Setting Yourself Up For the “Serial Expat” Lifestyle After College

greetings from abroad

You start getting birthday wishes several hours before your birthday from your friends farther east than you. Your passport* looks like it’s been through hell and back. (*Or, more likely, passports in the plural.) You have a love-hate relationship with the question “Where are you from?”

Any of this sound familiar? They’re just a few of BuzzFeed’s 31 Signs You’re a Third Culture Kid. And what exactly is a “Third Culture Kid”? According to David C. Pollock, sociologist and co-author of the book Third Culture Kids, it’s a person who has spent “a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.”

It turns out that this concept doesn’t just apply to children—adults who spend a significant amount of time abroad can also experience feelings of connection to several cultures without fully belonging to any.

Just ask Diana Rosberg, who has been living abroad for more than 20 years. We caught up with Diana to learn about her lengthy international career and how you can set yourself up for a similarly global post-grad life.

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What was your college major? How does it relate to your current position?

I majored in English at Reed, and then went on to earn a teaching certificate, which got me started as a teacher. I simultaneously earned my first Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, and then later a second Masters in Educational Leadership, along with a handful of other qualifications.

This allowed me to work my way up through the ranks and really grow my career; when there were leadership opportunities, I was in prime position to contribute.

My major really helped me get started, since I was working as an English Language and Literature teacher; as I’ve moved forward I’ve found that the writing skills I picked up at Reed have been incredibly useful. My job requires a lot of writing—I’m working on a 70-page report at the moment. Beyond the specific major, Reed gave me critical thinking skills which help me every day as I analyze data, think through complex issues and potential solutions, and plan for long-term initiatives.

Where do you live and work? What’s your current job title?

I live in Doha, Qatar and work at Qatar Academy, a private non-profit K-12 school with almost 1,800 students. We’re similar in design to many college-preparatory private schools in the US, except that the majority of our students begin school with little or no English background, so we provide exceptional support for language-learning over the course of their time here (up to 18 school years if the student begins with us at 6 months).

We also support Arabic language and other mother tongues, so almost all students are bilingual or trilingual at graduation, and ready for top-name colleges in the US, UK, and all around the world.

My position is “Head of Strategic and Educational Initiatives,” which includes responsibility for all curriculum development, our Strategic Plan, and consideration of potential changes to our educational program. And that’s just part of it… In a school, there’s always a lot going on.

This is my 11th year at Qatar Academy. I started my career in Nicaragua, then moved to Kuwait, and then Latvia. This sort of serial expat lifestyle is pretty common for international school teachers and administrators.

How did you decide to move abroad after college and what steps did you need to take to make that happen?

I had a friend from Reed who had grown up living overseas; his father was in the diplomatic veterinarian corps (who knew there was such a thing!), and he had gone to school in several countries in Latin America. He introduced me to the idea of international schools, a concept with no shared definition, but which historically referred to schools which catered mainly to the children of Western diplomats and international businesspeople.

Today there are also a large and growing number of schools which serve any mix of clientele from 100% local to 100% expat, but with a curriculum typically designed as American, British, or International, instead of the local country’s curriculum. Usually there is a focus on using English as the language of instruction, regardless of the host country language(s).

I was training to be a teacher, and living overseas appealed to me, so I looked into my options, and utilized a pathway that is rarely taken—student teachers may do their practical teaching experience in any accredited school anywhere in the world, so I arranged to do mine in Nicaragua. I had connections there who put me in contact with the international school, and they hired me.

It was a win-win—they got an almost-certified teacher for bargain basement rates, and I got paid (a pittance) to do my student teaching, which is done for free in schools in the US. The school helped out with the paperwork for my visa, and after my student teaching finished, they hired me again (at real wages). I stayed for a couple of years, and then moved on to Kuwait.

It’s complicated, but having those first years of experience opened the door to being what is called a “recruited hire” rather than a “local hire,” which is the difference between receiving medical insurance, free housing, annual flights home, and other benefits, or getting none of those things. If I’d stayed in Nicaragua, I would always have been a local hire.

It was important to have proper teaching credentials and teaching experience from Nicaragua. Without credentials, I could only have worked in specialized short-term programs and/or as a language teacher, similar to Kate McCully, the Reedie in Spain. Those can be incredible experiences, and work well for people who want a temporary overseas experience, but it’s really hard to build a career on those.

