Student to Student
How to Work Abroad After College
A Guide for Recent Graduates
So you have graduated from college. Now what? I became so sick of hearing that question the summer after I graduated that the only thing that made it bearable was to watch people’s reactions when I told them I was moving to India. Friends congratulated me and then confided that they would like to go overseas, but too many things were standing in their way: finances, pressure from parents, graduate school, or simply not having a clue for how to find work. Their responses come as no surprise. According to surveys conducted by the American Council on Education, 93 percent of students who wanted to study abroad as undergraduates never did, which means that the nation’s graduates have some serious unfulfilled wanderlust.
Convincing Yourself and Your Parents
The first thing you must do to prepare for your work abroad experience is convince yourself that "nothing is impossible," says Emily Hutter, a Colorado University graduate who worked in Colombia as an English teacher a year after graduation. “I was not ready to get settled and 15 years down the road wonder how I missed out on something I always knew I wanted to try," she says. So she moved in with her parents and worked a variety of jobs for one year to save money while thoroughly researching available work opportunities on the Internet. Eventually, she found The Native English Center, an English school in Bogota that provided free room, board, and Spanish lessons in exchange for teaching English. "In the end, I made my decision and left with little more than faith. Looking back it was awesome."
Even after convincing themselves, many graduates have trouble justifying to parents and other skeptics how working abroad will benefit them. Remind these doubters that 88 percent of students surveyed believed that international experience would "give them a competitive edge in the workforce (ACE survey, cited above)." Work abroad shows employers that you are an independent, risk-taker, flexible, and savvy about cross-cultural workplace issues. My first boss told me that my work in India made my resume stand out from the others, making her curious enough to call me for an interview. (Editor's note: The 2014 Summit on Study Abroad hosted by the White House discusses the desire that both the private and public sectors have for all students who wish to study or work abroad, and the many benefits.)
Finding Work Abroad that Pays
Most bachelor’s degrees come at a steep price, leaving many graduates with hefty school loans to pay back. If you have financial obligations that make it necessary to find paying work abroad, consider the following suggestions:
- Join the Peace Corps. Volunteers are provided with a modest living stipend and receive a transition allowance at the end of their service. They can also defer payment of their school loans and may qualify for a 15 percent cancellation of their outstanding balance for each year of service.
- Do freelance work. If you have experience in graphic design, writing, information technology, or other professions where work is often contracted, consider marketing yourself as a freelancer. Extensive research in finding employers will pay off with a flexible schedule that allows for travel.
- Just go. Buy your plane ticket and hit the foreign pavement searching for jobs. Restaurant work, seasonal work such as fruit picking, or working as guide at tourist destinations are popular jobs options. The U.S. embassies in other countries are a good resource for job leads such as tutoring the children of expatriates, teaching at international schools, or giving English lessons.
- Think creatively. Ling Ling Phung graduated from William and Mary College knowing that she could go abroad only if she was guaranteed income upon returning. She got hired as a management information systems consultant with a large international accounting firm and asked to defer her job start by six months. When they said yes, she used her signing bonus to pay fees to be part of Ohio State’s US/China Links' fellowship program, which gave her the opportunity to intern at Budweiser’s office near Wuhan.
Plan on Changing Your Plan
Months before graduating, I researched programs that helped find work abroad for graduates and decided on AIESEC, a student-run organization that facilitates international exchange for thousands of students and recent graduates each year. For a $500 programming fee, they would find me work and housing in India. Six weeks before my planned departure, I became sick and had to postpone my trip indefinitely. AIESEC could not hold my traineeship position. I was back at square one, but this time on my own.
By contacting everyone in my address book, I found a friend who put me in contact with a Children’s Rehabilitation Center where I eventually volunteered. It was not exactly what I had been looking for, but from the beginning my time in India was filled with unexpected changes of plan. I learned Hindi, a language I had no initial interest in. I watched the events of September 11 halfway around the world from home. I met a travel partner and doubled the length of my stay. Staying flexible enough to make the most out of each surprise opportunity brought a richness to my experience that I could never could have planned on.
Toko Tomita, a Tufts graduate whom I met in India, understands unexpected opportunity. She came to the NGO, Global March, as an intern. Within seven months she was promoted to officer, then coordinator, and after one year she signed an employment contract with them. She worked in Delhi for more than three years and then moved to Togo, where she continues her work for Global March. "My plan was kind of spontaneous. They gave me a lot of responsibility for a fresh graduate, but I could not have asked for anything better right out of college. Today my career has become to work for the mission of Global March."
If you are open to it, working abroad after graduation can change your life. You may not find a career like Toko did, but I guarantee you will find something even more important—part of yourself you have never met before.
KATIE KRUEGER, who lives in Wanwatosa, WI, has worked or volunteered in London, New Delhi, and Dakar.