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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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