International schools are private K-12 institutions; they get their clientele by building strong reputations for offering quality education based on international standards, so they generally only employ certified, experienced teachers, just like schools in the US. I’ve seen a large number of people get started by working in language schools or as private language teachers, catch the international bug, and have to return home to the US to get credentialed. Without credentials, the option is a hard and frugal existence.

How have you handled logistics like visas, housing, and transportation?

In the different schools I’ve been in, I’ve always received support for transitioning into the country. It is generally the school’s responsibility to get the residence and/or employment visa, so while I may have had to sign certain forms and get medical exams, the bulk of the work was done by the school. And housing has been pre-arranged, so that’s easy, too. Schools usually give the option of finding your own place after you arrive, but teachers can take the easier option of staying in school housing, too.

What is a typical day like for you on the job?

My job is incredibly varied, which is one of the things I love about it. On a typical day, I might work with a team of teachers to redesign a piece of our curriculum or plan a unit, a team of administrators to examine options for a new initiative, a student or group of students working on a special project, the PR department to consider press materials, or a teacher who is working on developing some part of their professional repertoire.

On the flip side, I also spend long hours at my computer staring at spreadsheets and preparing lengthy reports, which is never as much fun as working with people. Still, when I can facilitate a complex discussion with many people over several weeks or months, and then use that to create an accessible document to support student learning, it’s a good feeling. Since my work in curriculum and strategic planning focuses on the long-term, I often feel like I’m living in the future, six months to five years from now. But when I need a break, just down the hall I can find our youngest students, and refresh myself while they learn through play.

What are your favorite aspects of living abroad? What are some challenges you face?

I like the feeling of living outside my home environment, surrounded by people from many different cultures and traditions. It means continually expanding my understanding of my host country and culture, and helping others to do the same. I like taking a little from this culture and a little from that culture, and making my own.

In my profession, we talk about Third Culture Kids, whose parents are from one culture, who grew up in another culture(s), and who really aren’t of either culture, but represent a sort of third culture entirely. I’m a Third Culture Adult, so the question “Where are you from?” is really difficult to answer, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I also love the advantages of living in small countries. The US is so huge, and unless you’re living in a specific spot, many “US” things are simply not an option. But in small countries, everything is available to everyone. I’ve seen the Pope, the US president, danced with the Nicaraguan president on New Year’s, gone to the same bad movie as the Latvian president, ridden an Olympic bobsleigh, taught the children of every country’s top figures, been behind the ropes at major international sporting events, and tickets are always available to whatever concert or event I want to attend.

And I met my Swedish husband abroad. We were living in different countries but doing contracting work for the International Baccalaureate (a major educational player), and they brought us together in Cardiff. The opportunity to meet, as colleagues or friends, people from all over the world, really broadens your perspective on life, and provides connections all over the world. After 20+ years in international schools, I can pretty much go to any major city in the world and find someone I know to have coffee with.

Challenges abound, and serial expats have to learn to take them in stride. Many things in the world are set up without an obvious logic behind them, but when we’re from that culture, we understand them innately. Come in from the outside, though, and it’s hard to figure out how to get things done. So we continually have to be thinking, what do I do, how do I do it? I happen to like that overall, since it keeps me on my toes, but in the moment it can indeed be frustrating.

What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for jobs abroad after college?

