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A 2007 social survey showed that fewer than half of respondents were “very satisfied” with their jobs. I could relate to those less-than-satisfied people. At the time, I was working as a lab technician. I was paid well, had great benefits, worked with cool people, had a good measure of autonomy, and wasn’t stuck behind a desk all day, but . . . something was missing.

I somehow didn’t feel that being a lab tech was something I was “supposed” to be doing with my life. Then I had a slow-mo revelation. I traveled to Scotland—and learned a lot! I traveled to Australia—and learned a lot more! I participated in a study abroad trip to Tanzania and—you guessed it—learned even more! Then I traveled through Argentina and learned so much, I returned home a changed person.

I was absolutely awestruck by how much traveling could teach me about people, about the world, about myself. Traveling opened my eyes to—and forced me to consider—other perspectives. Traveling accustomed me to asking questions of strangers. Traveling increased my confidence and self-reliance. Traveling helped me grow so much, I wanted other people to experience it for themselves.

I figured that the world could use more intercultural understanding, and that getting more of my compatriots to thoughtfully travel abroad would help accomplish that goal. I decided I wanted to encourage such learning experiences by promoting study abroad opportunities to college students. Now all I had to figure out was how to take the 90-degree career turn from point A—working as a laboratory technician—to point B—working as a study abroad advisor.

My 90-degree career change began in Iowa.

My 90-degree career change began in Iowa.

Researching the field

A quote from YahooHotjobs:

When considering a major career switch, it helps to know what people in your prospective new industry are talking about. To get filled in, all you need to do is a bit of reading.

Industry publications — that is, specialty magazines, newspapers and newsletters — can give you a great glimpse into the latest news, big debates, common buzzwords and major players involved in a particular industry.

I joined an international educator professional association, NAFSA, and signed up to attend their annual conference, which was an energizing face-to-face networking opportunity. I signed up for a listserv, SECUSS-L, and read the posts to get a sense of the important issues facing study abroad advisors. Reading through the listserv job announcements was incredibly helpful in getting a sense of the required and preferred qualifications for study abroad advisors. Commonly sought attributes included:

  • organization and time management skills
  • computer skills
  • communication and marketing skills
  • competency in more than one language
  • experience studying or living abroad
  • experience working with students and faculty
  • experience working in a study abroad office
  • master’s degree

Talking to people already employed in your field of interest / networking

Another quote from YahooHotjobs:

When it comes to switching jobs, there’s one resource that can help you more than anything else: People who actually have the job you want.

Talking to a professional who holds your dream job can provide an insider’s perspective, giving you a feel for the day-to-day tasks a job might entail. It also gives you a chance to ask questions and get some honest answers.

Because I was already active in my local international community (Friends of International Women conversation groups, International Women’s Day event planning committees, Friday Spanish conversation lunches), I already knew several people who worked in study abroad. I set up lunch meetings with three of them, told them my story, and asked them things like:

  • how they got their current job
  • what are their main responsibilities and what a typical day is like
  • what it takes to succeed in the field
  • who else I should talk to

Everyone I spoke to was hugely helpful. These meetings led to referrals for lunchtime talks with two more people in the field. From all of these meetings, I got good sense of which skills and experiences I needed to emphasize on my resume and a lead on a soon-to-be-posted job.

Job shadowing to gain experience / networking

One of the catch-22 problems in study abroad was that in order to get a job and get work experience, you needed previous study abroad work experience. I decided to essentially build my own internship. Luckily, my lab tech job supervisor was very cool about allowing me to flex my schedule to have a few blocks of daytime availability. I asked several of my study abroad contacts if they would allow me to “job shadow”: observe them at work, ask questions, and help when I could.

One contact put me in touch with the chair of a university-wide study abroad advisory committee, who gave me permission to sit in on the committee meetings. Another contact allowed me to observe an evening pre-departure orientation class she was teaching. A third contact became a real mentor to me, and helped me set up an informal internship in a study abroad office, where I could help with odd tasks, programs, and student advising (when the students gave permission). These job shadowing experiences expanded my network of contacts, gave me invaluable insight into the politics of the local study abroad field, and gave me some critical experience in the field.

