benefits of global experiences, so why not maximize your next adventure to your professional advantage.
So whether you’re interested in grad school abroad, teaching English abroad or you just want to travel the world, using The 4 Pillars can help add some focus to your next global adventure and make it a career asset.
Anything that deepens your knowledge in a certain area. This pillar includes knowledge of a specific country or region, industry, etc. This is how you start establishing yourself as an expert in your field.
When traveling the world, there are endless opportunities to learn and grow. Most people who have been abroad for an extended period of time, usually for work, study or volunteering, say that their experience was life-changing. I can totally relate. During my lifetime of travels, I have:
- learned that my comfort zone is much larger than I thought. I built my confidence after seeing how independent I was,
- realized how resourceful I could be; and
- become much better at managing my money.
While these are great things to gain from travel, I see so many missed opportunities when I speak to people returning from study abroad, teaching English abroad and many other global adventures. Outside of learning a bit about the local culture and language, travelers typically miss opportunities to build up specialized knowledge which can help them stand out among grad school and job applicants.
No matter what your global adventure is –school, work, volunteer or pure travel–opportunities for learning are all around you. Next time you find yourself in a new place, think about the following things:
- History, Politics & International Relations – In our globalized world, it’s very helpful to understand the context in which one is doing business. This includes relations between your country and the country you’re doing business with, understanding the political climate and major historical moments in that country’s history. If the old saying that ‘history repeats itself’ is true, then this knowledge will come in handy!
- Culture, customs & Language – Being able to communicate effectively within a region of a world is a highly desirable skill. So why not travel within a region and try to understand as much as you can about how locals behave so that next time you’re conducting business with natives of that country, you can respect their social norms and customs and make a great impression on your clients.
- Industry – Understanding the context where you’re doing business or with whom you’re doing business is critical. But so is understanding certain industries that originated and thrive in other parts of the world. Want to start a coffee chain in the US? Why not head to coffee producing countries to learn their techniques and give Starbucks a run for their money!
Any experience that allows you to apply your knowledge to the real world. This pillar includes paid and unpaid work, intern and volunteer experiences.
This pillar needs no explanation as we all understand the importance of gaining relevant experience in our fields in order to, one day, get a job. These experiences can come in the form of work, intern or volunteer experiences. They can be paid or unpaid. They can be remote or onsite. What matters most to future employers is that you know how to apply the knowledge you have; that you can actually do something.
Getting practical experience while abroad has several benefits, including (but not limited to):
- demonstrating your ability to work in diverse teams;
- ability to apply knowledge in real life situations;
- improved communication and/or foreign language skills; and
- flexibility and adaptability.
Anything you can learn and add to your professional toolkit. This pillar includes things like languages, budgeting, using technology, project management, and other hard skills.
We all know that traveling the world can lead to many great things. Instead of thinking strategically about the learning potential of their next trip, travelers usually focus on what they can see and experience, like monuments and beach parties. This is great and a must in order to enjoy your longer-term travels, but to maximize your experience abroad, you have to learn and grow from it. I have proven time and time again that it is possible to incorporate learning and skills development into any travel itinerary, no matter how short or long. It’s simply a matter of changing the way you look at your purpose for being abroad.
If you ask the average traveler, they’ll tell you that the skills they learned from travel include things like:
- Intercultural communication,
- Time management, and
The real benefits, however, lie in the hard skills you can gain while abroad. Soft skills are great and necessary, but it’s harder to demonstrate to employers your level of proficiency. What I have done over the years is to learn the hard skills needed for the jobs I wanted in the future. Then, in my free time while abroad, I’ve learned everything that I can about that skill. After learning EVERYTHING I can about it, I apply my knowledge to real-world examples (usually done through unpaid work opportunities). By doing this over and over again, I’ve learned and perfected a number of hard skills that I now proudly list on my resume.
Any experience that allows you to connect with people in your field. This pillar includes opportunities like conferences, informational interviews and meeting local professionals while abroad.
The best part of traveling the world is not seeing new places, but getting to know people from those places. I am so grateful for the global network of family and friends (and friends who are now like family) I have. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am, where I am or as happy. Outside of finding my travel-loving, street food eating, David Guetta loving soulmates all over the world I have had the good fortune of meeting many professionals in my field of international education.
These relationships have taught me about global working cultures, global perspectives on issues in my line of work and, of course, a number of very powerful referrals to jobs and other unique opportunities.
This is the secret to how I keep traveling the world! By adding a career-relevant component to each travel experience, you too can This could be learning a language while you’re traveling, taking online classes, volunteering during some portion of your around the world trip, or simply traveling within one country to learn country-specific knowledge. The possibilities are endless.
SO WHAT’S STOPPING YOU?
Being totally honest and transparent, I am a smart person, but I couldn’t have made all my dreams a reality simply from reading blog posts. I sought out people who had created the global life I was yearning for. I hired life coaches to help me focus my vision for the future and leveraged career resources available to me for advice on landing the TEFL job my husband and I really needed to find in order to take the risk and move abroad.
Instead of worrying about everything that could go wrong if you choose to follow your heart, take strategic action so that things will go right.