Living abroad…

is challenging, exciting, frustrating, and fulfilling.  Given that the U.S. State Department reports that only 36% of Americans have valid passports, you can tell that most Americans aren’t venturing out of the U.S., let alone thinking about setting up shop overseas.  Is it that we are too comfortable with our suburban life of T.V. series and microwave dinners?  Perhaps.  If you never step foot out of the U.S., how can you make assumptions about other countries without any first-hand experience?

One of my lifelong missions….

is to encourage people to travel the world and study, work, and move abroad.  Even if this is a period of a few months, you will, without a doubt return a wiser, more appreciative person.  When I told family and friends that I was stopping graduate school to go to Mexico and head south through Latin America until I found a job I got a lot of surprised looks.

My international affairs grad program wanted me to focus on a specific area of the world for my thesis project by the end of my first semester.  I thought, “How can I honestly choose an area of the world I’m passionate about if I haven’t been anywhere?” After feeling this push for the next several weeks, I decided that after this first semester I had to go.  Life had evolved around school for the last 17 years, and I didn’t want just to march blindly down this path.

 

I don’t know anyone that has regretted moving abroad…

but I know plenty of people who have regretted staying put forever.    This decision to step out of the “normal path” was one of the best decisions of my life.  For the next five plus years I lived in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico again, Brazil, and Uruguay.

When I say lived abroad, I don’t mean the “I floated around and spent my parent’s money type of thing”.  I knew that I wanted to contribute, work, and become fluent in Spanish and later Portuguese. After a month abroad I was offered a job teaching English in the evenings at the school where I was studying Spanish.  I never imagined I would enjoy teaching, however over the coming years I found that I had a passion for empowering others through teaching language.

I was able to find jobs teaching English in Guadalajara, Mexico, Bogota, Colombia, Curitiba, Brazil, and Montevideo, Uruguay.

I worked as a volunteer with room and board provided deep in the southern Amazon, in the town of Puerto Quijarro, Bolivia.  In each new city, I would often start my job hunt by staying in a hostel for a short stint while visiting the city’s language schools in person and making as many connections as I could.

Many days I would visit numerous schools, taking buses and walking all over the city.  Rejection was common as language schools weren’t hiring, wanted teachers already with visas, or only hired local teachers.  Humility and persistence were key.  Each time I found that if I was humble enough not to get frustrated by being turned down dozens of times and persistent enough to continue making connections and visiting schools, the right opportunity would arise…and it did!

At the language school I would generally start with a few hours a week.

Once they saw that I was responsible, organized, and connected well with the students, my hours would increase.  Once I got hired I wanted to get myself out of the hostel and into a more permanent living situation.

Often students and teachers at the language school helped get me connected to other young people who needed an extra roommate.  This avoided me the trouble of buying furniture, setting up internet and TV contracts, and finding cosigners to sign long-term leases.  As a bonus, my new buddies thought it was cool to have an American roommate and included me in activities, therefore my Spanish and Portuguese improved at 10x the speed it would have if I was living in the U.S.

I will say it again…..living abroad is not easy.

Overcoming the hurdles of visas, bank accounts, employment, living arrangements, transportation, and a finding social groups only leads to more patience and personal growth.

I can honestly say that many of the best times in my life came from living abroad.

A few examples:

  • Being a season-ticket holder for Mexican and Brazilian 1st division soccer clubs.
  • Being one of the top marathoners in Mexico’s second largest city.
  • Going salsa dancing till the morning hours with my three Colombian roommates.
  • Making friends with all the local villagers while going town to town down the Amazon River.
  • Spending significant time in 26 of the 31 states in Mexico and falling in love with this gorgeous country
  • Not being able to walk 20 yards in Puerto Quijarro Bolivia without being invited in for a meal.
  • Making a difference in the lives of thousands of my students whose ages ranged from 5 to 75.
  • Becoming fluent in Portuguese and Spanish and returning home to teach high school Spanish and inspire students at home and abroad

Life would have been completely different without having lived abroad.

This decision has completely reshaped my life.  Every day I communicate this with the 200 high school students that come through my doors and inspire them to think globally.  I have become a more patient and understanding person who is more independent and understanding of the world we live in.  Whether you study, work, volunteer, or retire abroad, this decision can’t help but make you a better person, and the type of person our world needs more of.