Enthusiasm

I was so gung-ho about the idea of helping other people to experience the education of travel they way I had, and I was so intent on learning everything I could about the field, that I naturally projected lots of enthusiasm, which Richard Bolles (of “What Color is Your Parachute” fame) in a Yahoo! Hotjobs interview is “key” to career change success.

“Enthusiasm is the key to making a career change,” said Bolles.

“One-third of all job hunters and career changers gets so discouraged within one month that they quit,” said Bolles.

As you go through a career transition, enthusiasm can help you meet the challenges and overcome the obstacles.

When you’re networking, your enthusiasm encourages others to respond in kind. Plus, a positive attitude impresses recruiters and hiring managers.

Success!

After only about six months of working towards my new career goal, I landed a one-year, entry-level study abroad advisor appointment, filling in for someone who was on leave. My supervisor told me that the quality that set me apart from the other applicants was my obvious enthusiasm.

“You can teach someone about the job, but you can’t teach enthusiasm,” she said.

Postscript—the continuing saga

I gained a golden year of study abroad work experience, but then my appointment ended and I relocated to trail my employed spouse. In a new city with no strong networking contacts, I wasn’t able to find an international education job right away. Instead, I worked on developing skills I knew were valuable in the study abroad field.

I accepted a job as a lab monitor and instructor at a community college, to gain more experience working with students. I picked up new foreign language and culture skills by taking Arabic and Spanish language classes.

I am about to relocate again, this time to a small city without a university or community college study abroad programs. I will need to stay focused and keep working towards my goal of helping increase intercultural understanding through travel. Maybe I will help develop new study abroad programs. Maybe I will work with international students at the community college. Maybe I will work with the immigrant population à la Iowa’s “New Iowan” program. Maybe I will get involved with international agricultural exchanges. We shall see . . .

Many thanks to the awesome people who advised me during my career explorations!

Text and photograph copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

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Back in 2005, I realized I was getting addicted to travel. In successive years, thanks to the spouse’s conferences and a study abroad trip, I had the opportunity to travel to Scotland, Australia, and Tanzania. I learned so much during my journeys that I swear I could feel the sparkle of new brain synapses making connections in my head. I wanted to travel more, to learn more!

Since I’d managed to get to three continents in three years, I got a wild hare to try to visit another continent the following year. Happily, mi esposo wanted to go too, as long as he could investigate some exotic insects. Processing various whims and practicalities, we decided that 2006 would be the year for South America, and, specifically, Argentina. We wanted to travel cross-country by bus, without tour guides, to get as much direct experience with the country as possible. One problem—I studied the wrong language in high school (French) and spoke little Spanish beyond gracias, cerveza, and baño, and hubby didn’t speak much Spanish either.

This is the story of how I taught myself enough Spanish to get by.

argspan

Strong determination to learn the language

I’d had a previous experience that convinced me language learning was necessary for travel. Before I went to Tanzania, I learned a few dozen Swahili words. One day, we hiked up to the summit of an old volcanic crater. Our guide, Daktari, who spoke no English, indicated that we needed to descend the opposite side of the crater from which we had come up. Several people in our group were too tired to go on, unless the indicated path was the way back to the vehicle.

I pointed in the direction Daktari wanted to go. “Gari?” I asked.

Daktari shook his head, pointed in the direction we had come and said “gari.” Then he pointed in the new direction, said “maji,” and trailed his fingers down like rain.

Simply knowing the Swahili words for “car” and “water” allowed me to figure out that Daktari was leading us to see a waterfall before heading back to the car. The exhausted members of our party were able to rest awhile at the summit instead of slogging down to the falls. I decided from that moment that whenever I traveled, I would learn as much of the local language as I could.

Powerful motivators: a deadline and fear

In September, I had started kicking around the idea of traveling to Argentina, but I didn’t really commit to the idea until December, when I decided to go to Argentina the following May. I had about six months to get myself some Spanish fluency. Yikes! This short, specific deadline was a great way to keep myself on task. Also, I am a congenital worrier. I imagined myself wandering lost and distressed in some Argentine city, unable to communicate my needs. What might befall me if I wasn’t able to speak passable Spanish? Fear is a powerful motivator!

