Let’s be real. Odds are, if you’re reading a blog about working in education abroad, you love to travel and are hoping for a position that allows you to do so. In my current role, I have been able to conduct international site visits at exchange partners in France, Germany, and Switzerland and have served as the on-site coordinator for three programs in Belize and the Virgin Islands. Pretty sweet, right? But what most people forget is that when my employer sends me to these amazing places, I do spend most of my time working, so it isn’t the same as traveling for leisure. (No really, that’s the truth.)
For my first trip to France, I wasn’t sure to what to expect, and that’s tough for a girl who likes to always have her ducks in a row. Since this was my first international business trip, I was anxious about getting it “right”: asking all the right questions in meetings with international colleagues, documenting everything from conversations to campus tours to reimbursable expenses, and successfully navigating a culture and language unfamiliar to me.
Having never been to France, I researched cultural business practices, common language phrases, and information on the French education system. Much of this research should be done before jetting off on any international trip, but I was trying to fit this research in with the busy end-of-semester rush. I knew, of course, that I would be fine, but a work assignment of this magnitude can be a little stressful (or a lot stressful, as was the case when my second site visit to Germany and Switzerland was affected by a spontaneous week-long train strike).
Once on site, I’m busy confirming meeting times and locations, actually finding the meeting locations, touring the campus and surrounding area, and speaking with faculty, international office staff, past and future exchange students, and other relevant personnel. Afterwards, it’s on to the next location, so a large chunk of time is also spent traveling between institutions.
Serving as an on-site coordinator for a program brings a completely new set of challenges. Yes, I participate in all of the fun activities with the students. Yes, I have been to paradise for work. But… I’m also the “fix-it” person 24/7 for a week. A student missed the connecting flight? Make arrangements to go back to the airport to pick the student up later. The cafeteria doesn’t have the correct information for your group? Supply them with a detailed list of contracted meals, program participants, and any dietary requirements. The lights don’t work in the accommodation? A student is locked out of his/her room? Call Housing and/or Campus Security after hours. A student needs to visit a health clinic? Set up a case with your insurance provider, locate a clinic, and accompany student to the appointment. The faculty director wants to add an activity to your packed itinerary? Call to see if the transportation vendor can adjust at the last minute. Water activities are voluntary, and a student chooses not to participate? You also do not participate and must find another comparable activity for the student during that time (bummer, right?). Trying to fit in a quick lunch between activities? Expect to be interrupted seven times by students, the housing contact, and the dining contact. Additionally, you are on-call 24/7 in case of emergencies. It’s stressful, y’all. Your job is literally to absorb any problem that arises in order to ensure the students (and on-site faculty, to an extent) experience a seamless program.
I wouldn’t change a thing, though. Travel is my passion, and I have always been interested in education, so I’m lucky to have found a job that combines both of these areas. Plus, these experiences are invaluable opportunities that will benefit me as I work to advance in the profession, and I am able to connect with students, faculty, and colleagues I may not have met otherwise. Besides, even though I’ve done my best in this post to prove that I really do work while abroad, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t manage to sneak in some time to explore on my own!