  • Think carefully and decide whether you want a temporary experience or a career. If it’s the former, opportunities abound and you can just get started. If it’s the latter, you’re going to need all the qualifications you would need for that career back in the US, and possibly more.
  • Speaking English as a mother tongue may get you a gig as a language teacher in an after-school program, but it’s not a career path, and you’ll be competing with a ton of other US college graduates who had the same idea. If you want a career, you can probably have that career pretty much anywhere in the world, but do your homework. Which countries need outside expertise in that field? What qualifies as expertise for them?
  • Widen your horizons: Everyone wants to spend a year living in Paris, Bangkok, or Rio. Who wouldn’t? But that kind of thinking means that those cities are chock-a-block with competition, and you’re more likely than you realize to spend the year hanging out with fellow Americans while you spend more on housing and basic food than you earn. The world is full of amazing cities with lots more opportunities, where you will be more unique, and therefore more likely to integrate into the local culture while earning enough to live on. Or skip the wage entirely and volunteer at a mountainside school in Nepal in exchange for room and board. (But be very skeptical of “gap year” or “volunteer tourism” agencies which charge an arm and a leg—you’ll likely end up disappointed with how little you actually get to contribute while you’re there, and how your “donation” ends up in the pockets of the travel agency, not the charity.)
  • Be humble. Consider what it takes for an immigrant to get a residence and working visa in the US. Lots of paperwork, lots of time, and it’s easiest when the immigrant has specialized skills which are in demand, but even then there’s competition and resistance from US citizens who don’t want the best jobs going to foreigners. I’m not advocating protectionist views; I’m just trying to point out that other countries also have requirements for immigrants, even temporary ones, and competition from citizens.
  • Be independent. The US Embassy is not here to help you. They are here to further the political and business interests of the US in the country and region. If you find yourself in a real pickle, as in incarcerated or medically incapacitated, they can provide limited support. But don’t call them to sort an argument with a shopkeeper or if you have a car accident—you’ll just waste your time and theirs. If you’ve got a decent employer, they might help you out, at least with the car accident. But in general, be prepared to be on your own.
  • Be humble, part 2. You are not going abroad to fix someone else’s country or show them how to do it “the right way.” Things may be different, they may even be less than successful, but it is not yours to fix. Practice living the mantra, “Not better, not worse, just different.”
  • Take financial responsibility. Living overseas can have some fantastic financial benefits. No taxes on overseas earnings up to a limit you’d be lucky to reach (you still have to file, and there’s small print). Often free housing, free tuition for your children, free annual flights, etc., etc. But you will not be vested in the US social security system, and your retirement options are limited—no access to IRAs (unless you earn a substantial salary), no 401(k), and employers often don’t do anything specific to support your retirement saving. So you can’t just live the life of Riley on your plush overseas salary; you have to save, save, save. Because when the rainy day comes, nobody but you will have your back. Pay off your student loans as fast as you can; save for a down payment on a house; save for retirement.

What are some resources that you found particularly helpful, either with your international job search or with living abroad?

Everything is online these days, which makes it all much easier. Skype is a huge blessing; before Skype, phone calls home cost $1 to $2 a minute or more, and now it’s free or extremely cheap. And the internet connects me to everything and everyone. There are online forums targeted to international school teachers, which help me learn about opportunities and ideas from other places. And I subscribe to several educational services which collate educational news from around the world and send me daily updates with links.

You mentioned that you’ve been living abroad for quite a while. How has your host country changed during that time? What about your relationship with the US?

Three of the countries I’ve lived in have been quite serious about development and change, so it’s been a privilege to watch them work hard to improve life for their citizens. Qatar, for example, is massively invested in education, health, and infrastructure, all long-term projects needing a decade or more to see the real results. It’s incredible to see the train tracks being laid across the country (and outside my office) for a train system that might need another ten years to completion. They’re building a research hospital, a science and technology park, a massive system to support public fitness. It’s exciting to be part of such positive change.

Homework time! Are you longing to live an international life after you graduate? Spend some time thinking about whether you’d be happy to live abroad for a short period of time just for the experience or whether you’d like to establish your career abroad as Diana has. If you’re not sure yet, that’s okay—just be aware of the fact that you may need to return to the US at some point to gain additional experience or qualifications.

Spend some time looking for blogs by expats in the countries you’re interested in, and reach out to your school’s alumni office to see if they can put you in touch with any alumni who are currently living abroad so you can learn more about their experience.


One Response to “Setting Yourself Up For the “Serial Expat” Lifestyle After College”

  1. Matt

    Wonderful post Melissa. Thanks for the time you took to get into a bit of depth on expat life, especially as a TCK or ATCK. I’m a TCK myself. AFter going to school abroad, I moved back to the US to help my family with a messy divorce situation. But my heart is abroad, and I’d really like to have a career overseas. I studied international relations and business administration. However, it seems that these fields are a dime a dozen, and everybody’s got an edge on something like that. I came across your blog post as I was searching what jobs are most common for expat careers. It’s interesting that you mentioned I should have qualifications that would get me a job here in the States. That’s both encouraging and discouraging…probably more discouraging though since I only have a bachelors degree and haven’t found a job yet for several months. Any recommendations on how to find jobs abroad, or what to study for a masters degree? Thanks for anything you can advise.



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