My own "breaking in" story is one I don't share very often. Or at least I don't share the full story. I routinely chart my career trajectory, but I tend to edit out the disappointing parts. I guess that is natural. But the more involved I get with Study Abroad Careers, the more I realize failure is an important part of my personal narrative. Without frustration I might not have uncovered my passion. And for this reason I have decided to share that story in today's post.
a bad case of reverse shock
It was April 2001. I returned from my semester abroad, completely down in the dumps. I spent an hour alone at the Indianapolis airport, sitting on the curb by the taxis, reading Bridget Jones’ Diary. I was in no rush to return home. I wanted to remain anonymous, to get right back on that airplane and return to life in London.
As the days passed, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with my own culture in new and curious ways. My inner dialogue was increasingly judgmental:
By the end of the summer I was still jobless and still holding out hope for something international. My parents politely told me I needed to find something fast or leave. I responded by holing up in my room and reading the newly released book, Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in your Twenties. I thought I was was experiencing depression or some kind of existential crisis. I now realize it was just a bad case of reverse culture shock with inopportune timing.
I eventually got a paying job in retail and came out of my bedroom. Yet I still had this feeling that I needed to do something more meaningful. I asked myself the question you are supposed to in times of professional uncertainty,
The answer was clear and instant. I would go back to working my student receptionist job in international programs. I wanted to “rid the world of the ugly American” (ha!). And I thought orientation could, and should, be so much more.
As luck would have it, a university in my hometown was hiring a secretary for their London program. It seemed perfect. During the academic year I’d live in town and summers would be spent abroad, on-site with students. This was a dream job. I applied, and to my surprise, I landed an on-campus interview right away. They were concerned about my age and how I might be perceived by students, faculty, and parents. I left the interview hopeful.
a different perspective
A few weeks later, on September 11, 2001, I returned home from work early for reasons that are now historical. At a time when seemingly everyone in my country was in shock, asking “How could this happen to us?” I remained detached. I had no disillusionment about the way our country was viewed in the world. I had been out there and saw things through the lens of “other”. But I couldn’t express any of it. I felt like a traitor to think in this way. I still do.
I found the commercialism of the time disgusting. Superstores all moved everything red, white, and blue to the end-caps because they were selling fast. Flip flops, ribbons, flags, paper plates. It was surreal. Amidst the confusion and endless TV reports, the uncertainty and numb feeling, I had an answering machine message blinking back at me. (Yes, we used those back then.) I didn’t get the job.
Something happened in that instant and it flipped a kind of switch. When I listened to the message I just knew this is what I was called to do. I didn’t even feel disappointment just I vowed to try harder next time, to figure out what it was that was missing, and find a way to gain those skills and experiences. I took the timing as some strange cruel signal.
I don’t even remember when, but sometime that autumn I returned to my university and set up an appointment with the study abroad coordinator. I told her I wanted to get a job like hers and asked what I could do to work toward that goal. She explained I needed to keep studying Spanish, to get a master’s degree, and most importantly, to gain experience. She offered me the chance to be her graduate assistant the following two years if I was really serious about my desire to learn.
I also found a way to get back to London in the spring and arranged an informational interview with someone working on-site as a resident director for a US university. I asked her some of the same questions as the study abroad coordinator,
The big break
A year into my assistantship I got a phone call from my supervisor late at night. She was burned out and had just given two-weeks notice to the university. No one knew but me. She suggested I get my resume together just in case, knowing how badly I wanted to work in the field. I was excited but completely overwhelmed. I wasn’t finished with my master's degree and I only had one year of experience. But I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime and school would still be there. I applied and got the job. I was in the right time, at the right place, with the right experience. Suddenly I wasn’t just working in a job like hers. I was in her job.
paying it forward
So many people I meet have similar stories regarding how they broke in to the field of international education. It can feel frustrating for it to all seem so serendipitous. I suppose that is one of the reasons I founded Study Abroad Careers -- to provide support and resources to individuals as they question whether this is their path. There is no formula or secret to getting a job in study abroad. But there are themes -- networking, apprenticeship, and open-mindedness to name a few. Hopefully that shines through in the stories you find here.