Go Abroad: Personal Reflections, How to Move Abroad & What to Expect

My first trip to another country was when I was 14 years old, and I traveled to Mexico. I went with a group of teenagers and the areas we were in were unsafe for tourists, so we stayed in convents and visited the slums that the nuns served. My mother, who spoke Spanish before English as the daughter of an anthropologist and pathologist, grew up in Liberia and Peru, and she wanted me to experience the developing world at a young age. A visit to Ecuador my senior year of high school solidified my love of traveling.

In college, I worked multiple jobs during the school year and summers to pay for trips abroad. I camped in the Alps one summer with international volunteers and helped build a stone wall and patio area at a camp for disabled people. Another summer, I lived in Utrecht, Netherlands and painted a retreat center for U.N. officials, while also listening to speakers on international relations. I majored in cultural anthropology in college and studied abroad in Cork, Ireland for several months. These were just a few of my travel experiences, and each one made me want to travel even more.

I knew one thing when I graduated from college: I wanted to live abroad for a while. I enrolled in a TEFL certification class in Prague, which I had fallen in love with after backpacking across Europe for five weeks while living in Cork, and bought a one-way plane ticket. Before I went to Prague, though, I spent a month in France, first visiting a friend in Paris and then trekked to the Pyrenees to live and work on a donkey farm through WWOOF.org. As a WWOOFer, I helped around the farm in exchange for food and housing. I hitchhiked up and down the steep roads to get back and forth to town, met several people from other countries, hiked up part of El Camino each morning to get to the donkeys, made bread for farmers markets, visited a tiny town in Spain, and played violin with a few others for my host's birthday celebration. Once in Prague, I finished my TEFL certification program and ended up finding an apartment and a job working for a language agency. My students were all adults, and as a native speaker I taught mainly advanced intermediate or advanced students. One of my students was an advisor on gender equality to the Czech president. I had to go through metal detectors, hand over my passport each visit, and be escorted to the bathroom, but I learned so much about Czech history and culture. I was even there when Condoleezza Rice was doing a press conference. At 22, it was such an incredible experience and my time in Prague still remains one of the all-time highlights of my life.

If you're reading this, then you're probably flirting with the idea of moving abroad. So, how do you get started?

Become TEFL-certified or have a job lined up before you go
TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is great because you are certified for life and it's quite easy to then find a teaching position abroad. Reputable schools and language agencies abroad require you to be certified. If you teach business English like I did, you'll make more money than if you work in a school teaching children. Of course, it's your preference. Working for an agency, I traveled around the city to my students' offices. I could say yes or no to a class, which meant I had control over my schedule. Some days, my classes would go from 7:30 to 2:30, and other days they'd go from 11:30-8:30. Since my students were generally pretty high up in their company ranks, the majority of my classes were with one or two people, which meant I could give very personalized lessons and became very close with my students. If you're moving to a country that you'll need a visa for a long-term stay, then you'll need to work for a company that can sponsor a visa for you.

Have a financial cushion
In order to save up for my move abroad, I lived at home with my parents and worked retail for six months to save up enough money for the trip. You will probably spend more the first month or two when you're getting settled (security deposit for apartment, visa fees and paperwork, transportation, etc.). You don't need to be rich to move abroad, but you should have emergency funds available. You will also need to research banks, cost of living, and expected salaries so you can plan ahead.

I moved abroad with one big suitcase. Yes, that's right: I just brought one bag. I had my parents ship me a box of clothes that I had put aside about three months into my stay (summer clothes because it was early January when I left), but one amazing discovery about living abroad is it makes you realize how little you actually need.

Be aware of the phases of culture shock
For the first month or two, everything will be sunshine and roses. You will be excited about your new life, you'll romanticize your new city and its inhabitants, and life will feel fabulous. However, be aware that you will crash soon. For me, it happened after being abroad about three months (two months in the Czech Republic), when I was lost in the outskirts of Prague and no one spoke English. It was cold and rainy, and I couldn't figure out which bus I needed to get home because no schedule was posted. Suddenly, I felt completely overwhelmed in my new life. In between the honeymoon stage and the adaptation stage, you will be easily frustrated, a little homesick for friends and family, and comparing your new city to your homeland. Just know that if you push through, you will hit the best stage: When you realize that you consider your new home the place you belong.

A lot of movies and books focus on the incredible thrills of moving abroad, but parts of it are hard. Your highs will be extra high and your lows will be extra low for a while. If you're like me and didn't know the language when you moved, it will be extra frustrating. You will deal with bureaucracy, different job requirements, paperwork in a language you don't yet speak, and unique customs. However, traveling and being so far removed from your comfort zone and support network enables you to grow in ways you couldn't have imagined before. It will also restore your faith in humanity. And on your worst days, you'll have memories to recall of sitting in a beer garden looking out onto Old Town Prague at sunset, or making new Hungarian friends in a dive bar in Budapest, or sitting in the middle of palm trees helping Honduran children with their homework, or remembering the nice Polish man who helped you and your friend find a place to stay when you were locked out of your hostel on a sketchy street in Krakow, Poland, or sampling fresh sugar cane on a friend's farm in the Jamaican highlands.

If you ever have the opportunity to move abroad, take it. I know that I will live abroad again in my lifetime. It's a question of when, not if.

I'd love to know: Where did you live abroad? What were your experiences, and what advice do you have for someone about to move to another country?

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