A multi-pronged approach to language study

I figured that if I was going to learn enough Spanish to be functional, I was going to have to expose myself to the language in as many ways as possible. I took advantage of every opportunity—a variety of activities that forced me to (in increasing order of difficulty):

  • Learn vocabulary
  • Write
  • Listen
  • Speak

Formal instruction

My first impulse was to take a formal class. Unfortunately, all of the introductory Spanish classes at the local community college were full and closed. Then I happened on a press release for an Iowa State Extension Spanish immersion weekend. Immersion sounded productive. I signed up.

The class used a simple textbook from Pronto Spanish. The instructors introduced us to vocabulary—politeness phrases, colors, numbers, foods, body parts, family members—and immediately challenged us to make use of it. One of my favorite parts of the class was learning the vocabulary associated with a salsa recipe and then going to a local tienda to purchase the ingredients and actually make the salsa. Having access to cable television was a bonus, too: I stuck to my weekend immersion experience by watching Telemundo in my hotel room in the evening.

The class was very successful in two respects. First, I got a sense of how much work it would take for me to be able to comfortably spit out a Spanish sentence in conversation. Second, I will never forget Spanish greetings. To this day, I have “¿Cómo Se Llama Usted?” from the ¡Viva La Música! album etched in my brain.

Vocabulary study

Obviously, to be able to speak a language, you have to know the vocabulary. I got myself a good Spanish-English dictionary and set about memorizing words. I spent every weekend and many evenings writing vocabulary words over and over again and then testing myself on those words. I also created a home-immersion experience for myself by putting up Spanish vocabulary labels all over the house.

Even the cat helped me learn Spanish.

Even the cat helped me learn Spanish. (She's a black cat sitting on a black chair.)

A “pen pal”

I was forced to practice composing Spanish sentences when I tried to reserve accommodation for our first overnight stay. I sent an email query in English; they responded in Spanish. I consulted my dictionary and 501 Spanish Verbs book and commenced a conversation about prices, bank transfers, and credit card numbers.

“Destinos”

I checked out a series of educational telenovela videos–entitled “Destinos“–from the local library. These videos were fantastic at helping me improve my aural comprehension. The speakers enunciated clearly, and I got exposure to regional accents. Also, I got caught up in storyline—would Raquel be able to track down the mysterious connections of the Castillo family?

One-on-one accountability

nelly

Nelly also taught me to make a pisco sour.

Through an international women’s conversation group I participated in, I met a Peruvian woman named Nelly, who was improving her English in preparation for the U.S. citizenship test. We agreed to help each other with our language studies. Nelly was a firm taskmistress. She hand-wrote lists of vocabulary for me, corrected sentences she assigned me to write, and forced me to practice speaking. This sense of accountability from another person really kept me on track.

Group conversation

Every Friday I had lunch with a group of people who wanted to practice their Spanish language skills to keep them sharp. (One of the group members moved to Panama and opened a B&B.) Often there was a native speaker present to assist with learning—the group pitched in to pay for that person’s lunch. I listened to the conversation and sometimes spoke, pausing long and stuttering and often saying no sais la palabra. This was critical, real-world practice that helped me get over my fear of speaking.

The results

Before we departed, I had a dream in which I spoke Spanish. I was hanging laundry on a line when someone in a pickup truck raced across the yard and plowed my clothes into the red soil. I shouted, “mi falda es succia” and chased after the truck, shaking my fist and wishing I knew how to curse. When I awoke, I was excited—my subconscious knew Spanish! I figured our trip would go OK.

We arrived in Buenos Aires, made it to the bus station, and I was able to purchase our onward bus tickets entirely in Spanish—a conversation that involved questions about proper ID, destination, choice of seats, and method of payment. When the tickets were secure, we turned away from the counter, and my husband said, “Wow, hon.”

That was one of the proudest moments of my life.

While we had plenty of moments of incomprehension, we still managed to travel a couple thousand miles around the country by bus, reserving lodging as we went (sometimes even over the phone).

In the intervening years, my Spanish language skills have been slipping a bit. I am now resuming my effort to attain Spanish competency, as the population of the new community I will be moving to is about 25% Hispanic.

I think staying in a Panama B&B for awhile would be good practice . . .

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

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Before starting this blog, I read several books and lurked in the blogosphere to figure out, first of all, what blogs are (since I didn’t own a cell phone until mid-2008, it’s not surprising I didn’t know this). I also wanted to know what makes a good blog.

jargon

I’ve distilled in this post some of what I’ve learned, which I’ll try to use in my blog posts. However, ancora imparo. Whenever I stray from my ideal, feel free to let me know!

