Lessons Learned from Working and Living Abroad
By Gillian Johnston
Advice on helping your clients who want to work overseas, by a career practitioner who made the big move
It is amazing how one phone call can change your life. One day, on returning to my office from a class, there was a message that would change my life forever. It was from a recruiter searching for counsellor educators for a position in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I went on to work in the UAE training Emirati women to be career advisors and counsellors for a total of six-and-a-half years. This article is about some of the things I learned from my experience and the experiences of other friends who have chosen to work and live outside Canada. Hopefully this reflection can help you when working with people considering working and living abroad or perhaps even help you in your own career.
Be clear about your goals
Fortunately, when my call came, I had already gone through a goal-setting exercise from Barbara Sher that enabled me to articulate what I wanted in the future: to continue to teach what I teach, in another country by the sea with lots of sunshine. But I had limited my thinking to doing this after I was due to retire in 2014. I had not considered doing it earlier. When the call came, I was only half listening to the recruiter and my subconscious woke me up and I found myself saying out loud, “oh that sounds quite interesting.” It was exactly what I wanted, just coming at a different time than I had planned–a perfect case of Krumboltz’s planned happenstance.
So when working with clients, it is very important to explore what it is that they want. Of course, every instance is different. For some, it may be a way to advance their careers by getting international experience; for others, it is more about lifestyle than about the career. Some may see it as a way of getting a foot on the career ladder and others may not feel they have as much control over the decision as it involves a transfer with their current international employer. Whatever the initial stimulus, our work as practitioners is to help each individual look at the options, clearly taking into consideration long- and short-term effects.
There are some big consequences of working and living abroad that need to be considered. How long does the person see themselves being outside of Canada? For some, a short stint of six months to three years may be the goal. Others, especially those with wanderlust, may see this as a way of life. In many cases, the longer you stay out of the home country, the harder it is to get back in. If all of the work experience is from outside, it is not as palatable to employers at home. People returning after a decade away may face the same issue as many newcomers: no Canadian experience. Therefore, it’s important to help clients adopt a long-term view regarding the positives and potential drawbacks, and consider not just the going away but the homecoming in decision-making.
Do your homework
We counsel and coach our clients to do their research on companies they are applying to here at home; the same is true for companies abroad. Additionally, the client needs to research the country, the city or location within that country, the mores of the country, laws, entitlements, living conditions, etc. The work may be great, the workplace may be wonderful, but if the person and his/her family is unhappy with the living conditions, it can be a disaster.
For many people the desire to live and work abroad is about opening themselves up to other ways of living. Help your clients find information on what it is like to live in that country. I connected with two people I knew who lived in the UAE and got lots of good information from them. Most people I knew working abroad were open to sharing the highlights and some of the challenges.
You can also prepare your clients for being interviewed by Skype and other distance ways of recruiting. In addition, all the usual advice and preparation for job search applies. Interviewers will probably ask questions about the clients’ experience in cross-cultural communication, so having examples ready will be helpful. Make sure your clients have appropriate questions ready for their interviews, and it is expected that some of the questions will be about life in the country to which they are applying. As always, employers will expect that they have done their homework on the company but also on the country.
Be prepared to change
As in any life transition, our previous experience and our personality influence how the current experience affects us. Helping clients to understand the process of transition and some of the “normal” reactions can help when they later face some challenges. Talking about support systems and how clients have successfully coped with past changes can prepare them to face these challenges.
One thing I learned from my personal experience is that one is never the same afterwards. Each new experience gives us the opportunity to grow, stretch, challenge ourselves and learn or confirm who we are as individuals. Openness and humility are two strong allies in learning. To thrive in a new country, new culture, new everything, one needs to be open to it. Comparing to what is “at home” is normal but not always helpful in acculturation. Depending on the country and culture that one lives in abroad, there may be more or less opportunity to truly interact with the nationals of that country. As in life anywhere, it is important to not have too many assumptions about the new country, culture, processes. It is better to watch, ask and explore with respect and humility.
Finding oneself in a new environment can lead to lots of reflection on “who am I,” especially in the first blush of adjustment. Noticing one’s reactions to things and circumstances that are different can enable us to have far greater insight into what is important to us, what we truly believe, what our values are. Finding someone to share those thoughts and reactions with, in a non-judgmental way, is important. Those with family and friends in the new environment have that kind of support built in. For those who are on their own, it can be a lonely time. I wrote about it in numerous long epistles back home; thus, helping myself to make sense of it.
As T. S. Eliot says in Four Quartets:
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time.”
Gillian Johnston is a counsellor educator with 30 years’ experience in Canada and the UAE, recipient of the NCDA International Award and a Director of the Career Development Practitioners’ Certification Board of Ontario.