Far From Home: Working Abroad
Nakia Thomas, a corporate lawyer with a New York firm, had always been interested in working abroad. She shared that interest with a colleague who worked at her firm’s office in Dubai. “This associate shared his experiences with me and was keenly aware of my desire to work in Dubai short term,” she says. “He encouraged me to pursue a long-term position with the Dubai office when that office sought to expand.” Even though Thomas wasn’t looking to move, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Since October, she’s been working out of her company’s office on the Arab Peninsula.
Thomas is part of a trend that has been growing over the past decade. According to the latest State Department estimates, at least 6 million private citizens work or live overseas. And that figure, which excludes military personnel, dates from 1999—well before the Internet and globalization made working abroad more acceptable and more accessible.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi, two of seven emirates that comprise the federation known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are popular destinations for folks looking to work abroad. In 2007, according to the UAE Ministry of Economy, the country had 4.48 million residents; 3.62 million were expatriates. The region’s relatively stable economy was one reason Thomas says she chose to move there.
But Sabrina Tindal had another reason for joining the Peace Corps after graduating from college in 2001. “I was leaving college and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to travel and wanted to go to the continent,”says Tindal, who now works for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation.
She ended up with a two-year stint in Gambia, a small nation in West Africa, where she worked on helping young women develop marketable skills. “I was there to help young girls recognize they can have a family and go to school. We taught them there are other means to have money other than sell themselves. There were simple things they could do, like soap making.”
Both women say their experience has challenged assumptions and stereotypes t hey didn’t know they had.
Thomas says she prepared for her trip by buying a wardrobe she thought would be more appropriate to life in a Muslim country. She needn’t have bothered. “As a woman, I was concerned that my typical western wardrobe would be too revealing,” she says, “but was pleasantly surprised to find that, in Dubai at least, such is not the case.”
Tindal was surprised to learn that she and her African hosts didn’t have as much in common as she had expected. “I was thinking there was going to be this genuine homecoming for a black American, and there wasn’t that. White Americans became my allies because they understood what I was going through,” says Tindal, who was one of five African Americans in a group of 30 volunteers. Still, she urges anyone interested in working abroad to fulfill that dream. “I definitely say go, and go with an open mind. It’s a life-changing experience.”
If you’re thinking of looking for work abroad, or if you’re on your way, here is some advice to consider.
1 Get your papers in order. Most countries require special documents, including work permits. You can check by going to the Web site of the country where you’re interested in working. The State Department has a links to the sites of several nations. www.state.gov/s/cpr/rls/dpl/32122.htm
2 Become bilingual and multicultural. Of course, one can get a job in a country where English is the major language. Still, it’s good to learn at least one other language, according to panelists who spoke on the realities of working abroad at last year’s Columbia Women in Business Conference in New York. The speakers suggested learning the language of a developing country, where future opportunities will be more plentiful. And the speakers strongly urged cross-cultural training, especially when it comes to differences in communication styles.
“You have to understand when it’s not a yes, even when they won’t say no,” said Luann Zurlo, the founder of Worldfund, a non-profit international teacher training organization, at the conference. “You have to understand the nuance of language. Americans are very direct. As long as you can really bring something to the table, the American characteristic of being direct can be well received.”
3 Assess your skills. One doesn’t necessarily need to have a high-powered corporate background to find work overseas. Opportunities exist for teachers from pre-school to the university level. Folks interested in teaching can start with the Council for International Exchange of Scholars or www.cies.org, which administers the Fulbright Program for scholars and professionals. The program also offers a teacher exchange program for educators in K-12 or community colleges. That Web site is www.fulbrightexchanges.org.
4 Do your homework. The Internet has a wealth of information about working abroad. Good sources include “The Realities of Working Abroad,” a summary of the panel at the Columbia School of Business. The entire article is reprinted in the Chazen Web Journal, a publication of the Columbia School of Business (www4.gsb.columbia.edu/chazen/journal). Transitions Abroad magazine, www.transitionsabroad.com, has a wealth of information on finding and living overseas.