Blogging is like the game Othello: it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.  (The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging p. 24)

What are blogs?

I once thought that blogs were mainly an outlet for political rants, personal journals, and marketing stunts. They are that, but they can also be a platform to foment change, a collection point for specialized information, a source of entertainment, a community of people linked by their interest in a subject, and much more. Blogs provide an equalizing effect, allowing more people to publish their opinions and news to the wider world without barriers of cost, geography, or editorial restrictions. Additionally, blogs allow two-way, active communication, not just a top-down, passive dissemination of information.

What makes a good blog?

Stick to one topic

The best blogs center around one general topic and are written for a specific audience. Each blog posting focuses on a single idea that is stated in the title and restated in the beginning of the posting. Each posting is more than just an anecdote and has a take-away lesson.

Help the reader

A glass of water from the fire hose

The Internet is chock-a-block with information. Good keywords, categories, and titles can help readers find a post and determine if they want to read it. To keep readers updated on new blog posts without having to check back to the site, include options for an RSS feed and an email subscription. To allow readers to refer back to a specific blog post rather than wading through the main site, include a permalink in each post.

Style

While a chattier, informal writing style is common in blogs, good grammar and spell checking lend legitimacy. Short posts and visual elements – such as photos, headers, bulleted lists, and offset quotes – that break up a “wall of text” will make a post more attractive to busy readers. A punchy, pithy first paragraph that states the point of the post will draw readers (especially when only the first paragraph is displayed in an RSS feed).

Build a readership and a community

The greater the number of readers, the better the chance of developing a blog community whose members will suggest improvements and help scout for relevant new topics.

Recruit readers through personal contacts via email, social networking sites, and old-school business cards. Links to social bookmarking sites on each blog entry will increase visibility. Sending helpful, blog-related information to local mainstream media sources can elevate a blogger to “hometown smartypants” on a subject and drive more readership. Commenting on and linking to other blogs (“trackbacks”) will also funnel more readers.

Drawing readers into a sense of community and ownership in a blog will suck them into reading regularly (“lurking”) and may spur them to actively contribute. Bloggers should encourage and respond to reader comments and ask for specific feedback. Because the openness of the internet brings out the snark and basest commercial instincts in people, a comments moderation policy is critical to control spam, trolls (disruptive or off-topic remarks), and flaming (personal attacks) that will drive readers away.

Keep it interesting

Regular posts (2-3 times per week is a common suggestion) keep a blog fresh, give readers a “fix”, also help boost the ability to be found on search engines. Tried-and-true journalism techniques draw interest as well: true personal stories, a sense of place (conjured by describing view, feel, taste, smell, sound), or a surprise or emotional connection.

Exploit the Internet

The ability to add hyperlinks to other sources of information makes a blog a rich medium (although too many hyperlinks are distracting). Links in posts can back up a point or add another layer of meaning. Links to previous posts on a topic (a “thread”) brings the richness of a conversation to a blog.

Books I read on this topic

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. By the editors of the Huffington Post. Simon & Schuster 2008.

I wouldn’t call this book a “complete” guide to blogging. It gives a good overview of the big-picture how-to of blogging, but not a lot in the way of technical details. It is pragmatic about the likelihood of making money off a blog (not likely). A strength of this book is the number of comments contributed, which makes the book feely “bloggy”. A downfall of the book is its focus on the Huffington Post and its political leanings, which will likely turn many people off.

Blogging for Dummies, 2nd Edition. Susannah Gardner and Shane Birley. For Dummies 2008

This book has good information on the details of setting up a blog, though it sometimes includes too many specifics. Several topics belong in another book altogether (such as how to use Blogger and how to write HTML). Strengths of the book include deciding whether to blog, what to blog about, choosing your blog platform, and which features to incorporate. The book discusses making money from your blog, which I think is unrealistic.

Blogging America: the new public sphere. Aaron Barlow. Greenwood Publishing Group 2008.

This book was more of an academic overview of the phenomenon of blogging, and somewhat boring other than the final chapter, which provided examples of the scope of blogs within the genre of Christian bloggers.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Kate Hopper and Bonnie Rough, who fortuitously introduced me to the value of blogging during The Loft Literary Center’s  Memoir Festival.

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

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