I had the honor recently of speaking on a webinar for potential Atlas Corps fellows interested in the one-year program that I served with in Colombia, which placed me to work at the national headquarters of a Spanish NGO fighting child exploitation. I’d suggest that succeeding overseas is all about what happens before you go. Here are three things you most do before you sign up for a program like this:
1. Know yourself, your motivations, and your trade-offs
Living overseas for months or years is a powerful and all-consuming experience. So, why do you want to do it? What specifically to you hope to gain from the experience, and what are you sacrificing to make it happen? What kind of personal strengths and resources will help you deal with the challenges? And what is the ideal program for you, in terms of location, length, job description, and formal and informal support systems?
In my case, I had worked a few years in international development and was clear that I wanted to gain professional, high-responsibility experience working at a well-structured international NGO. Given this was my first longer-term work overseas, I wanted to maximize my chances of success by choosing a location where I would be able to function as easily as possible culturally and language-wise (Latin America) and intellectually and socially (for which a major urban capital was an unusual, but excellent, fit for me.) Most importantly, I had reached a point in my career and personal life where I was clear on what I was looking for, and was ready to leave my own country and my conventional career path. There is no perfect time to go, but I waited for the time when the benefits outweighed the costs and had I found a program that was a better fit than the ones I had looked at before (or than the ones I had been qualified for earlier in my career.)
2. Know the program and how it will work for you
Opportunities to live and work internationally do not follow a one-size-fits-all model: they are designed around specific goals and assumptions about what you as an expat are supposed to give and receive, and the structure is designed around those goals. Look at how these goals and structure compare with your own needs. Also look more specifically at the placements available–each program has a different process for matching you with the location and job description, and some are more specific than others in making the match. What kind of job, living situation, and support structure is the program offering you? What kind of financial support is the program offering? Can you imagine yourself being truly happy in the program?
Just one example of the differences in program structure (out of many important issues) is how communal or independent volunteers are in their lives and work. Is the program based on you living independently in a small community and connecting deeply with the local people (as in the Peace Corps)? Or is it structured around living and working in more of a team environment (such as in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps?) Atlas Service Corps (in both its Colombia and U.S. programs), falls in some ways halfway between these two poles, in that volunteers are placed individually at a variety of host organizations, but multiple fellows usually live in the same cities.
3. Put your house in order for living abroad
Preparing to leave your regular life–without destroying it in the process–is an essential foundation for success overseas. And you can start preparing now, regardless of whether you’ve committed to go overseas. It can be a headache, but it can also be a surprisingly freeing experience: if you’ve always dreamed of having a more streamlined and disciplined life, the looming departure and transition to a lower-paid or unpaid job overseas can be both stressful and an excellent motivation. You need to prepare yourself in terms of your money, your stuff, and your relationships. You also need to prepare yourself emotionally to let go of parts of your life, and at the same time, you can start looking forward to how your current sense of stability can transition into a new kind of stability as you settle in overseas.
In my case, I realized that I suddenly had a powerful new reason to read up on good habits and transform the mediocre financial habits I had fallen into while working in a well-paid job in my own country. I sold my car, my guitar, and most other extra things I owned, paid off my credit card, and figured out what adjustments were possible for my student loan payments. In addition, I worked out where I would have my mail sent in the U.S., set up a U.S. phone number I could be reached at via Skype, and double-checked with my family members about how my absence might affect them.
Regardless of what stage you are at in considering an overseas service program, you can get started now in understanding yourself, your program options, and the preparations you will need. Regardless of whether you go now, later, or at all, looking at the possibilities and how you relate to them will help you to grow personally and professionally.